Living Stones – Sharing our story at St Bride’s Liverpool

L-R: Warren Hartley and I (Kieran Bohan) sharing our story with Team Rector of St Luke In The City Liverpool, Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes on Remembrance Sunday 2021

THE CHURCH which has become my spiritual home for much of my time in Liverpool – 19 years this month – is hosting reflections on Sundays called Living Stones, introducing people who’ve been here a long time and people who are new.

The aim is to get to know people better and help reconnect us all in community since our church building re-opened after Covid pandemic restrictions relaxed last summer. The title of the series comes from the first of the two letters attributed to St Peter the apostle in the Bible’s New Testament:

Come to [Jesus], a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 

1 Peter 2:4-5 (New Revised Standard Version)


ON Remembrance Sunday (14th November 2021), my husband Warren and I were asked to share our story. The date seemed appropriate as my training in peace-making and reconciliation in 2019 led, in May 2021, to our parish joining the Community of the Cross of Nails, a worldwide network of more 200 churches, charities, peace-building centres, and educational organisations, inspired by the story of destruction, rebuilding and renewal of Coventry Cathedral.

What we didn’t know when the date was chosen for our reflection was that 14th November 2021 was the 81st anniversary of the fire-bombing of Coventry Cathedral, which echoes the destruction of St Luke’s Church in Liverpool, aka the Bombed Out Church, on 6th May 1941. Our urban team parish, formed following the Liverpool riots of 1981, takes its name from this historic church.

This video is an extract [20 minutes] from the YouTube Live broadcast of the church’s Sunday morning service, containing the Gospel readings and our interview. The audio quality is not clear – you can read a transcript below.

We also had not noticed, until we arrived at the church that morning, that the Gospel reading of the day was the same as the one we had at our civil partnership in May 2012, the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK. This meant we ended up telling more of our story than we expected, our how we came together as a couple, as well as how we came to St Bride’s and became part of the first Open Table community for LGBT+ Christians in 2008, which became a network in 2015 and a national charity in 2021.

The reflection time began with Warren and I reading the Gospel passage in two different versions, one traditional translation and contemporary paraphrase, to help people hear familiar words in a new way.

Here are the readings, followed by a transcript of our conversation with the Team Rector, Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes:

John chapter 15, verses 9-17

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you. No-one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends, who do as I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.

You did not choose me, but I chose you, and I appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. And I give you these commands so that you may love one another.

New Revised Standard Version

I have loved you the way the Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done – kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in His love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose – that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature.

This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants, because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit-bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

But remember the root command: Love one another.

The Message

Interview:

Miranda:

I asked Warren and Kieran to join in our ‘Living Stones’ series where we interview people today, particularly because Kieran did a project a few years ago on reconciliation, which ended up with us formalising our link with the Bombed Out Church as part of the Community of the Cross of Nails, a community of reconciliation. We’ll talk about that in the moment, because it’s Remembrance Sunday. But first, when I asked you to do that reading, you told me that was the reading you had at your civil partnership – do you want to say something about why that was a special reading for you?

Kieran:

Well, it happened to be the reading of the Sunday – we had the blessing of our civil partnership on a Sunday, and it happened to be the reading [of that day] but we’d also chosen a design for our wedding theme, our invitiations, as the vine and the branches [which Jesus refers to in the first part of the same chapter of John’s Gospel: 15:1-8]. Our favourite colours are green and purple, there’s beautiful imagery associated with growing together. But there was a bit of serendipity in it – it wasn’t particularly that we’d sought out that reading, it happened to be the very Sunday that we’d chosen for our blessing. When we arranged the blessing we didn’t know that the Government was going to change the law around civil partnerships, so we were able to register our civil partnership in a place of worship, and we were the first couple in the UK to do so.

Warren:

It was just beautiful, the way it just worked together – we’d thought of this idea of our having two grapevines growing,and over the years they intertwine, you’re still individual beings, but you hold each other up.

Miranda:

Just to remind people, that’s the bit in John immediately before this reading.

Kieran:

Oh yes, absolutely. But the bit immediately afterwards also speaks of ‘if people speak against you in my name’ and we did get some negativity in response to our civil partnership. But we found some consolation when we went back to that chapter afterwards. The bit immediately after the reading had at our civil partnership was a source of consolation in response to the negative reaction we encountered to that occasion – people who were judging us without knowing anything about us. That’s a bit of serendipity this morning as well, because we didn’t know we were going to have that reading and share that part of our story.

Miranda:

So the first question we ask everyone is: Tell us how you came to St Bride’s?

Kieran:

Warren came to the parish first, so…

Warren:

Yeah, well, I was planning to travel from Australia to the UK for 12 months, because I’ve got family here, and I could use Liverpool as a base to travel around the UK and Europe from. And as I was coming over, I’d come back to faith, and wanted to explore church again, but knew that I wouldn’t just any old church welcoming. So I emailed a few people whose blogs I was following at the time, and they said ‘oh, you need to try out St Dunstan’s’ down the road. So I turned up there about two weeks after arriving in the UK, and the old girls there just loved me, they were fabulous! Absolutely wonderful, they were like surrogate mums and grandmothers, a truly wonderful welcome. And I ended up worshipping mostly at St Stephen’s, which is now closed, which was one of the churches in our team. I was there for many years, and I slowly kind of crept into St Bride’s in a way, more by default, because there was so much crossover between the churches, we all knew one another quite well, but there was a lot more happening here, and it was slightly closer to come here. And then Open Table started, which I’m sure we’ll talk about more. So I just naturally drifted here, without losing the connections to the community there. So that was about ten years, I think, now, since I’ve been based here.

Kieran:

And so, partly because of Warren’s trajectory, and us getting to know each other, I ended up coming to St Bride’s. So I was part of the Catholic parish, and I was running a local LGBT Catholic group. And so St Bride’s was relaunching itself as ‘Creative, Progressive, Inclusive’, and hosting all kinds of wonderful events, and one of them was the relaunch of a group called Changing Attitude, which was a campaign group for LGBT+ people in the Anglican Communion. And they had a day conference here in 2008, and I came along just out of curiosity, and moral support – I’m a great believer in working across Christian traditions ecumenically. So I came to that, and that was my first experience of St Bride’s. Then a couple of months later they had the British premiere of a film called For the Bible tells me so, which I thoroughly recommend, and that was a significant moment of feeling welcomed and affirmed in this community. And around that time, the first conversations about Open Table started. Open Table is the LGBT-affirming congregation here. And we decided we’d have worship together, because there weren’t just Anglicans, and not everyone was interested in campaigning. they were more interested in worship, and fellowship, and support and social time. And somebody said ‘Will it be Open Table?’ when we were planning the worship, and I said ‘What does that mean?’ because the Catholic church doesn’t do ‘open table’, I didn’t know what it meant. They said ‘It means all are welcome, without test of worthiness, membership, or any condition whatsoever. I was really excited by that – so Open Table wasn’t my idea, but I do take credit for the name. It still moves me today.

Warren:

I think one of the good things, though, coming here, is that we got to worship together – We’d been worshipping in separate churches for a number of years til we started to come together here, so it was great to be able to do that.

Kieran:

Yeah. That didn’t happen right away though. I was coming along to Open Table, and Warren was increasingly taking a lead, when the minister who set up the Changing Attitude group left after about 18 months. That was when we had to make a decision about what to do next.

Warren:

Well, they gave me a set of keys, and said ‘You’ll open up and make tea and coffee, won’t you?’ And I said ‘Well, I can do that!’ But it was far more than that.

Kieran:

That could have been a moment when the Open Table community ceased, after 18 months, but Warren took it on, and we’re still here 13+ years later!

Miranda:

I was going to ask about your roles – so tell us a bit about what you do with Open Table, and the PCC and things, and how that’s changed over time?

Warren:

Yeah, well, I’ve been involved in lots of different ways over the years. So for a long time I was PCC Secretary, and I eventually conned – I mean found – somebody else to take over from me. But, no, it was great! So, I was new to Anglicanism, I was new to these governance structures, so it was great to be able to serve that. I worked for a time as the parish administrator, about a day a week, as a second job, so that was great to get to know and build up our social media presence and learn bow to do social media well. That’s been brilliant, I loved doing that, and developing newsletters. And over time, it’s become more and more and more, Open Table takes up most of my life outside my day job really. Nearly every evening and most Sundays would be involved in Open Table in one way, shape or form. So it’s become a full-time job almost, on top of a full-time job.

Kieran:

So I didn’t start to come to anything really, apart from Open Table, until about 2011-2012, in the few months before our civil partnership, but that was partly because I could see how life-giving it was for Warren, and also there were things going on in the Catholic Church that I wasn’t very happy with at the time, I won’t bore you with those. But there was a pull towards something life-giving and a push away from something that was no longer life-giving for me. But then we went on the parish pilgrimage and I began to feel more like I belonged, and that each of us, individually and together, were welcomed and affirmed by the parish to bring everything we had to offer. So after that pilgrimage experience I ended up co-facilitating some community activities that were going on here, which led to the Soul Friends groups [St Bride’s house groups], so they’ve been running for about eight years or so now, so I’m very proud to have been part of that journey.

Miranda:

So tell us about Open Table, and how that’s developed, and your changing roles in that.

Warren:

So. well, Open Table launched in June 2008, there were six of us, at the back there, around that little altar in the baptistry, just seeing what would happen. We didn’t even advertise it particularly for the first three months. There were two Anglicans, two Catholics, a United Reformed Church and a Methodist person.

Kieran:

It sounds like the start of a joke!

Warren:

It does, yeah. So it was just six of us, and we launched in September 2008, very tentatively, we weren’t sure, our bishop was very quietly supportive, but didn’t push it. He was worried about adverse publicity, we were worried about protestors, all that kind of stuff. But it kind of just got gently going – the more we did it, the bolder we got, and the more encouraged we felt, as people were joining, the community was growing. The community was just the most extraordinary group of people I have ever been part of, it blew me away. Each time we’ve done something, we just try again. We’ve only had one protestor – a young man who came along one night, clearly quite poorly, some form of mental health issue. He came and told us all the error of our ways, and we gave him a cup of tea and a biscuit, and sat him down and fussed over him, then he left and went and sang hymns at us out the front. And we said ‘ooh, we managed that alright, that’s not too bad.’ It’s the only incidence we’d ever had. Six months later, he walked back in the church, and I wasn’t feeling great that night, not in a good mood, and I thought ‘I just can’t cope with this tonight’. But he’d come back to apologise, and then worshipped with us for 12 months before he moved up further north. So it’s just amazing really, and that’s the worst that’s ever happened,please God!

Kieran:

Over the first seven years we’d seen some growth, so we started getting up to 60 people once a month, and somebody from the Diocese, the Director of Pioneer Ministry, said ‘Don’t grow bigger, multiply’. But we had no plans to grow bigger or multiply, it just happened organically, people were coming from all over the north-west and north Wales, so there was clearly a need that wasn’t being met locally. And then people did start talking to us about doing it elsewhere, and so there were two things in 2015: Bishop Paul came and preached here (We’d already had two bishops before, but we weren’t allowed to tell anyone they were coming). Bishop Paul said ‘yes, tell people I’m coming, and share my reflection’, and it went viral, so we got lots of attention from that. And then Pam Gold, who was formerly with the Evangelical Fellowship of Lesbian and Gay Christians, she had a public profile nationally – she started a community in Warrington, that was the second one, in July 2015. So those two things happened in the same month, and it went outward from there. So, fast forward to six years later, and there are now 21 communities. So, because I have a background in community development, as Warren took on increasing responsibility for the Liverpool community, I’ve stepped out into supporting the growth of the network, and because of all of that growth, we’ve become a charity this year. So we now have seven trustees from across the traditions of the inclusive churches in the network, and seven patrons, including Bishop Paul.

Miranda:

Tell me about the reconciliation project that you did a couple of years ago, and how that ended up with joining the Community of the Cross of Nails.

Kieran:

Yes, so as I was stepping out into the wider church with this ministry, I felt I needed to build my own resilience, and care for myself, as I was potentially stepping into some quite challenging conversations. And so I saw an advert for a peace-making and reconciliation course which was together with various peace and reconciliation centres across the country, including Coventry Cathedral. So I was one of 21 people from across the British Isles who got a place, and I was amazed. And our first session was at Coventry Cathedral. So, if you haven’t been to Coventry Cathedral, you may not know that the original cathedral was firebombed, and it happens to be the 81st anniversary of that firebombing today. And they preserved it a peace memorial, and as I walked in, in January 2019, I just saw the resemblance to St Luke’s bombed out church in Liverpool, and I thought, ‘we need to be having a conversation here’. And we did, and it took a couple of years. I couldn’t do it alone, I needed the parish to understand it and own it, and for the ministry team to work together on that. And we have, and it’s been wonderful. And so, on the 80th anniversary of the bombing of St Luke’s, on the 6th of May this year, we were received into the Community of the Cross of Nails, which is a partnership of Christian communities, and communities of other faiths increasingly as well, which speak for peace-making and reconciliation. One of the clergy at the Cathedral made a cross out of medieval nails from the ruined cathedral, and it’s become a really powerful symbol of peace-making and reconciliation. And the words that are now inscribed on the wall of Coventry Cathedral are ‘Father Forgive’ – so, not ‘Father Forgive Them’ who did this terrible thing to us, but Father Forgive’ all of us for all of our complicity in all of the fractures and conflicts in the world.

Miranda:

Thank you. Are there any last words either of you would like to say?

Kieran:

One of the things that I’ve really valued, as I’ve stepped out from this place to bring the ministry of Open Table elsewhere, is the prayer of this community, and the communities that are members of it. So there’s a prayer card on your places, and online, so please share that. And there’s also a second card, which has the website of the Open Table Network on it, as we now call the umbrella charity. So if you wanted to find out more about the Open Table Network, our trustees, our patrons, our research, our resources that we share for inclusive worship, it’s all on the website.

Thank you very much. Because my ministry has taken me elsewhere, I’m not here as much as I used to be, and I miss it, but I know that the love of this place has nurtured me, nurtured us, and nurtured our community here that we take from this place, and that’s a great blessing. Thank you.

Warren:

Just on that last point, just echoing that really, it’s just the incredible love and encouragement and affirmation and opportunities this community has given me, and I hope that through what I do gives those equal opportunities to others to other people, to explore, deepen, and feel that love. It’s just been an extraordinary journey. It scares the living **** out of me most of the time, but I’ve always said that the day it stops scaring me is the day I’ll stop doing it, because I’m not taking it seriously enough any more. But it’s still scaring me!

Miranda: 

Brilliant, thank you very much, you two!

To find out more about St Bride’s Liverpool, click here.

To find out more about the Open Table Network, click here.

Permanent link to this article: https://abravefaith.com/2022/01/14/living-stones-sharing-our-story-at-st-brides-liverpool/

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