AT A SPECIAL communion service to celebrate the 14th birthday of the first Open Table community in Liverpool on Sunday 19th June 2022, I shared this reflection on Pride Month and how the origin of Open Table is linked to Liverpool’s first official Pride event.
Readings: Romans 5: 1-5, Mark 5:1-20
“We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God”— St Paul wrote to the first Christians in Rome.
But what’s that got to do with us being here today as we celebrate Pride Month and the 14th birthday of Open Table? you may ask. Isn’t ‘Pride’ a bit like the ‘boasting’ that St Paul speaks of in our first reading?
Let’s look at our history:
June became known as Pride Month in 2000, dedicated to celebrating LGBTQIA+ communities around the world. It marks the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a protest in the USA in 1969 that sparked a movement for equality for LGBTQIA+ people everywhere.
The first Pride march was in New York on 28th June 1970. 2022 is the 50th anniversary of the first Pride march in the UK, in London on 1st July 1972.
Today Pride is a celebration of the relative freedoms LGBTQIA+ people have won in the last 50+ years, but it also remains a protest against the prejudice which still holds us back, especially for our siblings in countries where they may risk their liberty or even their lives to live authentically and openly.
In Liverpool, the origin of the city’s annual Pride event became closely linked with the first Open Table community, which began fourteen years ago this week.
Within a few weeks of our first meeting, an 18 year old gay man, Michael Causer, died in hospital following a brutal homophobic attack, and Liverpool’s LGBTQIA+ community was shocked to the core. The outpouring of grief and anger following Michael’s murder led to plans for a march in his memory, which evolved into an annual vigil for Michael and all victims of hate crime. In 2009, following another serious assault, 2500 people attended a candle-lit vigil, and 1500 people walked in a March Against Homophobia, led by Michael’s family.
Some of the members of this community were among a group of LGBTQIA+ Christians who called on the Presidents of Churches Together in Merseyside (including the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Salvation Army churches), to issue a statement, which affirmed a commitment
‘to work with others to build a community where all can have their place of belonging, feel welcome and live in safety.’
So Open Table began in the context of a time of fear and risk of harm for LGBTQIA+ people in Liverpool, but also a passion for equality and justice which led to the creation of an LGBT+ community network, and the city’s first official Pride event in 2010. The first Open Table community, and this church which generously hosts it, visibly took part in these initiatives to work with other organisations to make our city a safer, more inclusive and welcoming place.
So what difference does Pride make? Why do we campaign, march, and celebrate who we are in this way? And why is it called Pride?
After the Stonewall riot in 1969, campaigners in the early ‘gay rights movement’ (as it was known before our current understanding of the LGBTQIA+ community developed), saw that they needed to get organized and be more visible if change was going to happen. They took inspiration from the Black civil rights movement, which used the term ‘Black Power’, recognising that Black people lacked power and justice. Organisers of the world’s first Pride march in New York City considered using the term ‘Gay Power’ as a slogan, but they rejected it because they felt that:
‘gay individuals lacked real power to make change, but one thing they did have was pride’.
An organiser explained:
‘A lot of people were very repressed, they were conflicted internally, and didn’t know how to come out and be proud. That’s how the movement was most useful, because they thought, “Maybe I should be proud.”’
The official chant for the march became,
‘Say it loud, gay and proud.’
But the word ‘Pride’ can be problematic for some, especially in our faith communities. The Old Testament Book of Proverbs says:
‘Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.’ (Proverbs 16:18)
From the fourth century AD, early Christians began to speak of seven virtues, and seven ‘deadly sins’, of which pride was considered by some to be the most serious! Given that LGBTQIA+ people hear much from some people of faith about our supposed sinfulness, simply because of who we are, regardless of how we live, why choose a term so bound up with that language?
Pride, for LGBTQIA+ people, does not mean the deadly sin – it’s not a desire to be more important or attractive than others, it’s not a failure to acknowledge the good work of others, or excessive love of self above others, and God. Something’s clearly been lost in translation.
The English word ‘pride’ comes from the Old French for ‘brave’ or ‘valiant’ – when the native Anglo-Saxons heard the Norman invaders apply the term to themselves, the Anglo-Saxons took it to mean superior, arrogant, boastful, the kind of selfish ‘pride’ we are warned against in the Book of Proverbs.
For the LGBTQIA+ community, pride is the opposite of shame – it’s a brave, valiant affirmation of self in what can sometimes be a hostile environment. It’s not about being more important, but about campaigning for equality and celebrating the diversity of human identity, sexuality and gender.
Pride, for us LGBTQIA+ Christians, can be a way of boasting ‘in our hope of sharing the glory of God’, as St Paul says, not because we ‘deserve’ it, any more than anyone else does. That’s why St Paul calls it grace – from the Latin gratis, meaning favour or free gift. LGBTQIA+ people have often been told by churches that we are ‘less than God’s best’. But God calls us all to fullness of life, and we are all, without exception, invited to receive this free gift in love.
Knowing our history also reminds us of the afflictions that LGBTQIA+ people have experienced, and still experience. In 70 states around the world, same-sex love is criminalised (including nine where there is a death penalty). In 42 countries, trans people are known to have died due to transphobia in the past year, including 5 here in the UK.
We know from our own experience that, as St Paul says,
‘affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame’.
Pride is the opposite of shame. God is NOT the source of shame, and nor should our churches be, for LGBTQIA+ people, or any of us.
St Paul tells us ‘hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’
So this month, we celebrate 14 years since the first Open Table community began, seven years since we began to multiply into a network of communities, and the launch of the 24th Open Table community. It’s not our own kingdom we’re building – those six people who met in Liverpool in June 2008 to create a safe sacred space for LGBTQIA+ Christians had no idea we were starting a movement that would grow so far and so fast. I take hope and pride in being part of this movement – it is not happening under my own strength – the Spirit is clearly moving freely and abundantly in it.
In the Gospel of Mark we hear the story of Jesus healing ‘a man with an unclean spirit’, then charging him to: ‘Go home to your people and tell them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you.’
This is the Gospel reading the Church recommends for today, so let’s see how it speaks to us as LGBTQIA+ Christians as we celebrate this milestone in our community.
What does this tell us about the challenge to break the silence which perpetuates prejudice, oppression and violence against LGBTQIA+ people worldwide, especially in faith communities?
Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we as LGBTQIA+ Christians are ‘unclean’, though some in our faith communities say we are.
The reason this story speaks to me most profoundly, personally and in terms of my way of being within the wider church on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community, is because of what it teaches us about the relationship of Jesus with one who, like us, is marginalised by the community.
Jesus asked the man to name his ‘demons’, which was the first step to healing. Rather than torturing him as he expected, Jesus enabled the man to be free from what tortured him, internally and externally. He ‘came out from the tombs’, where he was barely existing among the dead, and was restored to new life, ‘in his full senses’.
This story speaks to me of my own process of ‘coming out’ about my sexuality, and having since supported many others in their own self-discovery, I suspect I am not alone in that.
I reflected on this passage following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood in my 20s. Then, the story recalled my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, a breakdown ten years earlier. I recalled my sense of anguish, shame, and judgement from a negative image of God and myself. I realised my experience of rejection and loss of dignity were where I needed healing.
I have since learned that this story is just one example in Mark’s Gospel of how the Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules. Mark does not record that pigs can in fact swim, yet he does record that the townspeople were angry, not because their pigs were dead, but because the demons had gone! The true scandal of this story is in this counter-narrative that goes against what Jesus’ audience in his own day might have expected to hear.
Mark’s Gospel shows us that the Kingdom of God is oriented toward those whom society deems flawed and keeps at arm’s length. As Jesus healing the demoniac shows, when the thing we fear most is transformed and brought directly into our midst, our natural inclination is fear and even violence to rid ourselves of the change we cannot explain.
So this story is an example of the dynamics at work when our faith communities, and wider society, judge us as ‘flawed’ cisgender, heterosexual people, rather than examples of the abundance and diversity of God’s creation in humanity.
What really struck me on hearing this story again, as I began to take on greater responsibility for the Open Table Network, was Jesus’ response to the man’s pleas. I’m no Greek scholar, but I’m reliably informed that the Greek word for ‘beg’ is used eight times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s Gospel, four of them in this passage. Jesus accepts each request, except for this one:
‘As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your people and tell them all that the Lord in his mercy has done for you.”’
Jesus restores the man to his own people, and his people to him. Jesus enables him to challenge the dehumanising ‘Us and Them’ dynamic which enabled the community to marginalise him. He becomes a victim of marginalisation with the ability to talk back to those who marginalised him, and to confront his community with its own violence to one of its own people.
Gay theologian Pádraig Ó Tuama, a Patron of the Open Table Network, has described the demoniac as:
‘a prophet with the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’
On hearing Padraig’s reading of this story, I experienced the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTQIA+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. It appears to be the reality for many LGBTQIA+ Christian advocates. I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church.
This is why we need the counter-narratives from the margins, and the challenge to stereotypes of LGBTQIA+ people we see in this LGBTQIA+ Christian community gathered here tonight. We are examples of the ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ the Archbishop of Canterbury called for in February 2017, following the Church of England General Synod’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. This act of resistance by Synod representatives was the origin of the Living In Love And Faith project, which some of you may have taken part in.
In that same statement, Archbishop Justin said:
‘No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people… The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’
Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and sexual orientation. My prayer for each of us here tonight, for this Open Table community and all our communities, those active now and still to come, is that we may have, as Pádraig Ó Tuama says of Mark’s demoniac:
‘the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’
So let’s pray together the Open Table prayer, and ask that this may be so: