‘A little tiny bit of what the world should be like’ – Open Table Network on BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship

Revd Canon Dr Rachel Mann, Anglican priest, poet, writer and broadcaster

THIS MORNING, one of the new Patrons of the Open Table Network, Rachel Mann, led BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship on the theme of ‘Urban Harvest’, and invited me as the Network Co-ordinator to share a short reflection.

Traditionally harvest is a time to celebrate and offer thanksgiving for God’s bounty in nature. Rachel reflected on what harvest might mean for those of us who, even in a Covid-shaped world, live in a busy urban environment.

She asks, after months of tiring but necessary restrictions on our lives, what do we have to be thankful for? What ‘harvest’ do those who live in urban settings have to offer to those who don’t? What might a new ‘holy city’ and ‘new earth’ look like for urban and country dweller alike?

She invited contributions from people deep in city life, such as Azra Ali, a Trustee of Burnage Food Bank who’s seen generosity overflow in the past few months, and Rev. Grace Thomas, who’s been instrumental in helping congregations in Manchester think about how they can cherish God’s creation and address the climate emergency.

I shared a brief reflection on the Open Table Network on behalf of the LGBT+ community who have faced intense pressures on their mental health during lockdown, but who have also found much to be thankful for in the bonds of solidarity and care found in virtual ways of connecting.

This is the reading to which Rachel invited me to respond, which lent the service its title: ‘A new heaven and a new earth’:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21.1-5a

Below is the text of my reflection from BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship on 27th September 2020. Or listen here to the full service (37.5 minutes). Rachel introduces the reading from Revelation at around 14 minutes:


The Holy City we’ve just heard about is more than a revelation of end times – the seeds of hope are here now, offering a taste of God’s family or ‘kin-dom’. But what does this mean to isolated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender people, right now, in COVID times?

Many LGBT people are isolated at the best of times; and while many people can turn to faith groups in tough times, we often can’t. Churches often reject us. A survey done in 2016[1] sadly showed, that 3 out of 5 young LGBT people, who were interested in joining a faith group, limited or stopped taking part because of the response to their sexuality or gender identity.

During lockdown, things were difficult for the LGBT community, especially those who’ve had to quarantine with families who are hostile. They long to connect with others who will honour and care for them just as they are.

That’s what our Open Table communities hope to do! Our first Open Table community began 12 years ago at St Bride’s in inner-city Liverpool, (a monthly communion service for LGBT Christians who’ve been made unwelcome by church)….

 ….and it is now an example of the way all churches could be: a place where our whole selves can thrive. A young bisexual woman in our community said: ‘It feels like a little taste of God’s kingdom – a little tiny bit of what the world should be like!’ [2]

St Bride’s, which hosted that first Open Table community, has reaped a huge harvest through welcoming the city’s LGBT community. And five years ago, we began to plant others! We now support 16 other Open Table communities across England and Wales, with many more to come.

Rachel earlier described the Holy City as ‘a place of gift and grace’. And Revelation proclaims ‘the home of God is among… his peoples’. ‘God’s peoples’ includes everyone.  LGBT people are also God’s people. Surely, that shouldn’t be such a revelation.                                                       

The heavenly voice of our reading promises that God will ‘wipe every tear from their eyes’. I cried many fearful tears when I heard God calling me to serve the Open Table community. But the Psalmist sings, ‘those who sow in tears shall reap with joy’. And, with God’s help, that has come true.

Open Table invites you to ‘Come As You Are’[3], knowing that God loves you as you are, wants you to flourish, and to know joy in God’s loving family.


Notes:

[1] National Youth Chances survey of 7,126 young people aged 16-25, Metro Charity 2016

[2] Will it be Open Table? short film (2 minutes) by Thinking Film, 2017

[3] Come As You Are – Hymn by Deirdre Brown IVBM, arranged by David Pudney, which has become the anthem of the Open Table Network.

To find out more about the Open Table Network, visit the website.

‘Keep me out of Your way’ – Fr Mychal Judge, chaplain & casualty of 9/11

Father Mychal Judge was a little-known Franciscan friar ministering humbly to the disenfranchised and unloved on the streets of New York City… until September 11, 2001, when he suddenly became a global figure.

As chaplain to the city’s Fire Department, he rushed to help first responders at the World Trade Center but was killed by falling masonry in the North Tower. The picture above, of his body being carried out of the debris, became an icon of the atrocity.

Writer and BBC journalist Michael Ford wrote the first biography of Mychal Judge after his death, which became an overnight bestseller. Michael Ford explored the outer and inner life of the ‘Saint of 911’, his extraordinary ministry among people experiencing homelessness and immigration restriction; lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) people and AIDS patients, and the struggles of a charismatic but deeply wounded man wrestling with guilt, alcohol addiction and sexuality. I have met Michael Ford, and heard him speak about Fr Mychal’s life and legacy.

Twin beams of light from the Liver Building on September 11, 2002 commemorate 9/11 and the launch of the Liverpool housing charity now known as Housing People, Building Communities.

In 2015 I applied for a house in an estate being developed by Housing People Building Communities, a housing charity in Liverpool founded on September 11th 2002, the first anniversary of 9/11. The founders helped to organise a commemoration with two beams of light projected into the sky above the Royal Liver Building, paying tribute to the casualties of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks and celebrating the ethos of building communities together and creating harmony and reconciliation.

The housing charity originally intended to name the street at the heart of the estate ‘Mychal Judge Close’ in honour of the New York Fire Department chaplain. When I applied for a house on the estate, I was really touched by this, as reading Fr Mychal’s story had moved me deeply.

By the time the estate was completed in 2016, street naming rules had changed and it was not possible. So I named my new home ‘Mychal Judge House’, and received the keys on September 12th (September 11th was a Sunday that year so I just missed the anniversary). I adopted Fr Mychal as an inspiration for my chaplaincy with vulnerable adults affected by addiction and homelessness at the YMCA, and my ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people through the Open Table Network.

Icon of Fr Mychal Judge by Bro Robert Lentz OFM

In the hall of Mychal Judge House is the icon pictured here:

A prayer written by Fr Mychal Judge has also become a regular part of my spiritual practice as I seek God’s guidance for my chaplaincy:

“Lord, take me where You want me to go
Let me meet who You want me to meet
Tell me what You want me to say and
Keep me out of your way.”

— Fr Mychal Judge

Stainless steel bracelet etched with Fr Mychal Judge’s prayer

When I am with people as a chaplain, I often find I have no idea how to respond to what will come my way as people share their hopes, struggles and prayers with me. The last two lines of Fr Mychal’s prayer are particularly important. I often pray ‘tell me what you want me to say’, and the results can be surprising and inspired.

I have also shared the last line of the prayer – ‘Keep me out of your way’. Some fellow Christians have suggested it should say ‘Keep me in your way’, but my experience tells me what I think Fr Mychal intended. I know my fears and doubts can get in the way of me being a channel for God to reach people I support. This prayer reminds me that I can’t do this work under my own strength, but if I can surrender my fears and doubts in prayer, God’s ‘power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine’ [Ephesians 3:20-21]

As  Francis DeBernardo writes about Fr Mychal’s spirituality:

“What is unique about Mychal’s prayer is the last line: ‘Keep me out of your way.’ Although he was often valorized in his lifetime for his willingness to serve others, Mychal deflected such praise, knowing that he himself could often be the major obstruction to God’s will and mercy. For him, praying for God to show the way was not sufficient without also praying for the grace to avoid being the obstacle to God acting in the world.”

— The Unique Spirituality of Father Mychal Judge

The opposite of shame – A reflection for Pride in Liverpool 2020

Pride in Liverpool is ten years old this year. It was formed as a response to the murder of 18-year-old Michael Causer, who died 12 years ago today.

Michael Causer (9 October 1989 – 2 August 2008)

It’s also twelve years since the launch of the first Open Table community at St Bride’s Liverpool, and five years since the beginning of the Open Table Network. Last weekend I offered a version of the following reflection on how Pride came to be in Liverpool, and how it relates to the Open Table journey, during the online service for the Team Parish of St Luke In The City, Liverpool, which includes St Bride’s:

My name is Kieran Bohan, and I have the privilege of being the Open Table Network Co-ordinator. The Open Table Network is a partnership of Christian worship communities hosted by churches in different traditions which offer a warm welcome to people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA for short), their families and friends, and all who seek an inclusive Church. There are now 16 Open Table communities across the UK, with more to come. 

If you would like to watch the service during which I offered this reflection, you can see it on YouTube here (41.5 mins)

For the past three years the Open Table Liverpool community has organised a group to walk in the Pride march under the banner of Christians at Pride. We’ve been joined by a growing number of more than 100 Christians each year from Open Table communities and other churches who wish to stand in solidarity with us, including the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, and Sheryl Anderson, Chair of the Liverpool Methodist District. 

For the last two years, Open Table Liverpool has hosted a Post-Pride service at Liverpool Cathedral. Unfortunately we are unable to do that this year, but it is good to share this journey with the parish whose hospitality made the first Open Table community possible.

Twelve years ago in June, the first Open Table community began at St Bride’s Liverpool, as part of its vision to be a ‘Creative, Progressive, Inclusive’ church. 

Twelve years ago last weekend, 18-year old Michael Causer from Whiston lay unconscious in hospital following a brutal homophobic attack. His death became the catalyst for Pride in Liverpool, which was marked online on Saturday 25th July, the anniversary of the day Michael was attacked.  

Before Michael’s death, concern for the safety of LGBT people in Liverpool had been raised by a 2006 survey which showed that more than half feared being victims of hate crime, and three in five had experienced hate crime, though only two out of five had reported it to the police. 

One outcome of the report was the formation of the Liverpool LGBT Network, which voted to set up a permanent Pride in the city. By 2008, Liverpool was the largest British city not to have its own Pride event. 

Then Michael Causer died on 2nd August 2008 following that brutal homophobic attack, and our 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 the heart of Liverpool’s LGBT Quarter around Stanley Street. 

In October 2009, when gay trainee police officer James Parkes was left fighting for his life after an attack on Stanley Street, 2500 people attended a candle-lit vigil, and 1500 people walked in a March Against Homophobia, led by Michael Causer’s family. 

So, while Pride as we now know it had begun to emerge in Liverpool before Michael’s death, the high-profile homophobic attacks on Michael and James galvanised the city, brought diverse people and organisations together and caused a major shift in attitudes. 

The Presidents of Churches Together in the Merseyside Region (including the leaders of the Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, United Reformed and Salvation Army churches, issued a statement in November 2009 affirming a commitment 

‘to work with others to build a community where all can have their place of belonging, feel welcome and live in safety.’ 

Liverpool Church Leaders issue joint statement on homophobic attacks

In August 2010, Michael Causer’s parents led more than 3,000 people in the first official Liverpool Pride march

In November 2011, Liverpool was the first UK city officially to recognise its LGBT district, by investing in the regeneration of the Stanley Street Quarter and marking its street signs with rainbows. 

In 2012, my husband Warren and I became the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK. The same church was the scene of a same-sex wedding in the 2014 Hollyoaks Christmas special

So what difference does Pride make? Why do we campaign, march, and celebrate who we are in this way? 

The word ‘Pride’ can be problematic for some, especially in 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 LGBT 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 us, does not mean the deadly sin – the desire to be more important or attractive than others, failure to acknowledge the good work of others, or excessive love of self above others and God. Something’s 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, the kind of selfish ‘pride’ we are warned against. 

Pride for the LGBT community is the opposite of shame – 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. 

Which brings me to the reading from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Ephesus in Turkey (Ephesians 3:14-21). This passage has resonated deeply with me around my sense of identity for many years. 

I first discovered it in my 20s when I was a trainee Roman Catholic priest. I was living in fear and trying to be something I wasn’t. I thought I was praying for my ‘inner self’ to grow strong so I could suppress my sexuality and be a celibate priest. God had other ideas – I have learned to accept myself and enable others to do the same by learning to live in love, not fear. 

As Open Table has grown from one community in Liverpool to sixteen across England and Wales, I have begun to share this reading as a prayer for these communities – a reminder that it’s not our own kingdom we’re building, and that those six people who met in Liverpool in June 2008 to create a safe sacred space for LGBT+ Christians had no idea we were starting a movement that would ‘do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine.’ 

That reading is also my prayer for Michael’s parents, and for all of us who long for a little more of that brave, valiant spirit of Pride in our lives, and more than just once a year.  

Michael’s parents never imagined they would mourn their son twelve years ago. They never imagined walking in Pride without him. But out of their heartbreak came a passion for justice for all LGBT people, and a movement which has made Liverpool a safer, prouder and more diverse place. 

From grief has come strength, from hate has come love, from fear has come courage, and shame has been conquered by Pride. 

This reflection is based on a longer presentation I gave during the Post-Pride service at Liverpool Cathedral in July 2018.

The Open Table Network is at a key moment in our story – we’re about to become a charity, and we’re fundraising to support the phenomenal growth we’ve seen in the last five years, from six people at the first gathering in 2008 to 16 communities supporting hundreds of people today.

It’s important to me as I step out from Liverpool to support this Network that the community, the city which gave us life is supporting us in prayer and in any way they can. To find out more about the Open Table Network, visit the website: opentable.lgbt – if you send a message via the contact form, it comes to my email address.

Thanks for your support!

So what’s the story? Thank you for asking!

TODAY is the day that the person who inspired me to begin sharing my story steps down as the President of the Methodist Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church of Great Britain.

Revd Dr Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference 2019-2020

Barbara Glasson was the Methodist Minister for Liverpool City Centre from 1999-2009. During this time I encountered the community she led, called Somewhere Else (aka the Bread Church) where diverse people came together (and still come) to make bread and give it away, so you’d make a couple of loaves and give them to whoever you wanted to. She tells the story of this community in her books, Mixed Up Blessing and I Am Somewhere Else.

In an interview with the Church Times following her election as President of the Methodist Conference, she wrote:

It’s particularly popular with kids, people with learning disabilities, and people exploring their faith outside conventional church structures. LGBTQ people are important at Somewhere Else. They taught me so much about what it means to be a prophetic community.

Church Times 30/11/2018

As she was preparing to leave Somewhere Else, Barbara began a series of conversations with members of that community about their own times of transition, in particular with the LGBTQ Christian groups that met there, who helped her to understand what we mean by ‘coming out’. What emerged was a book called The Exuberant Church: Listening to the prophetic people of God, to which I contributed. It explores this extraordinary process of claiming a new identity, to see what it might reveal to those people of faith who struggle to accept diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. It shows how LGBTQ Christians, and other people marginalised by mainstream faith groups, are ‘coming-out people’, prophetic examples of the potential for new life and growth in the faith communities from which they spring. I began this blog as a result of Barbara asking me my story – here, here and here.

So it was a particular delight when my husband Warren and I, and the Open Table Network we help to host, got a mention in Barbara’s Presidential address to the Methodist Conference as she took up the one-year post in June 2019.

‘the holy belly-laugh of liberation’

She began by asking ‘So what’s the story?‘ and invited individuals and churches to reflect on the story of their faith and community:

Behind our question are a lot more questions: who is in the story, who have we left out, where is God in the story, what does the Bible have to say…?  These questions are of course the bread and butter of what it means to be Christian, how the story of God and the stories about God, the stories of life and the stories about life, make sense of who we are as humans, created and loved in a world full of perplexity and delight. It is also profoundly our calling as the Church to give account of what we perceive God is doing with us, around us and sometimes despite us. We are called to tell stories, to listen to stories and to wrestle with stories, to search for truth not fake news, to challenge the malicious stories we tell about each other and to go on believing that as people of creation, exodus, crucifixion, wilderness wandering and even in exile we can still claim the hope of resurrection and the gracious promise of life in all its fullness.

Barbara Glasson, Presidential address 29/06/2019

She shared the impact of hearing the stories of the Somewhere Else community:

‘that did not yet have a polished narrative or a triumphant conclusion… there we sifted through the spoil heaps of bewildering pain….

I heard survivor voices, vulnerable stories, coming out narratives, from people who had never been listened to by anyone much, least of all the church. As we kneaded and shaped and baked and ate bread, the stories cracked open on the flour-covered communion table of our community, messy, incomplete and fragmented, from the silent, the silenced and the unheard.  In the untold, untellable truth of our inhumanity and our carelessness with each other, and in all this confusion and mess, we uncovered small surprising things, some essential, precious, lovely pearls that bore our true name, our glorious fragile strength…

These people are gifted with a deeper knowledge; their bodies, their unhealed wounds, their multiplicity of grief, are the calligraphy of a counter-narrative, the discourse of vulnerability. They live litanies of disappointment and embody unsettling stories of brokenness. Yet, mysteriously from this contradictory space also emerges the holy belly-laugh of liberation.

Then she set out her challenge to the Church she was elected to lead for the year:

We will need to commit ourselves to not only making the church inclusive, but allowing those who we might think ‘on the edge’ to challenge and transform us. We need to listen in three dimensions to what is told and what lies in the dark spaces between the words.

In the media release announcing her appointment Barbara said:

God is transforming the old and calling us into new things that are a joyful outcome of our Methodist inheritance. I believe that if the Church is authentic and inclusive it will also grow numerically and spiritually.

Methodist Church media release 04/07/2019

This began a year in which Methodists churches were invited to reflect on a report from the ‘Marriage and Relationships Task Group’ called God In Love Unites Us. The group Dignity & Worth, which works in the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Ireland and worldwide, for full and active participation of LGBTQI+ people in the Church, including same-sex marriage, describes this report as:

a careful consideration of the nature of human relationships in the light of our covenant with God. It takes seriously both Scripture and the current realities with which most people in Britain – inside and outside the Church – live.

Dignity & Worth Statement on Methodist Marriage Report May 2019

The report also outlines the process by British Methodists were invited to decide whether or not to allow ministers and local churches to register to conduct same-sex marriages.

Resource materials were produced to assist local conversations, and to ensure that no-one feels coerced to act against their will, as this was a common argument expressed during the Government consultation on same-sex marriage in 2012.

In an articles for The Times, Barbara wrote:

To say that something is complicated — not binary, but multifaceted — is to rejoice in a wonderful strength. We are strong when we seek truth rather than certainty, love instead of judgment, relationship and community over dogmatic isolation. This truth applies to all aspects of life and relationships — not least those that are political, social, ethical or religious.

At the moment the Methodist Church is exploring this truth in its conversations around human identity, relationships and sexuality. A 30-year journey has brought us to a Methodist conference report titled God in love unites us. It talks about all sorts of human relationships, co-habitation, divorce and remarriage, as well as the possibility of conducting same-sex marriages in church.

‘The Methodist Church is rethinking its position on identity and sexuality’, The Times 05/10/2019

The original plan was that, after 12 months of prayer and discernment about the report, the Methodist Conference this month would vote on whether to allow those churches that wish to adopt a more inclusive position to do so.

Then in April, following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Methodist Church announced that the Conference would meet online, and that the debate and voting on God in Love Unites Us will be deferred until the 2021 Conference.  Dignity & Worth issued a statement about the delay, calling for creative ways to be found to avoid waiting another year for a resolution.

This means that Barbara’s desire to preside over this historic period of transition for the British Methodist Church could not be fully realised. For those who experience the frustration of this further delay, Barbara’s article in The Times may provide some words of comfort:

We need to go on believing that we can think differently, yet stay together and grow. It’s a challenge, but if we can achieve it, it’s also a transferable skill.

I must give account of my faith with love, confidence and humility, and listen and learn at the same time. And I need to acknowledge that there are many different Christian ways of interpreting the world…

We must learn to disagree well, and let love unite us. That doesn’t mean to sell our firmly held beliefs, but to bring open-hearted grace to complex conversations.

And while we as a nation work out how to be together in challenging communities and with complex issues, let’s hope that we can all say, despite it all: “God in love unites us.”

The Times 05/10/2019

So thank you Barbara, for having the courage to ask the question, ‘So what’s the story?’

Thank you for sharing our

coming out stories of transformation, where the ‘conversation on marriage and relationships’ turned into people with faces, and ‘issues’ were enfleshed.

Barbara Glasson, Presidential address 29/06/2019

Thank you for listening deeply to our answers and encouraging others to do the same. Despite the delay in the discernment process and the end of your Presidency, long may this call and legacy continue.

Radical Welcome: What does it mean to be an inclusive church?

LAST MONTH, in my role as Open Table Network Coordinator, I was interviewed by Revd Phillip Johnson, vicar of the Parish of Malvern Link With Cowleigh, which is discerning whether to host an Open Table community.

A screenshot from the Zoom call interview

Phillip and I met in 2019 while taking part in the Journey of Hope pilgrimage exploring Christian reconciliation in action. His peace-making ministry has led to the creation of The Ascension Centre for Contemplation and Reconciliation.

Phillip asked four questions:

  1. Who are you and what is Open Table?
  2. What does an inclusive church look like?
  3. What do you think people who don’t go to church think about the Church’s attitude to LGBTQIA+ issues?
  4. How do people find out more about Open Table and support your ministry?

Much of the conversation focussed on what an inclusive church looks like. More than ninety churches have contacted me to discuss this during the 12 years since Open Table began in Liverpool in June 2008, so I have some insight into what they are already doing that works, and what more they can do to make a difference.

A useful resource I share with them is called Radical Welcome, a four-session programme aimed at helping churches begin to look at what it might mean to go beyond being inclusive, to become radically welcoming

The UK educational Christian charity Inclusive Church offers this resource free for churches to think through their welcome from the perspective of being inclusive.

The course material is easy to use for anyone confident in leading group work. Sessions are designed to last 1.5 hours, and work well in a setting with refreshments or a meal served beforehand or afterwards. 

Originally developed for the United Reformed Church, it was inspired by the book Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation by Stephanie Spellers, a practical theological guide for congregations that want to become a place where welcoming ‘The Other’ is taken seriously.

Participants are invited to:

  1. get to know each other better, reflect on the nature and identity of their church – and begin to identify how inclusive it is.
  2. use their own memories of exclusion as a basis for reflecting on ‘what does it mean to be welcomed?’
  3. ask ‘How radical are we in our welcome?’ by reflecting on their responses to people who are different from, or marginalised by, the majority culture of their community
  4.  consider where they are on the journey to Radical Welcome, as described in the table below. Download a PDF.

You can watch my interview with Phillip Johnson here (23.5 minutes):

The Inclusive Church Radical Welcome resource is available here.

For details of how to support or join the Open Table Network, visit the website.

This meeting was recorded via Zoom on Monday 25th May 2020, hence referring to the Open Table Network 5th anniversary event as ‘next month’.

The Open Table Network anniversary event will be a Zoom webinar on Saturday 13th June 2020 10.30am-1.00pm. Read more and register here.

The event will be recorded and highlights will be available on the Open Table Network YouTube channel as soon as possible after the event. Subscribe for instant notification of updates.

What binds us together – The sixth step on my #JourneyOfHope

IT’S BEEN a year since the sixth step on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage of training in

‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’

reconcilerstogether.co.uk

The pilgrimage journey included five residential modules from January to June 2019 – I wrote my reflections on each of the previous steps while on the way to, or during, the following residential module at one of the reconciliation centres in the Reconcilers Together partnership. After the final module in June, life became full again, with less space to write, so looking back one year on seems like the next best time to write this.

St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace

On 6th and 7th June 2019 we were with St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London for the sixth stage of this journey. St Ethelburga’s describes itself as

‘a maker of peace-makers. We inspire and equip people from all backgrounds to become peace-builders in their own communities and lives.’

stethelburgas.org

Like other centres we visited on the Journey of Hope, St Ethelburga’s has a powerful story behind how it came to this ministry of reconciliation. It centres its modern mission around four themes, which derive from its story:

  1. Faith Into Action
  2. Protecting The Sacred
  3. Opportunity In Crisis
  4. Community Across Difference.

Life of St Ethelburga #FaithIntoAction

Stained glass portraying St Ethelburga

St Ethelburga, who died around 675 CE, was the first leader of a monastic order for women in England. Having refused an arranged marriage to a pagan prince, she was banished to a nunnery by her brother Erkonwald, who later became Bishop of London (Bishopsgate, where St Ethelburga’s Centre now stands, is named after him.)

She became the first Abbess of the Benedictine Abbey at Barking in Essex, one of the first religious houses for women in the country. She is especially noted for heroism in caring for the sick during an outbreak of plague in 664, which eventually killed her and most of her community. During this time, it is reported that she had a vision of a light ‘brighter than the sun at noonday’ which inspired her and her community to carry out works of great compassion in caring for others.

St Ethelburga’s commemorates her life on 11th October each year. She epitomises a strong woman who exemplifies the virtues of leadership and commitment to social action even to the point of self-sacrifice. Looking back on her story one year on, it is poignant that in recent months we are once again noting the heroism and self-sacrifice of so many in this new time of pandemic.

The 17th-century shops at the front of St Ethelburga’s

Long history of consecrated ground amid the chaos of the city #ProtectingTheSacred

St Ethelburga’s is one of the few surviving medieval churches in London. It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in the Second World War. The foundation date of the church is unknown, but the first known record of it dates from 1250. In the 17th Century two shops were built in front of the church – an early example of ecclesiastical social enterprise. They were removed in 1932 when Bishopsgate was widened and the original facade of the church restored. In the 1930’s St Ethelburga’s achieved notoriety as one of the few churches in which divorced people could remarry, in defiance of the Bishop’s strictures.

Collateral damage of 1993 Bishopsgate IRA bomb #OpportunityInCrisis

On Saturday 24 April 1993, the Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb in a truck parked right outside St Ethelburga’s. One person was killed, and 44 people were injured. Damage to the surrounding commercial buildings cost £350m to repair, contributing to a near-collapse of the world’s leading insurance market, Lloyd’s of London. 70% of St Ethelburga’s was destroyed and it was not insured. Richard Chartres, then Bishop of London, overcame disagreement about what should happen to the ruins with a vision that it be rebuilt with a new mission. Prince Charles formally re-opened the new Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in 2002.

The Peace Garden and Bedouin tent

Islamic Peace Garden #CommunityAcrossDifference

The church made a connection with other faiths as early as 1861, when Revd John Rodwell, Rector of St Ethelburga’s, made one of the earliest English translations of the Qur’an. In 2006, an Andalusian-style peace garden complete with Bedouin tent was added, in response to the terrorist violence of 7/7 and 9/11. The tent is welcoming to all, bringing Eastern architecture alongside the Western heritage of the church. It is a space without hierarchy where differing perspectives can be explored. The theme of diverse narratives and belief systems not just coexisting fruitfully, but actively collaborating, is central to all the Centre’s projects.

Drawing on these four key principles, St Ethelburga’s now:

  • Works for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers by building relationships across differences and by training young people to become allies to displaced people
  • Empowers young adults to lead and collaborate across faiths and culture, working particularly with sacred activism and spiritual ecology
  • Supports Christian leaders to turn churches into hubs of reconciliation expertise for their local communities
  • Speaks out about the need for cooperation and living true to our deepest human values.

Which of these themes speaks most to my context?

As coordinator of the Open Table Network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church, I can see elements of each of these principles in my ministry, though perhaps the greatest is Community Across Difference. We are not currently involved in interfaith work, though in Liverpool we did co-facilitate a group called Spectrum of Spirituality which hosted an interfaith celebration as part of the city’s annual Pride festival. We are, however, crossing boundaries between Christian traditions – Open Table communities are hosted in churches from four different traditions: Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches. We are also seeking reconciliation between, and integration for, LGBT+ Christians and the churches which can sometimes be inhospitable places for those who present a minority report on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Our journey with St Ethelburga’s

The Royal Foundation of St Katherine’s courtyard

As St Ethelburga’s is not a residential centre, we stayed at The Royal Foundation of St Katherine in Limehouse, voted one of London’s top ten most peaceful places.

It was a 20-minute bus journey from there to St Ethelburga’s but some of us took the opportunity to do a prayer walk guided by fellow pilgrim Ish Lennox. Highlights included seeing the faded façade of Wilton’s, one of the few surviving music hall venues, and the impressive mural depicting the Battle of Cable Street. This was a clash between the police officers sent to protect a march by members of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators.

Dr Justine Huxley, the Chief Executive of the Centre, led us in reflection on the first day, sharing how she felt called, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK, to build bridges and move towards acknowledging our interdependence across differences. She invited us to imagine a world where:

  • Conflict is an opportunity to change and grow
  • People collaborate across differences of all kinds
  • Justice focusses on healing and restoration, not punishment
  • Resources are shared
  • Everyone has a voice
  • All religions are honoured as different paths to meaning
  • The earth and all life are treated as sacred.

She described how peace-making may mean being ‘confronted with enormous need’ and ‘meeting need with something authentic within myself’. She believes this is based in the knowledge that self-change can only be done with God’s help. She invited us to commit to a shared vision of peace, as a vital call for the survival and flourishing of all of us:

‘The 21st Century will be the century of peace – or humanity will cease to be’

Dalai Lama

We were invited to reflect on how our own areas of conflict related to climate justice. I found this challenging – when faced with the urgency of action to protect the environment and life on our planet, where does activism for the LGBT+ community fit in? However, I take inspiration from the work of Peterson Toscano, a gay performance artist and activist for equality and environment issues. He cites many examples of how those who are less privileged and more marginalised have the most to lose in times of crisis. Here too we may see evidence of this: In 2018-19 police forces in England and Wales recorded a 25% increase in homophobic hate crime and an even more shocking 37% increase in transphobic hate crime. Peterson advocates solidarity with other causes which seek equality and justice for all, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #ExtinctionRebellion.

We were also invited in groups to co-create a question to start a dialogue around climate and conflict

We also heard from colleagues working on Archbishop Justin Welby’s Reconciliation Ministry, who gave us a taster of Difference, a 5-session course exploring ‘what it means to follow Jesus in the face of conflict and see transformation through everyday encounters.’ One element of the course encourages three habits:

  • Be curious: See how the world looks through others’ eyes
  • Be present: Bring your whole self with authenticity and confidence
  • Reimagine: Hope and opportunity where we long for change.

We tried some exercises from week 4, on the theme of practising forgiveness, and were invited to consider:

  • What stops me saying sorry?
  • What stopes people from saying sorry to me?
  • How can I become someone who is approachable when pain or disagreement arise?
  • What small, everyday steps make it more possible to forgive others?

We ended the day with a meal together at a classic East London institution – Tayyabs Pakistani Restaurant. It was a test of the Reconcilers Together commitment to environmental sustainability by providing vegetarian food for everyone. The restaurant refused to believe we were all vegetarian – so much so that as plate after plate of meat arrived, I began to wonder whether I, one of the few vegetarians in our number, would actually get a meal at all!

We began our last day together in the chapel in St Katherine’s for morning prayer then travelled together by bus to St Ethelburga’s. We shared our progress with our Actions at Home, reflected on the pilgrimage as a whole, and looked ahead to the future. I wrote last year about my attempt at an Action At Home, which was much simpler than I had originally planned. At St Ethelburga’s we were asked what we did, what was our biggest learning, and what we expect the impact of our action to be. My responses then were limited – since then I am pleased to say that in February this year, I did achieve something closer to my original Action At Home idea – a reconciliation meal with 12 members of the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool who hold diverse views on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, due to the unforeseen arrival of lockdown soon afterwards, the ability to follow this up with further action has been limited. At the time of writing I am preparing to review the feedback on this event with the Canon of Reconciliation in the Diocese of Liverpool and will share a summary in a future blog.

After lunch we took a trip to the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie Talkie tower, aka 20 Fenchurch Street. During our time there, we were invited to reflect on these questions:

  1. What do you notice about the city?
  2. What does it mean to you to find your hope on the ground under your feet? To be reconciled to the very earth?
  3. If you could look down on your own situation/conflict from 35 floors up, what new perspective might you have?
    1. What new / different conflicts do you see?
    1. What’s on the horizon or around you that you haven’t even had the time or energy to notice yet?

My reflection was around the relationship between LGBT+ activism and climate justice, which I have referred to above.

As some of our number with the furthest to travel had to leave early, our last time together was in the Peace Garden Bedouin tent, which was a warm, intimate, peaceful place for us to share our hopes, fears and love for one another and all we had shared on this journey.

Journey of Hope group photo at St Ethelburga’s, 7th June 2019

We ended the day with a celebratory vegetarian meal in the nave at St Ethelburga’s, and each of us received a framed photo of the group along with messages of affirmation from our peers.

Many of the Journey of Hope pilgrims were able to attend the Gathering in Glasgow on Conflict and Faith between 31st October and 2nd November, at which we were formally commissioned as reconcilers.

Commissioning as reconcilers at the Gathering In Glasgow on Conflict and Faith

Last week we had planned to gather for a reunion on the anniversary of the end of the course. We would have been in Malvern to celebrate the launch of the Ascension Centre for Contemplation and Reconciliation, led by another course participant, Phillip Johnson.

When we planned that reunion, we could not have foreseen that within a month of setting the date, the UK Government would call for a lockdown banning non-essential travel and advising us to Stay At Home and Save Lives. We adapted by learning the art of reconciliation and reunion via Zoom online meetings. Then on the day we would have arrived at Malvern last week, we learned of the sudden death of one of the members of the Reconcilers Together partnership: Glenn Jordan, Public Theology Programme Manager at Corrymeela. He began mentoring me after the Journey of Hope finished last summer – we were due to catch up again this month. He was a fine human and a compassionate, creative theologian. Within hours of learning the news, those who were free to meet for mutual support and prayer gathered for a video call.

Reflecting on the last year, and especially the last few days, I realise now that a quotation Justine Huxley shared at St Ethelburga’s now seems even more relevant and prophetic:

‘When things fall apart, we find out what binds us together.’

Rebecca Solnit

The possibility of life – A reflection for International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia & Transphobia #IDAHOBIT 2020 – #BreakingTheSilence

This is a reflection on two Bible texts: Isaiah 43:1,4 and Mark 5:1-20, created for an online gathering of LGBTI+ Christian groups on Friday 22nd May 2020 – #SpaceToBe, a collaboration between:

You can read the full reflection below, or watch on YouTube here (10.5 minutes).

SpaceToBe event flyer

Hear the word of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

‘Have no fear, for I have taken up your cause; naming you by your name,
I have made you mine. Because of your value in my eyes,
you have been honoured, and loved by me.’

Isaiah 43:1,4

This week began on 17th May, International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, Intersexphobia & Transphobia – The date was chosen because on that day in 1990 – just thirty years ago – the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’.

This annual campaign began in 2004 to draw the attention to the violence and discrimination LGBTI+ people still experience. This year’s theme is Breaking The Silence – a reminder for us all to speak up when it is safe enough to do so, and call on our allies to do so when we cannot.

This day is now celebrated in more than 130 countries, including 37 where same-sex acts are illegal. There are currently 70 states which criminalise homosexual intimacy, even people suspected of being homosexual. Sentences range from public whipping to 14 years’ imprisonment. In 12 states a death penalty may be enforced. 34 of these 70 states are part of the British Commonwealth, where British colonial laws remain in force.

In England and Wales too we do not enjoy full equality – In 2018-19 police forces recorded a 25% increase in homophobic hate crime and an even more shocking 37% increase in transphobic hate crime.

These are just some of the reasons why we need to break the silence which perpetuates prejudice. This is easier said than done – it takes courage to speak out.

As we come to God as we are, whether we are open or hidden, silent or outspoken, let’s take courage from the word of God spoken through Isaiah:

‘Have no fear, for I have taken up your cause; naming you by your name,
I have made you mine. Because of your value in my eyes,
you have been honoured, and loved by me.’

This text was chosen by an Italian LGBT Christian Network to commemorate this international campaign against the fear and reality of prejudice and violence towards our communities, because our diversity challenges those whose more narrow view of God and humanity does not accept us as we are. We need not fear, because we are valued, honoured and loved by God, and together we can be the change we want to see in our world, and especially in our faith communities.

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 friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’

Mark 5:19

What does this tell us about the challenge to break the silence which perpetuates prejudice, oppression and violence against our communities worldwide, especially in faith communities?

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that we as LGBTI+ Christians are ‘unclean’, though some in our 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 LGBTI+ 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 the dynamics which 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 while on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood around 20 years ago. At that time, 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 a reliance upon violence to rid ourselves of the change that we cannot explain.

So this story is an example of the dynamics at work when our faith communities, and wider society, display privilege and prejudice to 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 was the response of Jesus 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 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 friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.”’

Mark 5:18-19

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 capacity 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 describes 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 LGBTI+ 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 LGBTI+ Christian advocates. It’s not a template for everyone – for some, it might even be dangerous. But I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church. Easier said than done, though.

Within days of reflecting again on this reading last year, I learned that two LGBTI members of the Church of England’s working group on the Living In Love and Faith teaching document about human identity, sexuality and marriage had left the group because, in the words of trans priest Christina Beardsley:

‘the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again’.

Church Times 01/02/2019

This is why the counter-narratives from the margins, and the challenge to stereotypes of LGBTI+ Christians we see in the LGBTI+ Christian communities gathered here tonight are needed. 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 group.

It seems Archbishop Justin and his representatives need to be reminded of the words of his own statement:

‘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.’

Archbishop of Canterbury 15/02/2017

Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and sexual orientation. My prayer for our ministries and communities, 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.’

Amen.

This reflection is adapted from this one I shared at St Bride’s Liverpool in May 2019 at the Open Table Liverpool communion service on the theme of Peace, Reconciliation & Activism.

Forbidden Love – #BreakingTheSilence for #IDAHOTB

May 17th is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia #IDAHOTB – On this day in 1990 the World Health Organization declassified homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’. This year’s theme is #BreakingTheSilence.


Screenshot from our ‘Forbidden Love’ interview

Last week I found a copy of a short film portraying different sayings about love (love is timeless, love hurts, love is blind) made by a group of students from Liverpool John Moores University

My husband Warren and I were asked to speak about ‘Forbidden Love’ – the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships.


Report on our civil partnership,
Church Times, 11th May 2012

This interview was recorded at St Dunstan’s Liverpool 10 years ago, just after we got engaged.

Two years later we celebrated the first civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK – at Ullet Road Unitarian Church.

We converted our civil partnership to marriage in November 2015, followed by a service of thanksgiving at St Bride’s Liverpool.


Watch our two-minute interview here:

This is a segment from a larger feature by Street Lamp Productions, a group of students from Liverpool John Moores University. Many thanks to James Duffett and the Street Lamp Productions team for asking us to be involved and for doing such a good job.

London far-right bombings – Never forget, never again

Today marks 21 years since the nail bomb attack on the packed Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, the heart of London’s LGBT+ community.

The aftermath of the Admiral Duncan pub bombing, April 30th 1999

This followed bomb attacks in Brixton and Brick Lane, targeting black and Asian people. The attacks killed three people and injured 140.

Eleven years ago today I was about to give a presentation on LGBT+ young people’s mental health as part of a Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services event on equality and diversity in Warrington. Then the projector failed.

Thinking on my feet, having followed a speaker on the mental health of young people with minority ethnic backgrounds, I recalled the anniversary of the bombing and reminded the room that we have more in common than divides us, as those who would seek to harm one minority are unlikely to respect the needs of another.

After the presentation a member of the audience came and thanked me as they had a relative who was in the Admiral Duncan pub at the time of the bomb attack.

#NeverForget #NeverAgain

A prayer of shelter and shadow – A #CandleOfHope on #NationalDayOfPrayer for #CoronaVirus crisis

Tens of thousands of Christians lit candles in their homes and prayed on Sunday 22nd March in response to a call to prayer initiated by the Presidents of Churches Together in England (CTE).

A Palestinian oil lamp marked with ‘Peace’ in many languages alight in my window

So many participants shared photos of their candles on social media that CTE reports the hashtag #candleofhope became Twitter’s second most trending hashtag in the UK during Sunday evening.

Often on a Sunday evening I am out visiting a church community in the Open Table Network, which I coordinate. It felt strange to be at home knowing we could not meet and didn’t know when we would meet again.

It reminded me of a saying I find particularly inspiring, especially in dark times:

Yet it is far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

William L. Watkinson

As places of worship close across the world, it felt even more important for us to witness to our faith, hope and love in this extraordinarily testing time.

As part of evening prayer while the candle burned in the window, I shared a prayer written by Pádraig Ó Tuama, inspired by two different translations of an Irish saying, in which the same word can mean both shelter and shadow. It felt fitting at this time when many of us feel the shadow of fear and need to shelter to keep ourselves and each other safe.

A bridge of candles in rainbow coloured glass holders

A prayer of shelter and shadow

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireas na daoine.

– It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.

– It is in the shadow of each other that the people live.

We know that sometimes we are alone,
and sometimes we are in community.

Sometimes we are in shadow,
and sometimes we are surrounded by shelter.

Sometimes we feel like exiles –
in our land, in our languages and in our bodies.
And sometimes we feel surrounded by welcome.

As we seek to be human together,
may we share the things that do not fade:
generosity, truth-telling, silence, respect and love.

And may the power we share
be for the good of all.

We honour God, the source of this rich life.
And we honour each other, story-full and lovely.

Whether in our shadow or in our shelter,
may we live well
and fully
with each other.
Amen.

– Pádraig Ó Tuama, Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community

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