THIS is an extract from a newly published book, Journeys in Grace and Truth, which asks:
Is it possible to hold a positive view of same-sex relationships while being a biblically rooted Evangelical?
It features essays from twelve senior Anglican Evangelicals who believe so, and share how they came to new insights. These include the current and former Bishops of Liverpool, the city where the following journey unfolds. Warren Hartley, and I, Kieran Bohan, are a lay couple, formally authorised by the current Bishop of Liverpool as Local Missional Leaders to care for Open Table, a monthly worshipping community for LGBT Christians, family, friends and allies – this is the story of that community:
St Bride’s Liverpool relaunched in November 2007 with a vision for a ‘creative, progressive, inclusive’ community. Open Table is a Fresh Expression which began shortly afterwards, in July 2008, as a manifestation of this vision.
It takes the form of a monthly service, usually a Eucharist, which aims to create a safe, sacred space with a warm and affirming welcome for Liverpool’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, who have traditionally not been well served by mainstream church. Our primary goal is to explore faith amongst LGBT Christians, and assist them in integrating their spiritual and sexual or gender identities – as for some these have been in direct conflict. We also welcome and affirm family members, friends and other allies who also seek an inclusive church community.
An early member once asked us: ‘Will it be “open table”?’ (i.e. welcoming everyone to share in the Eucharist). Sadly, this is because LGBT Christians have often either felt or been intentionally excluded from the Eucharist.
Following conversations with our then Bishop, our Rector and other supportive clergy, Open Table began in July 2008 with a mix of Anglicans, Roman Catholics, URC and Methodist folk. In 2012 St Bride’s District Church Council formalised the Open Table leadership by creating the role of LGBT Ministry Facilitator – which Warren undertook with Kieran’s support. Open Table has grown from a gathering of around half a dozen or so in 2008 to regularly drawing around 40 people each month.
To create this sacred space which has a real sense of God’s presence where all can ‘come as you are’, we have explored liturgy, carefully choosing resources and constructing services that affirm our identity as children of God.
Over time, regulars expressed a desire to get to know each other beyond the limits of a monthly service. This led to the invitation to regather, after post-service refreshments, for a ‘sharing circle’, which now takes place most months. We introduce this as a time for holding one another in prayerful attention; not a therapy or discussion group, but rather an opportunity for deep and respectful listening to any who wish to share what is going on in their lives and spiritual journeys. If anyone wants to respond to anything shared during this time, we invite them to reach out outside the sharing circle. This is well received, attracting around 16 people each time.
Some have expressed a desire to go deeper in knowledge of faith, the Scriptures and our identities as LGBT people. This has led to us running two house groups which meet regularly for a meal, study and spiritual practice, using the Inclusive Church resource Living Christianity to reflect on the Eucharist over seven weeks. We have also facilitated two retreat days looking at what it means to be LGBT and Christian, as individuals and as a community. One of the recommendations that emerged from this is that we seek to develop liturgies to mark important life events, e.g. a coming out service, an affirmation of gender transition, services of thanksgiving (and, we hope and pray, perhaps eventually blessings) for civil partnerships and marriages.
We regularly celebrate the feasts of the Church calendar, and key dates in the LGBT calendar, including LGBT History Month (February), International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia (May), Liverpool Pride (August), and Transgender Day of Remembrance (November). These are often ‘services of the word’ led by members of the community. We share the importance of our testimonies as LGBT people and as Christians, and we stand in solidarity with our LGBT sisters and brothers around the world who do not share the same freedom we enjoy. This has been so important in empowering sometimes deeply hurt and vulnerable people.
Members of Open Table, and the wider St Bride’s community, have walked alongside other inclusive faith communities in the Liverpool Pride march, and shared a community stall during the festival, since it began in 2010. This has often been in partnership with Spectrum of Spirituality, an LGBT interfaith forum established in 2010, to host an annual interfaith service as part of the official Pride festival, the first of its kind in the UK.
It is a delight to see other Open Table ministries emerging – there are currently active groups in Warrington, Manchester and north Wales as well as Liverpool, with enquiries from several other communities nationally. Each is independent, but we offer peer support, encouragement and learning from our experience.
With little dedicated Christian ministry for them, many LGBT people seek spirituality elsewhere, particularly within Buddhism as it is perceived to be more LGBT affirming. The Open Table model is therefore an important outreach opportunity that witnesses to an inclusive gospel. Together with a positive Christian presence at Pride and other community events, we hope to challenge negative perceptions of Christianity among the LGBT community. In addition, we are keen to offer training and support opportunities to other Christian communities who are open to exploring issues of sexuality, gender identity and spirituality.
It is worth noting that estimates of the size of the LGBT population vary widely from 1.5% (Office of National Statistics 2011) to as high as 10% (Spiegelhalter, Sex By Numbers, 2012). Even if we take the lower figure as accurate, there are around 24,000 LGBT people within the Diocese of Liverpool – a significant number with whom to share Christian faith and spirituality.
Our hope for Open Table is that we can be a place where LGBT people and others can meet God, the source of life, love and being, and thus come to know that they are beloved children of God. Through that encounter, we ourselves are transformed, and become agents of transformation in an imperfect world. As LGBT people, 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.