WHEN the plastic construction toy maker LEGO announced its new product last month, it received a mixed response. Everyone Is Awesome [pictured] is a set of figures presented against a background, coloured in the stripes …
On Thursday 6th May 2021, I was involved in a service of remembrance for the civilian casualties of the Liverpool Blitz. It was held in one of the most vivid symbols the bombing of the city, the outer shell of St Luke’s Church in the city centre, which was destroyed by an incendiary bomb on 6th May 1941.
IN 2019 I took part in the Journey of Hope, a six-month training programme in peace-building and reconciliation run by Reconcilers Together, a network of Christian peace-making centres across the UK and Ireland. Our first stop in January 2019 was Coventry Cathedral, whose international ministry of …
LAST MONTH I put together a video for the Open Table Network (OTN), which was broadcast on Palm Sunday, featuring a modern reflection on the traditional Christian devotion called the Stations of the Cross. Palm …
The Northumbria Community’s video brings together voices, photographs, percussion, film clips, dance, translations and prayers from more than 80 people across their dispersed, worldwide network. The Community has offered it as a gift to be shared widely, ‘for it to bless other people and the world’.
DID YOU HEAR the one about the advert which led to a huge petition for ‘trying to cause gratuitous offence to members of the Christian community’? Unfortunately it’s no joke – the petition has probably …
The Catholic Church’s office for promoting its teaching authority has issued a statement in response to a question: ‘Does the Church have the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex?’ The answer is ‘Negative’, in more ways than one. I wrote this response on behalf of The Open Table Network:
AS the Church of England is in the process of sharing its Living in Love and Faith (LLF) resources on identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, I offer these prayers for everyone involved, and those who feel unable to be involved.
ln 1995 – for the first and only time – a group of gay survivors of the Holocaust issued a declaration demanding recognition as part of a project of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Here is what they wrote:
HOLOCAUST Memorial Day is marked on 27th January each year in the UK. I’ve compiled an online service of commemoration for the Open Table Network this month. Why does this matter to our LGBTQIA+ Christian community?
HOLOCAUST Memorial Day is marked on 27th January each year in the UK. I’ve compiled an online service of commemoration for the Open Table Network this month. Why does this matter to our LGBTQIA+ Christian community?
On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember those Jewish people, and millions of members of other groups killed under Nazi persecution, and in the more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.
But it’s more than that – it’s about recognising the early signs that lead to people being marginalised, dehumanised and demonized, to the point that killing them becomes somehow acceptable.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 is ‘Be the light in the darkness’.
It encourages us to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities have resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide.
It asks us to consider:
different kinds of ‘darkness’: identity-based persecution, misinformation and denial of justice
different ways of ‘being the light’: resistance, acts of solidarity and rescue, and illuminating mistruths.
Today, increasing denial, division and misinformation mean we must keep watch against hatred and identity-based hostility. Rapid advances in technology, an unstable political climate, and global events beyond our control can leave us feeling helpless and hopeless. In these days we’re seeing the best of humanity but also the much darker side of our world.
Holocaust Memorial Day is an invitation to remember the lives of those who were murdered in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. We give thanks for those who have courageously shared their stories. We recommit ourselves to transform the world through love.
For us as LGBTQIA+ Christians, it’s also about solidarity with others who also experience oppression and hate crime, but it’s also about raising awareness of the prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people which is still widespread around the world, still costing lives, which will continue to grow unless we challenge it. It’s also about recognising that religion, in its darkest moments, can play a part in persecuting people, instead of bringing enlightenment.
Then there’s the hidden history of homosexual people in the Nazi Holocaust.
In September 2009, I accompanied ten LGBT young people from Merseyside on a five-day cultural exchange trip to Auschwitz, Krakow and Warsaw working with a group of Polish LGBT young people.
The exchange enabled the group to understand the Holocaust and the fate of many LGBT people at that time, and its impact on European and LGBT social history, as well as challenging past and present issues around hate crime.
The young people took part in making a film called Project Triangle, named after the badges people were made to wear to identify them in the camps. Here’s a short extract [3.5 mins]: You may find some of these images upsetting.
We need to be part of the change we want to see, and call out prejudice and discrimination in all its forms, not just those which affect the groups to which we belong. If we don’t speak in solidarity with others, how can we expect others to speak for us?
Our lights are more powerful when we work together with others. Holocaust Memorial Day help us to remember – for a reason. We all need to do what we can to work for a safer, better, future for everyone. Everyone can step up and use their talents to tackle prejudice, discrimination and intolerance wherever we find them.
The Open Table Network Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration service will be published as a YouTube Premiere on Sunday 24th January 2021 at 6.30pm GMT. The video will include British Sign Language interpretation and captions to make it more accessible, thanks to Tom Pearson. Join us live online, or later at your leisure, on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to receive a notification when it’s published.
God takes on flesh and joins life in the struggle – this is what radical solidarity feels like. Lives and souls and bodies entangled. Risks and possibilities shared. We’re in this together. The mess, the beauty, the work. Don’t be afraid to feel hopeful. God’s promises are kept. God won’t opt out or turn away. God won’t give up when things get tough. God won’t defend power, or privilege, or institutions, or tradition at the expense of freedom, or love, or liberation, or your worth. God’s with-ness is birthed at the margins. God knows what’s at stake.Let all who are weary, rejoice!All of evil’s deceptions will be revealed and fear of unjust powers will cease. The Liberating One now dwells among us, calling upon hearts from all walks of life to open, to take courage, to soften, to release. Behold, the Sacred enfleshed reveals the way of Love.
This article shows why we need to commemorate TDOR. It gives a glimpse of some of the circumstances in which trans people have died because of anti-trans prejudice and violence this year. It mentions the figure of 350. By the time we put together our vigil the number of reports of deaths between 1st October 2019 and 30th September 2020 had risen to 387 from 35 countries. The video commemorating these names is here on YouTube (10 minutes). By the time the official list was completed, the final figure had risen to 432.
Here is Sarah’s reflection:
Every year, Trans Day of Remembrance is a painful day. As I watch the names roll by, one by one, I mourn. Not just because of the loss of life – although that is both sad and outrageous. Sad because the people around them have been robbed of their life and their presence, but outrageous because so few people who could do something about it, seem to care. Year on year, it feels like trans people’s lives matter less. For all of the countries where acceptance thrives, there are sadly many more where acceptance narrows and shrivels. 432 lives around the world testify to that sad truth. Many of the people who end those lives will never be found or prosecuted for their despicable crimes. But more than that, the saddest thing is the loss of potential.
Each of those people were creative life forces, full of talent and hope. All of them imbued with possibility and all of them, given the chance to release that potential, would have had a knock-on effect that would have changed the world.
We are very familiar with R numbers these days. Too familiar. We know to our cost that if an R number is even 0.1% above 1, the infection grows. As the R number augments, so does its impact. Imagine those 432 people, still in the world now. Imagine those names, imagine those beautiful faces, those amazing souls. Imagine if their potential had been released.
I have the chance, very regularly, to tell my story. I know that every time I do, there are people who change their minds about trans people. Over the course of the last three and a bit years since I transitioned, I have influenced thousands people to think differently about trans people. Imagine 432 additional people in the world with even a conservative R number of ten per year. In three and a bit years over half a million people would have been positively impacted by them alone. Not to mention all of the other amazing skills and the incredible love they would bring to the world. Their loss is not just a sadness, it’s not just a waste for this year, and next year we move onto another list of people and mourn them. In their lifetimes, imagine the millions upon millions their lives alone would have touched. That is the true cost of TDoR this year.
But what of our potential as Christians? We have so much potential, partly because we are amazing human beings with huge amounts that we can contribute, but also because God adds rocket fuel to our potential. We are not acting in our own strength. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 3, verse 20, that because of God’s power working in us, He is able to do immeasurably more than all we could ever ask or even more than that, that we could ever possibly imagine. And I don’t know about you, but in the words of the great philosopher Han Solo, when Luke Skywalker offers him unimaginable wealth says, ‘I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit’. Me too!
What is the point of helping someone release their potential? I think for us, it is so that our lives can influence the world around us. The metaphor for that influence is provided by Jesus for us in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 5, verses 13 and 14. Verse 13 tells us that we are the salt of the earth and verse 14 tells us that we are the light of the world.
These images elevate our position and help us to understand how important our influence is and what happens when our potential is cut short – either because someone else cuts it or we do. But both of those images come with a care label. What if the salt loses its saltiness? What if the light is hidden under a bowl? In the case of salt, it’s no longer good for anything. In the same way, the absence of light brings darkness. But despite this amazing opportunity to use my potential to highlight Jesus, the King of Kings, sometimes I really don’t feel like it. Sometimes I want to hide my light away. And why?
Because it is scary to provide salt and light. If, as a trans person, you ever want a reason to explain why being out and proud is sometimes terrifying, today is all the answer you need. People attack and kill some trans people just for living their lives. In the UK, for most of us, that probably won’t mean being killed, the numbers are much lower here. But for many, it means judgement, unkindness and ostracisation, sometimes even from the people we love, let alone strangers. It can mean the indignity of being shouted at in the street, of double looks and of people misgendering you – even when you are in a dress and make-up. There is lots of support too, but for many, the negative noise drowns out the positive. When I decided to transition, I was afraid. I knew that it would mean the end of a long and happy relationship, and I feared it would mean losing my kids and my employment. I feared the loss of many friends. Maybe we can be forgiven for feeling afraid to be salt and light.
Because we don’t realise the power of our own voices. I realised I was trans when I was six. I didn’t know that’s what I was, but I knew I was deeply uncomfortable with being considered male, and that I should never tell anyone that this is how I feel. I figured that they would never ever understand. That message became the tape that played in my mind for years afterwards, reinforced over and over again, to the point where I began to think about every word I would say in case my secret was revealed. I began to believe that who I was was shameful, that I should be embarrassed about myself, and that telling others just infected them with my shame. Of course, no-one should listen to me. I’m sinful and they should never help me and I should never be a stumbling block to them. I thought that asking other Christians to support me meant forcing them into sin too. My own internal transphobia tape disabled my ability to speak out. And even now, I have to push myself hard to speak up and to use my voice.
Because it is not just reinforced by my brain, but by the church too. Many of the trans folk you know will have faced even harder opposition for trying to bring salt into the house of God. For years, every time I told anyone about my gender issues in the church, the response was to help me rid myself of this blight. And if I’m honest, as part of the church, I agreed with them because I had been taught the same. My trans-ness was never ever celebrated, and it was certainly never a part of me that belonged. If you know you are not welcome, it takes a strong person to push their way in anyway. Why would you let this light shine out if it is not wanted?
But despite that, I am still here today, and you are still listening. Naïve perhaps? But we all still hope for change, we hope that things can get better. I think of the 432+ people cheering me on, urging me to make a difference. But where do I start? In the last three years I have learned a lot. The biggest realisation is that I have the most powerful weapon already in my hands. To quote John in the book of Revelation, Chapter 12, verse 11, I can triumph, in part, by the word of my testimony. The power of a story is unfathomable. Our stories are the salt that seasons. Sharing our experiences with people brings authenticity – how we met Jesus, how he has impacted our lives and, more important for me, that he loves me so much as Sarah and that who I am is not an issue to him. That last one took a mammoth effort to break through. But more than that, that our stories are the light that shines. As we display our stories, those of grace and of the love of a heavenly parent, He is glorified. Light spills out – it doesn’t just light us up, it lights the path for other people trying to find their way too. Our stories impact so many people around us.
Some people listening today may not feel ready to tell their story. Their light is just a sliver. Don’t feel guilty about that. My favourite verse in the world is 1 Corinthians chapter 10 verse13: ‘No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.’ So, start small. Tell your story to one person you trust. God honours faithfulness and can grow the mustard seed of your faith into a magnificent plant. Let your life’s success be the memorial to the people we remember today. Let God take a little bit of potential and do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. Let’s live our lives for those who couldn’t live theirs.
Will you love the ‘you’ you hide… Will you quell the fear inside…
The Summons, by John Bell, a Patron of the Open Table Network
THIS MONTH, as the Co-ordinator of the Open Table Network, I led the first of a new series of monthly online worship gatherings. We took the theme of ‘coming out’, as 11th October is marked around the world as ‘Coming Out Day’.
Why do we ‘come out’, and why have a day to celebrate it?
For too long, members of our communities have had to hide in fear for their well-being, their livelihood and their lives. A constant fear of being rejected by friends, loved ones, and community, has led to many of us remaining in the proverbial closet, hiding who we are from those who should be our nearest and dearest.
Coming Out Day challenges this injustice and encourages those of us who live with gender and sexuality that is beyond the false binaries of our culture to be proud and reclaim who we are.
Coming Out Day is based on the belief that prejudice against LGBTQIA+ people thrives in an atmosphere of silence and ignorance, and that once people know that they have loved ones who are LGBTQIA+, they are far less likely to maintain prejudiced or oppressive views.
In the service, we heard this reading from St Paul’s letter to the early Christians in Rome, who were facing life-threatening persecution because of their faith:
Reading: Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And here is my reflection:
Nothing, Paul tells us in his letter to the early Christian community in Rome, ‘can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’.
‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus’.
Do you believe this?
Have you ever been told that your gender identity or sexual orientation, or anything else, comes between you and the love of God in Christ Jesus?
If so, did you believe it?
How does this reading speak to those of us who ‘come out’, who claim a new identity, not just, or not even, as a Christian, but as a person whose gender or sexual orientation may not fit into the binary of male and female, each attracted to and finding their deepest bond and companionship with what’s commonly called the ‘opposite sex’?
The present-day expression ‘coming out’ originated in an early 20th century analogy that likens a homosexual’s introduction into gay subculture to a debutante’s coming-out party, a celebration for a young upper-class woman who is making her début – her formal presentation to society – because she has reached adulthood and become eligible for marriage. Historian George Chauncey wrote that, before the First World War, gay people did not speak of coming out of what we now call ‘the closet’ but rather of coming out into what they called ‘homosexual society’ or ‘the gay world’, a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor… so hidden as the more modern image of the closet implies. So, what are we coming out into?
In writing about the process of ‘coming out’, Barbara describes how it takes ‘an unusual and specific sort of courage’. As an openly gay Christian man, I can vouch for this in my own journey from disquiet and inner struggle, through self-acceptance and living a secret life, to rites of passage into a community of solidarity, towards a place of integration.
And, as the Coordinator of the Open Table Network, having heard the stories of hundreds of LGBTQIA+ people of all ages, I think I can say with some authority that courage is indeed a defining characteristic of the process of questioning your identity, and claiming a new identity which defies the dominant norms of culture, society and faith. Barbara writes:
‘I believe it is both profoundly human and part of God’s intention that we live life in all its fullness. Ultimately, coming out is a transformative process that can lead to fullness of life.’
As our prayers today show, our Christian story contains many unexpected reversals or moments of ‘coming out’, from the exodus of God’s chosen people out of slavery, to God creating new life out of the suffering and death of Jesus.
In the reading we’ve just heard, Paul reflects on the liberating power of Jesus’ call to new life. For us, that call is about claiming our identity as beloved children of God, made in the image of God, chosen by God to live the full diversity of our identities, not to hide who we are for fear of condemnation.
Paul promises us that no-one can condemn us, as Jesus is at God’s right-hand interceding for us.
No-one can condemn us – not parents, or politicians, or pastors…
As beloved children of God, made in the image of God, God’s chosen people, we can be confident of the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God in Christ Jesus, from which ‘nothing can separate us’.
Paul makes a list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. He includes: trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger and sword. He continues:
‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation’
What would be on your list of things that cannot separate you from the love of God?
What would be on your list of things that cannot separate you from the love of God?
What would be on your list of things that cannot separate you from the love of God?
We can become stuck in despair about our lives as LGBTQIA+ people in inhospitable and prejudiced churches and communities.
OR we can ‘come out’ of our despair and live a new life.
‘in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us’.
Jesus’s love for us can overcome all obstacles, even homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.
Do you believe this? Dare you believe this?
US bishop John Shelby Spong writes:
‘Whether we are male or female, gay or straight, transgender or bisexual, white or black, yellow or brown, left=handed or right-handed, brilliant or not quite so brilliant. No matter what the human difference is, you have something to offer in your own being. Nobody else can offer what you have to offer, and the only way you can worship God is by daring to be all that you can be, and not be bound by the fears of yesterday.’
John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the non-religious
So as we pray, let’s ask God to show us how we are
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.
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.”
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 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!’ 
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’, knowing that God loves you as you are, wants you to flourish, and to know joy in God’s loving family.
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.
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.
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
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]
“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.”
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.
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.’
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.”
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.
What do you think people who don’t go to church think about the Church’s attitude to LGBTQIA+ issues?
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.
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.
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.’
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:
Faith Into Action
Protecting The Sacred
Opportunity In Crisis
Community Across Difference.
Life of St Ethelburga #FaithIntoAction
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.
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.
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.
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’
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 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:
What do you notice about the city?
What does it mean to you to find your hope on the ground under your feet? To be reconciled to the very earth?
If you could look down on your own situation/conflict from 35 floors up, what new perspective might you have?
What new / different conflicts do you see?
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.
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.
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.’