This excellent conference took place at Staffordshire University last Saturday. This year’s conference title was ‘From Welcome to Affirmation’.
The fact that this conference was taking place in Stoke-on-Trent was important because it is in the Diocese of Lichfield. All four of the bishops from that diocese had issued an ad clerum letter to all the clergy in this diocese on ‘Welcoming and honouring LGBT+ people.’ Hard copies of this were included in the conference pack. (Letter available here )
Dr Chris Whitney-Cooper, who introduced the conference, explained how the letter from the bishops had made a difference in her own evangelical church and the effect it had on her own church participation. It was helpful to see the immediate effect of the letter on a local level.
Gareth Street from Oasis UK opened his presentation with a video that had been made specially for the conference from Oasis founder Steve Chalke. Steve shared his own experiences of rejection, losing friends and eventually having membership of the Evangelical Alliance revoked. He linked the experience he had and that his organisation had experienced to the rejection many LGBTQ+ people feel from churches. It was a powerful testimony. I hope the video may be available online soon. Gareth talked through the Oasis Open Charter, which is something that churches can sign up to, through the Open Church Network. The charter is being relaunched soon.
Geoff Annas, bishop of Stafford and one of the signatories of the Lichfield letter, spoke of the particular problems that LGBT people face, mentioning homelessness and mental health issues, which are disproportionately higher in the LGBT community. But he also saw evidence of society’s desire for more diversity, especially in the entertainment industry. He spoke of the way that he sees God working through society and culture to promote increased diversity and acceptance.
Bishop Geoff also reminded us of the current position of the Church of England which the Lichfield bishops had explained in their letter. Everyone who is ordained in the Church of England has to agree to abide by the document Issues in Human Sexuality, available here
The Lambeth Conference in 1998 also passed resolution 1.10, text available here
This resolution does not have legal status in England, but has moral force. Bishop Geoff reminded the conference that this is the Church of England’s starting point. The church of England is now working on a new teaching document entitled Living in Love and Faith (more information available here).
There were breakout groups where people could explore an issue in more detail. These groups were run by stonewall, Open Table and Oasis among others. As is often the case, there were more groups you wanted to go to than sessions available.
The highlight of the afternoon was the Brenda Harrison memorial lecture, given by Revd Dr Tina Beardsley.
In July 2017 the General Synod of the Church of England addressed the Blackburn motion, calling for affirmation and welcome for trans people and for the House of Bishops to consider developing liturgy to mark significant points in a trans person’s faith journey. The House of Bishops decided not to develop the liturgy, but promised guidance. Tina, along with other trans priests Rachel Mann and Sarah Jones have been helping with the guidance. The Blackburn motion was able to address the issue of affirmation, but did not go further to celebrate trans people.
Tina described her time as a student at Westcott House, in the days before her transition. There was another student there, who would transition in the future to become Rev. Carol Stone. However, at the time when Tina was a student there, the biggest story was of the college chaplain who had come out as gay during compline the previous term.
Tina explained that she came out first as gay. She did this during a sermon, with the words, ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay’. There was a positive reaction from people who were pleased to see a gay man in a caring profession. Tina’s response was ‘I never said I was a gay man’.
Coming out in private is positive, but we need to be public in our affirmation of ourselves to combat the shame and stigma that some in society try to use against us.
The story of the good Samaritan is one that is important to LGBT people. The Samaritan is the one who is willing to cross the road to break the barrier between being pure and impure, just as Jesus did so many times. Jesus reaches out to those who are not at the table, he goes to where they are.
Being inclusive is not easy, it is costly not cosy. This is because there is a tension between inclusive theology and exclusive theology. Are we willing to leave our exclusive side of the street and cross the barrier to the other side?
This conference was well attended and a great success. They have promised us another one. I will look forward to it.
Today, Friday October 26th 2018, the ashes of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard will be interred in the Washington National Cathedral in a service conducted by Bishops Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, and Bishop Gene Robinson. It is 20 years since Matthew’s death on 12th October 1998.
In those 20 years, a lot has changed, some things have changed for the better, but some have changed for the worst. Matthew’s death in a homophonic attack has come to be one of those defining moments, that we wish had never happened, but which changed the landscape forever. His death has had a similar impact to the suicide of 14-year-old Manchester teenager Lizzie Lowe.
Matthew was picked up in a bar in Laramie Wyoming by two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. McKinney and Henderson beat him up and left him tied to a fence to die. Matthew was found and taken to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died six days later from severe head injuries. He never regained consciousness.
Many people around the world are attacked and some are killed, but some events take hold in the public consciousness and the attack on Matthew was one of them. The days after he was found and taken to hospital were days when anger grew at the attack. There were candlelit vigils held around the country as people prayed or him and the country.
His funeral in 1998 was picketed by Christian demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church. Their presence caused deep hurt and outrage. Westboro Baptist church was back in Laramie to protest at the trial of McKinney and Henderson. But this time there was a counter protest, which has become famous in its own right. The Angel Action counter protest had people dressing in oversized Angel costumes, big enough to hide the Christian protestors from view.
So, why does this matter now? Many LGBTQ+ people in the UK, may never have heard of Matthew Shepard, but they will know his legacy. His murder added to the calls for a bill against Hate Crime to be introduced in the US. This took a long time, but was eventually enacted into law in 2009. Matthew’s death was one of the most visible examples of someone killed in a hate crime. The Matthew Shepard Act was adopted on July 15, 2009.
His death achieved more than that. The counter protest to Christian demonstrators that was so public and visible has become widespread. In this country we see Christians at Pride showing support for the LGBTQ+ community and acting to neutralise the effect of Christian protests at Pride events. A Christian presence at an event is no longer defined as one of hate and exclusion, those of us who believe in inclusion and affirmation can now make our voices heard in a more powerful way.
Matthew’s parents kept his ashes at home with them, but now they are being buried in the National Cathedral of the Episcopal Church that Matthew belonged to, in a service conducted with an out gay bishop. This service affirms all of us who are gay and Christian and it is a pound day for the LGBTQ+ community in America and around the world.
The Matthew Shepard foundation set up in his memory can be found here www.matthewshepard.org
The book Judy Shepard wrote about Matthew and his murder – The Meaning of Matthew – can be bought here amazon.co.uk
The film about the events in Laramie – The Laramie Project – can be bought here amazon.co.uk
The National Cathedral has the following page cathedral.org/matthewshepard
where the service can be live streamed or watched later.
The service book can be downloaded at Matthew_Shepard_service.pdf
Matthew, through the mercy of God, may you rest in peace and rise in glory. Amen.
Gathering Voices call for welcome and affirmation of LGBT people in Christian churches
A DAY conference aimed at resourcing churches to become more openly inclusive of people who are LGBT is taking place at Staffordshire University’s Stoke on Trent campus this Saturday.
The event, called ‘From Welcome to Affirmation’, will reflect on the Open Church Charter developed by the Open Church Network, an initiative of Baptist minister Steve Chalke’s Oasis Foundation.
The conference is hosted by Gathering Voices, a collaboration of Christian and LGBT organisations including:
Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians (EFLGC)
Open Expression: The Stoke-on-Trent based Open Table community
Revd Dr Tina Beardsley, a member of co-ordinating group for the Church of England’s forthcoming Episcopal Teaching Document on Sexuality and Marriage will deliver the keynote speech, ‘From affirmation to celebration: our stories as inclusive theology’. Kieran Bohan the Open Table network coordinator will lead a breakout group on ‘Creating safe sacred spaces for LGBT+ Christians’
Booking closes this Thursday 25th – Read more and book here.
Press release is accessible here.
The Ashmolean museum in Oxford is hosting an exhibition as part of a series of events around the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. It is a display of items that are on loan from the British museum, but which are not usually on show. I went to visit this free display.
One thing that I found surprising was the amount of material that was faith related. There was a print of the Hindu goddess Bahucharaji. There are myths about her own gender fluidity and her ability to change the gender of mortals. These stories link her to the Hijra community. Hijras are officially recognised as third gender in some South Asian countries. They are considered neither completely male not completely female.
In many African cultures, gender and gender roles are culturally fixed and reproduced through rituals, including initiation ceremonies. On display was a mask from the N’domo ceremony, used by the Bamana people in Mali. The initiation ceremony uses masks and there are male, female and androgynous (ungendered) masks. The gender of the mask is represented by the number of horns. The mask on show at the Ashmolean shows a female mask, as it has six horns. The mask for androgyny has seven horns.
Among some tribes in North America ‘Winter Counts’ were kept as historical records. Each year had a memorable event represented by an image on these records. The exhibition had an example of a Sioux count from 1891 which includes an image representing the suicide of a winkte. In the Dakota language, winkte means ‘wants to be a woman’.
Among many Native American tribes, winkte individuals were considered to be endowed with special spiritual powers because they bridged gender differences. After the arrival of Anglo-Americans, this practice was suppressed.
The exhibit that I found most moving was the AIDS quilt.
This was a reproduction of a memorial quilt made for the Native American AIDS project in San Francisco. It was inspired by the traditional robed used to immortalise warriors’ actions, representing the bravery of those who succumbed to the disease. Applique beadwork creates a looped red ribbon, combined with a Native American medicine wheel, a protective symbol of the interconnectedness of creation.
An exhibition of LGBT+ themed artwork would not be complete without a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
The British Museum publishes a book about its LGBTQ+ collection. This book is called A Little Gay History
Available to buy here amazon.co.uk
The exhibition runs until December 2nd. Further information can be found at ashmolean.org/event/no-offence
There are also a series of events, tours and talks being held in association with the exhibition. Further details can be found at ashmolean.org/event
On Thursday November 8, there is a free lecture in Leicester organised by the Catholic weekly magazine The Tablet. Further details and booking information are on the Upcoming Events page.
These can be accessed here.
I have added a new section to the book reviews and posted a review of Jayne Ozanne’s book Just Love. Available to read at Memoirs