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

Going on an errand – A poem for #WorldPoetryDay

MARCH 21st each year is celebrated as World Poetry Day, to recognise the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization ( UNESCO) proclaimed March 21st as World Poetry Day in 1999.

One of the aims of World Poetry Day is to encourage a return to the oral tradition of poetry recitals. Today I asked friends on Facebook what was their favourite poem, and added a few of my own. In doing so, I recalled that my dad was great at reciting some poems by heart. I shared one of these here – it has become one of the most viewed posts on this blog!

There’s Teddy White
flying his kite,
He thinks himself grand
I declare!
I’d like to make it fly
up sky high,
Ever so much higher
than the old church spire.

Here is another:

Going on an Errand

A pound of tea at one and three
And a pot of raspberry jam,
Two new laid eggs, a dozen pegs
And a pound of rashers of ham.

I’ll say it over all the way
And then I’m sure not to forget,
For if I chance to bring things wrong
My Mother gets in such a sweat.

A pound of tea at one and three
And a pot of raspberry jam,
Two new laid eggs, a dozen pegs
And a pound of rashers of ham.

There in the hay the children play,
They’re having such fine fun!
I’ll go there too, that’s what I’ll do,
As soon as my errands are done.

A pound of tea at one and three,
A pot of new laid jam,
Two raspberry eggs with a dozen pegs,
And a pound of rashers of ham.

There’s Teddy White flying his kite,
He thinks himself grand I declare!
I’d like to make it fly up sky high,
Ever so much higher than the old church spire.

And then – but there…

A pound of three at one and tea,
A pot of new laid jam,
Two dozen eggs, some raspberry pegs,
And a pound of rashers of ham.

Now here’s the shop, outside I’ll stop
And run my orders through again,
I haven’t forgot – it’s better not,
It shows I’m pretty quick, that’s plain.

A pound of tea at one and three,
A dozen of raspberry ham,
A pot of eggs with a dozen pegs,
And a rasher of new laid jam.

– Anonymous

What’s your favourite poem – and why?

US evangelist Franklin Graham claims ‘persecution’ as UK venues cancel preaching tour bookings

IN 1984, charismatic preacher Billy Graham came to Liverpool at the invitation of local churches as part of a six-date tour called Mission England. This June, his son Franklin intends to come to the city, though the venue has withdrawn the booking, as have all seven of the other UK venues on his planned tour. So what’s going on?

Franklin Graham

In my role as co-ordinator of Open Table, a network of ecumenical Christian worship communities which offer a warm welcome to people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) and all who seek an inclusive Church, I have received a number of requests about how we are responding to the planned visit of this controversial preacher.

One request came from BBC Radio Merseyside’s Sunday morning Daybreak programme, which interviewed Franklin Graham and gave us an opportunity to reply. Here is the interview with Franklin Graham (6 minutes 55 seconds):

Interview with Franklin Graham, BBC Radio Merseyside 02/02/2020

Here is the response from me and Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Rector of the church where Open Table began in 2008 (7 mins 38 seconds):

Kieran Bohan & Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, BBC Radio Merseyside 02/02/2020

This reflection is based on my additional research before the interview, much of which there was no time to include, and subsequent developments.

Franklin Graham argues that his religious beliefs are being persecuted and freedom of speech denied. However he, and the Evangelical Association that bears his father’s name, have significant resources to be able to hire huge venues as a platform for their message. This seems to be expensive and privileged speech. He is entitled to say what he wishes, but he is not free from responsibility for the consequences of his speech (and nor are any of us). He says ‘it’s a shame that a very small group of people can be vocal and can deny a person their rights’, yet he has vocally opposed the rights of LGBT people in inflammatory ways, such as saying that ‘gays and lesbians cannot have children… [but] they can recruit’ children into their cause. In the same interview, he spoke in favour of Russian President Putin’s 2013 federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values‘ which opposes content presenting homosexuality as being a norm in society. He has also spoken in favour of ‘conversion therapy‘ which claims to re-orientate people to become heterosexual. This is despite the fact that there is no robust peer-reviewed research to demonstrate that such ‘therapy’ is effective, though there is much to show that it is harmful. For example, in the UK National Faith & Sexuality Survey, Ozanne Foundation 2018, lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians surveyed rated their mental and emotional health and well-being as significantly lower than their heterosexual peers, especially those who had undergone ‘conversion therapy’ in an attempt to alter their sexual orientation. In 2017 a Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy in the UK was signed by 13 professional counselling and psychotherapy organisations, including the Association of Christian Counsellors. This document informed the Church of England General Synod’s call to the UK Government to ban the controversial practice. Similarly, there is no reputable evidence to suggest that an LGBT person can ‘recruit’ or ‘convert’ anyone to become LGBT. In fact, research into age-appropriate LGBT-inclusive education suggests that it significantly reduces the risk and incidence of bullying and promotes the resilience and well-being of LGBT students. In the words of the It Gets Better performance based on LGBT people’s stories:

‘We don’t want your straight kids to be gay. We want your gay kids to survive’.

itgetsbettertour.org

These were just some of Franklin Graham’s comments which those who are opposing his 2020 UK visit have brought to the attention of the venues which have now withdrawn his bookings.

In response to these objections, Franklin Graham issued an open letter to the LGBTQ community in the UK on his Facebook page, in which he wrote:

I invite everyone in the LGBTQ community to come and hear for yourselves the Gospel messages that I will be bringing from God’s Word, the Bible. You are absolutely welcome.

A letter to the LGBTQ community in the UK, Franklin Graham 27/01/20

The language of the letter implies that you cannot be LGBT and Christian. Some of us are living on the intersection of these identities, and Open Table is living proof of that.

Yet he has also been recorded saying that ‘We have to be so careful who we let into the churches’:

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.

Franklin Graham, Dr Dobson’s Family Talk, January 2016

If you’re still in any doubt about the legitimacy of the opposition to Franklin Graham’s visit, perhaps it will help to note that this is not just an LGBT community issue (if that were not a good enough reason).

When Franklin Graham came to Blackpool in 2018, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement asking the Home Office to deny Franklin Graham a visa to come to the UK, following his claims that Islam is ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ in the context of a discussion in Islam’s role in the United States following 9/11. While it is just to condemn such extreme terrorist atrocities, it is not justified to conflate the extreme views which cause these actions with the entire religion. In the same way. it would not be right to say that the whole of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ because sectarian differences have been used to justify terrorism in the British Isles. The request to deny Franklin Graham a visa, which also had the support of three MPs, including a senior member of the government, was declined.

Others who have spoken against Graham’s visit this year include the Anglican Bishop of Sheffield (and former Dean of Liverpool Cathedral), who attended Billy Graham’s UK events in the 1980s:

But to my sadness I detect a tailing off of humility and generosity in the Graham organisation since those days.

Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Paul Eddy, a traditionalist Anglican member of General Synod, points out that, unlike his father’s visits to the UK, the forthcoming tour

is not a bottom-up mission, based on what God is doing at grass roots, and the local church leaders believing that the gifts of an external evangelist were needed to help ‘harvest’ what had been sown, no.  This is a ‘personal tour’ – very different.

Why is Franklin Graham being turned away? January 30th 2020

Based on first-hand experience of Billy Graham’s UK missions, Eddy notes that this tour has not been initiated at the invitation of local churches as those of his father always were. When the tour was announced, a British evangelical gave the organisers

a serious warning that coming to the UK to conduct festivals, without invitation, would undermine the church, its ongoing mission, and divide evangelicals.  Sadly, his words were prophetic.

In the same commentary Eddy also challenges, from a Biblically conservative position, Graham’s mantra that ‘homosexuality is sin’, and his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims as ‘unhelpful to many Christians working in predominantly Muslim communities in the UK’.

Meanwhile, a group of 17 evangelical Christians have published an open letter urging others not to back the American evangelist’s mission events, because they

find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.

We evangelical Christians won’t support Franklin Graham’s UK tour, Guardian 07/02/2020

If, as Franklin Graham claims, the events he is planning in the UK this year go ahead, there are likely to be protests against them. Based on the responses above, they may be an unlikely alliance of LGBT+ folk, Muslims, Evangelicals and other Christians for whom Franklin Graham doesn’t speak. Non-violent resistance has a long and noble tradition in effecting change, with Extinction Rebellion as a recent notable example. In the LGBT rights movement, we have needed both the public protests of Peter Tatchell and OutRage! and the behind-the scenes lobbying of groups like Stonewall.

Will I, on behalf of Open Table, be joining the protests? Some members of the Open Table community may do so, as they did in Blackpool in 2018. On this occasion, I will focus my energy on celebrating the Open Table community, which is living proof to the false witness that Graham bears against the LGBT+ community. I am taking my inspiration from the words of Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr:

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.

The Eight Core Principles of the Center for Action and Contemplation

In 2018, Open Table supported the Rainbow Weekend of inclusive events in Blackpool to counter Franklin Graham’s Festival Of Hope in the town. This year, the date when Graham intends to come to Liverpool coincides with the twelfth anniversary of the first Open Table, and the fifth anniversary of Open Table becoming a network of communities across England and Wales. So, rather than focus on what we are against, we will be celebrating what we stand for, which is expressed in Open Table’s mission and vision:

Our mission:

To create safe, sacred spaces for all people to encounter the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God, offering a warm welcome to all who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA), their family and friends, and all who seek an inclusive church.

Our vision:

We believe our lives, our identities and our relationships are precious gifts from God, which we are called to live out with integrity. Our desire is to continue to build a community where this is evident, and which equips others to go out and do the same.

The date of the Open Table Network national celebration event is Saturday 13th June 2020, the day after Franklin Graham’s planned visit to Liverpool. SAVE THE DATE: Venue to be confirmed.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, as I don’t agree with all of the views expressed in the articles I have cited above. I do, however, expect a respectful dialogue. As those of us who have known what it is to be dehumanised and demonised may know, it doesn’t serve us well to do it to our opponents in return. As Richard Rohr also writes:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

Transforming Our Pain, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

There are limits when respectful dialogue is absent:

We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

US Civil rights activist James Baldwin

As Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes wrote on Twitter before walking with the Christians At Pride group in Liverpool in July 2018:

UPDATE 02/03/2020: Following feedback I updated the closing paragraphs about the relationship between protest and dialogue, to clarify that both are often necessary to advocate for and effect change.

UPDATE 01/04/2020: Franklin Graham says UK tour postponed until next year after venue cancellations, legal cases need to be settled

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans – What I learned from the #10YearChallenge

If you use social media, you’ve probably noticed a number of people posting then-and-now profile pictures in recent weeks.

It’s a trend that’s best known as the  #10YearChallenge, which involves people comparing pictures of themselves in 2009 to ones taken in 2019. It gathered momentum as we approached the end of the year and the end of the decade.

While I don’t usually take part in social media trends, this one seemed worthwhile, as this past ten years has been particularly significant for me. Here is what I shared on Facebook on New Year’s Day:

Our #10YearChallenge began with my first Christmas in Australia where I proposed to Warren during dinner overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge. We were each involved with different churches then, until 2011 when we both found a home at St Bride’s Liverpool. We had begun going there monthly in 2008 to support Open Table Liverpool but didn’t know then that we would end up running it, developing it into Open Table – Come As You Are, a network of communities across England and Wales and registering it as a charity in 2020. Warren was then a medical secretary at the Royal Liverpool Hospital, and is now approaching eight years at the Diocese of Liverpool. He started there just before our civil partnership in 2012, which his new colleagues learned about in the Church Times! Little did we know when I proposed that our civil partnership would be the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK, and would make the news. Meanwhile, I had just become a full-time youth support worker at the Young Person’s Advisory Service with the longest-running LGBT+ youth group in the UK. Cuts to youth service funding led to redundancy and retraining as a chaplain, which is what I have been at the YMCA in Liverpool and St Helens for almost four years. It’s been an extraordinary time, for which I am most grateful. As I enter my 50th year, I hope the next decade holds similar promise of hopes exceeded by reality.

Me in 1989

It’s an interesting prospect to review life in larger chunks than just a year, as we often do around this time. I also found it interesting because of the juxtaposition with where I found myself ten and twenty years earlier than the ten-year challenge.

Thirty years ago, in December 1989, I had just completed my first term at university and experienced the first stirrings of what I thought was a call to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Me in 1999

Twenty years ago, in December 1999, I had just moved into my first flat, after a brief period of being homeless. I had qualified as a primary school teacher to gain life experience before training for ministry in the Church. I completed three of six years, then left following a diagnosis of clinical depression.

I stayed with a religious community for about a year, with the romantic notion of joining them, but it wasn’t to be. I could have gone back to London to live with my retired parents, but that didn’t seem fair on them or right for me as I approached thirty. So I persevered with the help and hospitality of new friends I had made that year, and began a new chapter of my life as an openly gay man living independently for the first time. If I had ended the story here, it could have been easy to feel discouraged, as the plans I had made in my 20s had not turned out as expected. But as my #10YearChallenge photos show, a new plan emerged that was better than anything I could have expected at that time.

There have been a couple of occasions this year when I have been invited to reflect on where I was around 20 years ago, and how far I’ve come since then. The first was 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

One of the passages we were invited to reflect on while on the Journey of Hope course as the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). I had reflected on this passage over several days while I was on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and find a new way of being in relationship with God, my family and others. At that time, my experience of the story was to recall my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, especially the circumstances of a breakdown ten years before that. Hearing the story again this year in the context of a course on reconciliation, 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. You can read my reflection on this passage here.

The second opportunity came through my new role this past year as chaplain at YMCA St Helens. Until recently, St Helens had the highest suicide rate in England and Wales. In response, a local artist began an artistic project called the Suicide Chronicles to address the lack of an effective language through which we can publicly discuss this issue.  In Chronicle One, three women from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide reclaim this experience and give an audience public access to a private world. Chronicle Two, currently in progress, is working with professionals who support people experiencing mental distress and at risk of suicide. This includes colleagues at YMCA St Helens, as well as paramedics and prison officers.

One of the exercises was to illustrate around ten key moments in our lives which have led us to where we are today. I chose to trace my journey to becoming the chaplain at YMCA St Helens, which began with the breakdown that let me to leave training for priesthood. I will share more about this project when it is complete in the next few months.

These experiences have reminded me of some words of wisdom shared with me around 15 years ago as I left teaching to begin training for priesthood. The owner of the house where I lodged while teaching gave me a card featuring the poem Desiderata by Max Ehrmann, which is perhaps better known by its first line:

GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. 

On the back of the card, my landlady had written:

Your line is: ‘Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.’

It seems fitting to recall this on starting a new year, a new decade. So much in our culture at this time is about resolving to become a better person – ‘New Year, New You’. But how much time do we take to appreciate how far we have already come to be the person we already are?

A prayer for Christmas morning

AT A carol service this month, hosted by the Open Table inclusive Christian community in Liverpool, I read one of the prayers, which I found moving, inspiring and too good not to share.

It’s a prayer for Christmas morning produced by enfleshed.com, a website which provides resources ‘that matter most. that addresses honestly, tenderly, and directly, the beauty and pain of living enfleshed lives.’

Look around.
The Sacred has collided with the flesh.
Holiness incarnates.
The Spirit of Christ has come.
Wars still rage. Hunger persists. White supremacy continues.
The joy of Christmas does not shield us from betraying one another,
from building walls, from shunning queer love or normalizing misogyny.
And yet.
And yet.
Here in the midst of it
God is with us.
As close as our own breath,
as deep as our longings,
as intimate as the love we share,
as present as our hunger, our pain, our pleasure, our touch.
In the middle of a world swirling with chaos,
something new is born.
Something that turns us towards each other,
that will keep us dreaming of an economy
that doesn’t profit from the poor,
that will make us proud of queering notions of love and relationship,
that will give us the courage to disrupt the lies of white supremacy,
that will help us stay soft even when things are so very hard,
that will remind us how powerful Love can be when it is channeled in the direction of collective liberation.
Today, we are reminded that we don’t have to look very far for the source of our hope.
We just have to pay attention. Close attention.
Listening carefully in the midst of all the noise.
Letting wisdom bubble up from within.
Moving at the pace of God, not of production.
Take courage. Linger in the mystery. Look anew at one another.
Christ has come. All flesh shall be set free.

enfleshed.com/pages/for-christmas-morning

Will you welcome #HomelessJesus this Christmas?

TODAY the YMCAs in the Liverpool City Region gathered for a carol service in the city’s Parish Church, opposite the world famous Liver Building. As the chaplain for YMCA Liverpool and YMCA St Helens, I gave a reflection on the Christmas story and what it means for the people the YMCA supports:

‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay
The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay’

So we hear again the story of Christmas. Maybe we’ve heard it so often that we haven’t noticed – Jesus knew what it meant to be homeless.

The manger we hear of in that famous children’s carol wasn’t a cosy crib – it was a feeding trough for animals. The newly-born Jesus and his parents were sleeping rough among livestock far from home.

After news of the birth of Jesus spread, they fled to Egypt to escape the violence of King Herod. Jesus and his parents were refugees, reliant on the hospitality of another country for their safety.

After they returned home, the 12-year-old Jesus was separated from his family in Jerusalem for several days before they found him. Jesus knew what it meant to be a ‘runaway child’, a ‘missing person’.

As an adult, Jesus lived in poverty ‘with no place to lay his head’, as we hear in the Gospel of Luke Chapter 9. He relied on the hospitality of others, and didn’t have a permanent home of his own. He reached out to people who were homeless, poor and oppressed. His actions are a model for how we might respond to poverty in our own lives and communities.

In the prologue from the Gospel of John, it says ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ These words were first written in Greek – a more accurate translation would be ‘pitched his tent among us’. The sight of people sleeping in tents on our streets has become far too common.

So what would this homeless Jesus say to us today? Maybe something here can help us answer that question.

The Homeless Jesus statue in the grounds of Liverpool Parish Church

At the end of a conference on homelessness in April this year, I supported four members of the YMCA community to reveal a moving tribute to those who sleep rough in our city. The event, called ‘Homeless and Rough Sleeping – Who Cares?’, was held at Liverpool Parish Church.

The church commissioned a bronze sculpture called ‘Homeless Jesus’, and invited our residents to unveil it, and meet other guests, including the Lord Mayor, and the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool who prayed for a blessing on the statue and all whom it represents.

The statue is in the garden of the church, better known to locals, including the homeless people who seek shelter here, as ‘St Nick’s’. If you can, go and see it.

It’s not your typical portrayal of Jesus – the sculpture by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz represents a life-size homeless person lying on a bench.

The figure is shrouded in a blanket with its face covered – in these dark winter days, the homeless Jesus is easily mistaken at dusk for a real, living homeless person, curled up under a blanket, rejected and alone.

The only indication that it represents Jesus is the visible wounds on the bare feet – the nail holes, the marks of crucifixion. Jesus preached a radical message of peace, justice and love that would eventually get him killed.

The sculpture suggests that Jesus is with the most marginalized in our society. Engraved on the flagstone in front of the bench is the message behind the artwork: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’, which echoes the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew chapter 25. Despite the message behind the statue, some people aren’t happy about seeing Jesus represented as a homeless person. Copies of the statue have toured the world, but some churches have refused the invitation to host it because of the potential controversy. The sculpture of homeless Jesus has been denied a home.

One resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, fearful for her safety, called the police when she first spied the statue at night, believing that a homeless person had come to stay in her neighbourhood. She rejected the sculptor’s theology, too, protesting that Jesus stands watch over the homeless to protect and care for them, so he cannot be one of them.

A homeless person huddled on a park bench is a sight we recognize only too well. We tend to ignore, walk past, and even step over homeless people. Encountering this sculpture is a stark reminder that our neighbour is homeless. Seeing Jesus in the rough sleeper on the bench is also a reminder that we are all made in the image of God. For the person suffering on that bench, cast out by us and our community, truly to be a beloved child of God – maybe that fearful American woman is right to call that a scandal!

If you dare to come so near, there is enough room left over for one person to sit on the bench – to make people think: ‘Would I sit next to a homeless person on a bench? Would I sit next to homeless Jesus?’

There is a beautiful poem by Elizabeth Barrette called When I Was Naked, which tells the story of a homeless man’s encounter with the statue on a cold, snowy night. His heart breaks to see ‘a dark figure huddled on a bench’. It might have looked something like this:

The Homeless Jesus sculpture in Bruges, Belgium, covered in snow

He covers the bare feet with his own coat, and discovers that it is a statue. He says: ‘I thought he was real – It made me worry about him.’ He sits at the feet of Homeless Jesus and shares his own story, saying, ‘Sometimes, it’s nice to talk with somebody who’s been there.‘

In Jesus, God experienced the full spectrum of human suffering. The sculpture of Homeless Jesus invites us to reflect and remember to love all of humanity, and that everyone, no matter what their status in life, deserves to be treated with dignity, not only at Christmas, but every day.

We also watched this Christmas message giving insight into the reality for people
who find themselves homeless at a supposed time of joy and goodwill.
Its called The Gift Of Hope – Hold On Pain Ends [5 minutes 30 seconds]

Queer Faith Voices: Is faith inherently queer?

US Episcopal priest and author Liz Edman takes centre stage at the ‘Queer Faith Voices’ event, which also heard contributions from (L-R) Christopher Greenough, Senior Lecturer in Theology and World Religion, Edge Hill University; Ellen Loudon (Chair), Director of Social Justice for the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool, me and Char Binns,  Interim Director of Homotopia – the longest running queer arts festival in the UK and part of the core team of Liverpool Queer Collective. PHOTO: Mark Loudon

AS PART of the tour of Merseyside by Queer Virtue author Liz Edman last month, I took part in a panel discussion called ‘Queer Faith Voices’.

Liz uses the term ‘queer’ in the academic sense, as a verb meaning ‘to disturb / disrupt false binaries’. These binaries can relate to gender (male/female) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual), but they can be so much more than that. In the field of ‘queer theology’, Liz applies this term to Jesus, who ‘queers’ the boundaries between human and divine in the Church’s understanding by being fully human AND fully divine, not one OR the other. The subtitle of Liz’s book Queer Virtue is ‘What LGBTQ people know about life and love and how it can revitalise Christianity’. Liz argues that, because our communities have needed to ask deep questions about our identity and faith while others tell us we cannot be both ‘queer’ and Christian, we may have much to teach the Church about the radical nature of Jesus and Christianity. This echoes what I have written elsewhere as part of, and in response to, Barbara Glasson’s book The Exuberant Church: Listening to the prophetic people of God, on the process of ‘coming out’ as a spiritual experience, ‘both profoundly human and deeply of God’.

Here is my opening reflection on what it means for me to have become a ‘queer faith voice’:

Giving my opening reflection at the ‘Queer Faith Voices’ event, Saturday 23rd November 2019. PHOTO: Mark Loudon

My mum thought I was going to tell her that I’d murdered someone.

Such was my intensity when I finally came out to my parents at age 28.

Why was I so late and so earnest in finding my ‘queer voice’? Largely because my ‘faith voice’ formed first, making it harder to express my minority report of dissent.

At university I’d begun to admit I might have feelings for other men. I knew the Student Union had an LGBT+ group but I wouldn’t go because I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’.

Because of my Irish Catholic upbringing, I heard from adults I was taught to trust and respect that it wasn’t OK to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Who was I to question it? Some Christians and other people of faith believe all sexual activity outside marriage and having children is ‘unnatural’ and so forbidden, so it’s not just about homosexuality, though you could be forgiven for thinking that because of all the attention it gets.

One drunken evening in a University bar, I tried confiding in a flatmate (whom I secretly adored as a fine example of God’s creation!). I asked, ‘What would you say if I told you I was gay?’ My hypothetical question meant I could deny it if he didn’t respond well. He told me to ‘go out and shag lots of women and get over it!’

Later that year he found in my room a book about becoming a Catholic priest. As a fellow Catholic, he knew Catholic priests promise to be celibate (that is, not to marry or have children). Again, he told me to ‘go out and shag lots of women and get over it!’ It seemed to be his answer for everything! It wasn’t happening for me.

After university I became a primary school teacher. I confided in a Catholic priest who was governor of a school where I worked that I might be attracted to men. He told me I should reconsider my future in education because if I got to a certain age and wasn’t married, people might think I was unsafe with their children. I felt unable to tell anyone what he said in case they thought he was right.

I left that school and began training to become a priest. I thought I would probably never marry, so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents. But I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I became depressed. Sometimes I literally wished I didn’t exist.

Then I saw the film Priest, written by Jimmy McGovern and made in Liverpool, about a priest who falls in love with another man. It was beautiful and moving, and helped me to accept my feelings. I confided in another student, who told me he felt the same way, and we were able to support each other until we each decided to leave.

My mum used to say I could talk to her about anything. I thought: ‘Not if you knew what I really want to talk to you about!’ When I finally said ‘I’m gay’, my dad said: ‘God still loves you’ – the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. He added: ‘But you won’t be getting into a relationship, will you?’, since that’s what the Catholic Church says about gay people – that we’re OK as long as we don’t act on our desires.

Once they could see I was well and happy, they accepted me completely. What could have wrecked our relationship (and still does for some LGBT+ people) brought us closer than ever before. Knowing my parents accepted me made it easier to accept myself. When I met Warren, I knew I wanted to share my life with him, and they were so welcoming to him.

It was on Merseyside that I began to find my ‘queer faith voice’. My first visit to the region was to Loyola Hall, a retreat centre in Rainhill, sadly now closed. They ran an LGBT+ Christian weekend every autumn for many years. There I met many people who became and remain friends, and it was part of the reason I moved to Liverpool. So be careful what you pray for! This year, I was privileged to co-facilitate the LGBT+ retreat at its new home, St Beuno’s in North Wales. It’s been quite a journey!

After arriving in Liverpool almost 17 years ago, I joined the local Quest group for LGBT+ Catholics, then became one of the leadership team. In 2007 we were called ‘dissident group’ and forbidden from meeting on Catholic premises when the Archbishop received complaints about us celebrating Mass in the University Catholic Chaplaincy. We weren’t given the right to reply to our critics.

For several years the Quest group met in Liverpool City Centre Methodist Church, better known as ‘Somewhere Else’, or ‘the bread church’. They have a poster there called ‘How To Build Community’, which concludes with these words:

‘Know that no-one is silent, though many are not heard.
Work to change this.’

I read this as an invitation and a challenge, to be heard, not just for myself, but for other LGBT+ Christians who struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity in faith communities that judge us, at best, to be defective heterosexual or cisgender people, rather than recognising and valuing the gifts and insights that embracing our diversity can bring.

Twelve years ago I met Warren at another LGBT+ Christian group that met in the same space. The following year we found St Bride’s, an Anglican church in the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool which welcomed us both and supported us to use our gifts to develop a monthly Christian service for members of the LGBT+ community, family and friends – more of that later.

In 2010, we were part of a group of Christians who approached the organisers of the first official Liverpool Pride festival about hosting a Christian service on the eve of the festival. They said they valued inclusion so would only support an interfaith celebration. So ‘Spectrum of Spirituality’ was born, and continued for six years.

In 2012, after four years together, Warren and I celebrated our civil partnership. We arranged to have a blessing in a church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like many straight couples sign the register during a church wedding. We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK.

Then in 2014 the law changed to allow same-sex couples to get married, and couples already in a civil partnership could convert to marriage [though not in most churches]. We converted our civil partnership to marriage in November 2015, and although it is against the law in England and Wales for couples like us to be married in an Anglican Church, the St Bride’s community held the most amazing thanksgiving celebration for us!

The monthly service for LGBT+ Christians, family and friends which meets at St Bride’s is called Open Table, which means everyone is welcome to join in the service, especially the bread and wine we share in remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his friends before he died, known as the Last Supper.

When a handful of people met in 2008 to plan a monthly Communion service, someone asked: ‘Will it be Open Table?’ When she explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, without any judgement of worthiness for membership, we felt this was so important because we hear too many stories of people who feared exclusion, or were excluded, from their church community, who felt unheard or unable to express themselves or give their talents. So Open Table was born.

Open Table is still going strong after more than eleven years, with up to sixty people attending each month in Liverpool. In 2015, other churches began asking for our guidance.

Open Table communities now meet in 16 other places across England and Wales, hosted by inclusive churches in the Anglican, United Reformed, Baptist and Methodist traditions, serving more than 300 people each month. More than 80 other churches have been in touch asking for our advice on making their communities more inclusive of LGBT+ people.

Our vision is of a world where LGBT+ people are fully included within our faith traditions and communities. Until then, we aim to create safe sacred spaces for all people to encounter the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God, offering a warm welcome to all who identify as LGBT+ and all who seek an inclusive church.

Those six people who met at St Bride’s 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’ [Ephesians 3:20].

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