Sunday, 3 July 2016
I felt compelled ... I wanted to ... I was glad I did!
This year I marched in London Pride with the group, Christians at Pride. My LGBT friends have been unanimously supportive of this, welcoming the fellowship of a few of us 'allies' who walked with them. A good number of my other friends have been supportive. When I preached about it in my very ordinary local parish church in conservative Norfolk this morning there was a wide and joyful acceptance of what I had done. Yet some of my Christian friends elsewhere, some but not all, evangelicals like me, cannot understand why I did it.
Here's why ...
A week before I had the enormous privilege of speaking at the Two23 service in London for LGBT Christians and their families - most of them, though not all, from evangelical churches. My address had included the assurances - 'God loves you, God has made you as you are, and God wants you to know that he blesses your relationships.' It was a wonderful occasion with lots of good conversations afterwards - with both singles and couples.
Several of them, lay and ordained asked me if I would be walking in the Pride march the following Saturday. Returning on the train I thought, 'Why, not? Here are a whole group of Christians who often have had a rough time of it from the church. Perhaps my being with them would say something more positive.' Yet when I spoke with one of my non-gay evangelical friends he urged me not to march.
The next day we heard the dreadful news about the slaughter of 49 people in the gay club in Orlando, killed solely because of their sexual orientation. Thinking of all my gay friends I was deeply affected by this outrage.
I thought of the old wrist band I had - WWJD? What would Jesus do? As I prayed about the tragedy of Orlando and phoned and messaged some of my LGBT friends to support them, I was very clear of the answer - 'Jesus would have gone on the Gay Pride March, and so must I.'
There was a real sense of compulsion. I must go ... and what's more, I wanted to go!
I was hesitant about asking for one of the limited number of places allotted to Christians at Pride and so I approached the leader and asked if it would be appropriate for me as a bishop to join them. I wondered whether some would think, 'This is our day … Just for us'. I couldn't have been more wrong! I was assured that I would be warmly welcomed - and preferably dressed in clerical collar.
As it happened my resolve and desire was strengthened even more the next day when I attended the Vigil for Orlando on the City Hall steps in Norwich organised by Norwich Pride. Sadly there were only a very few of us there from the church.
After the Vigil I was speaking with a young gay married couple who, though they were totally nonChurch were grateful that I had attended the vigil. These two had no idea that the Church of England have so far refused to marry or bless the marriage of gay couples, and neither had they ever met a priest, let alone a bishop before. Yet they were surprised that I was supportive of them. They began to tell me of the deep impact the massacre of Orlando had on them and their LGBT friends. 'Gay bars and clubs are our sanctuary. It's where we can feel safe and be ourselves. Where we can show affection like non-gay couples are allowed to do in public without fear or embarrassment. Now that very idea of sanctuary has been threatened!'
In the days that followed I was exercised by this idea of sanctuary. I thought of the Old Testament idea of cities of refuge and the centuries long idea of churches as places of refuge and sanctuary.
Safe places. We all need them. And yet for many gay Christians churches are not safe places for them, though thankfully many are becoming more inclusive. I began to see the London Pride March as a safe place, a sanctuary for LGBT people where they could be themselves without fear.
And so it turned out. Not a sanctuary because there were lots of police along the route - most of them joined in the fun of the whole thing!
It was a Sanctuary because the million lining the route cheered us all along the way. It was a day where gay couples could hold hands walking down the street and be cheered! It was a day of unadulterated joy that temporarily overlaid the sense of disappointment most of us there had because of the Brexit vote of two days before. Never before had I experienced such a sense of the wonderful diversity and delight in humanity which God has created - 'he saw all that he had made and behold it was very good!'
On numerous occasions I was hugged by people in the crowds lining the route and asked by others to bless them! It was the most wonderful witness imaginable of the all inclusive love of God on the streets of the greatest city in the world - including the presence of the mayor of London on the March, and walking for a time with the group of LGBT Muslims.
Afterwards we had a communion service together in Bloomsbury Central Baptist church where I had spoken the week before at the Two23 service. This time Kate Bottley (of Gogglebox fame) gave a great address at the end of a wonderful day.
I am deeply grateful to God and for the LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I shared fellowship both at the Two23 service and at London Pride. And now, a week on I would still say that 'Christians at Pride' was one of the most powerful testimonies I have experienced that 'we are all one in Christ... ,'