AS CONTROVERSIAL US preacher Franklin Graham began his UK tour in Liverpool on Saturday 14th May, the Open Table Network worked in partnership with others in Merseyside to offer an alternative event which showcased the Liverpool City Region as a safe, friendly and welcoming place for LGBT+ people of all faiths and none.
At an LGBT+ affirming service in Liverpool Parish Church, which hosted the event, I shared this reflection on why we need to create safer spaces for LGBT+ people in our communities.
As we gather here this evening, less than a mile away people are gathering to hear a preacher who has spoken in favour of so-called ‘conversion therapy‘ which claims to change people’s sexual orientation or gender identity. In the UK, the practice has been condemned by the Church of England, the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, and more than 20 professional therapeutic organisations including the Association for Christian Counsellors and the NHS.
We are also commemorating International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia, which falls on 17th May. The date was specifically chosen as it is the anniversary of the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.
We are here tonight not to be healed, in the sense of being ‘cured’ of something that is not a sickness, or fixing something that is not ‘broken’.
No – we are here because the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God calls us to come as we are, and to live life in all its fullness, with God’s freely given help, or grace. Allowing ourselves to know such love can be healing – healing the hurt of judgment and exclusion, lifting the burden of shame and blame for things we cannot change or have not done.
Our first reading (Isaiah 43:1-4), chosen by LGBT+ Christians for commemorations of International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia on 17th May, reminds us that God has called us by name, values us, honours and loves us. This brings us consolation as we stand in solidarity with our siblings around the world, especially those in 70 countries where same-sex love is criminalised (including nine where there is a death sentence) and 42 countries where trans people are known to have died due to transphobia in the past year.
That extraordinary poem, Jesus At The Gay Bar, by trans Christian poet Jay Hulme, takes that rhetorical question, ‘What would Jesus do?’ and answers it in a contemporary setting to which we might relate. How many among us have begged ‘to be healed… to be anything other than this’?
Yet it is not the diversity of our sexual orientations or gender identities that needs to be healed. It is the ignorance, fear, prejudice, oppression and violence which leads us to feel that ‘we are not as we should be’, because we present a minority report on gender and sexuality in a society, and a faith community, which can often be inhospitable, even hostile to us because we do not, or cannot conform to their expectations.
This is why the first Open Table community began in Liverpool.
Fourteen years ago this month, in St Bride’s, a church in a neighbouring city centre parish, six Christians met for mutual support, with a vision of a more inclusive church and a desire to worship together once a month.
Those six Christians came from four different church traditions, but what we had in common was Communion, that central act of hospitality of our faith, in remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his friends before he was killed for being different from what the majority expected him to be.
I was one of those six people. At that first meeting, someone asked ‘Will it be “open table?”’ As my background is in the Catholic church, which does not practice an open table, I had no idea what she meant. When she explained that it means all are welcome to come as they are, without any test of worthiness or membership, this resonated deeply with me, and with others who had been excluded from Communion, and from church ministry and leadership, because of sexual orientation or gender identity, just for who they are, not for anything they have done, or not done.
So the first Open Table community was born, in June 2008. It grew steadily until, seven years ago, other churches began to ask us how we created this safer sacred space for LGBT+ Christians. So we became a network, a dispersed community of communities run by and for LGBT+ Christians, our families and friends.
In the last seven years we’ve grown from one community in Liverpool to six across Merseyside, and there are now 18 other communities across England and Wales, with more to come. Open Table communities are hosted by inclusive churches in five different traditions, open to Christians from any tradition, and anyone who wants to belong in an accepting and loving community, including many who feel on the edge of faith communities for other reasons. We’ve also spoken to more than 100 other churches about how to create safer sacred spaces for LGBT+ people in their churches. Our invitation is to ‘Come as you are’, inspired by the words of our first hymn:
This song was the first thing my husband Warren heard when he returned to church after about eight years. During that absence eight year absence from church, he described himself as an ‘angry atheist’, after a painful experience of Christianity, including so-called ‘conversion therapy’, drove him away from church.
With hindsight it feels like a God-incidence – if Warren hadn’t seen an ad for an inclusive church in an LGBT+ community newspaper, he might not have found the courage, curiosity and defiance to return to church, we would not have met at an LGBT+ Christian group in Liverpool, and we would not have celebrated the first civil partnership registered in a place of worship in the UK, ten years ago this month.
So the hymn has become the anthem of Open Table – it reflects our intention, to offer an unconditional welcome in the name of Jesus to His table.
That preacher visiting across the road today has called his tour ‘God Loves You’ – and the ‘but’ is silent. He preaches a conditional, judgmental message that divides and harms.
Jesus calls us to love, without condition, even those we call enemies, those with whom we profoundly disagree. He tells his friends at that last meal before he was killed for being different (John 13:34-35):
We call the first followers of Jesus his ‘disciples’ – it comes from the Latin for ‘learner’.
So let’s look to Jesus and learn how to love, ourselves and one another. God calls us, through the example of Jesus, to God’s open table, where every single one of us, without exception, is more than welcome to come to ‘come as you are’.
Download the booklet for the service from which this reflection was taken.