I haven’t cried at a Christian conference since the summers of big tops, neon lights and smoke machines at festivals I went to as a teenager. And I’ve never shed tears at events related LGBT issues – I pride myself on being able to sit through debates, discussions and even strong opposition to truths I hold very dear, without being caught up in hurt or angry reactions.
But it was an altogether different experience that finally got me: a straight, male church leader articulating one of my deepest desires as a bisexual woman to an auditorium full of people.
I doubt he knew he was doing it. I hadn’t primed Steve Chalke beforehand on what he could say that would tug on my heart strings. He wasn’t talking about me really at all – he was introducing the new Open Church Charter, a commitment for churches to sign up to as they work on truly, fully including LGBT people in the life of their churches.
And one thing among the points of the charter really got to the core of me. A very simple sentence, the significance of which may well be missed by many straight people, supportive or otherwise.
“We will offer celebration, preparation and support for same-sex marriage partners in loving, healthy monogamous relationships.”
Steve went on to talk about the celebrations in a church when two of its much-loved family members get engaged. He mentioned the formal and informal support, the marriage prep courses that straight couples often go on, and the wisdom and advice from older members of a congregation.
That’s what I want, I realised at that moment. That’s what I want, in the deepest part of me, not just now but for the rest of my lifelong relationship.
Love and celebration in the arms of Christian family, as straight couples rightly expect.
I want the the older couples who will take us under their wing and give us tips for building a healthy marriage and the teenagers who will be keen to babysit our kids when we have them. I wish we could have banns of marriage read, and share the moment afterwards when a whole congregation prays for our life together, in our last few weeks of preparations for it.
That’s what true inclusion would feel like:
Not simply being allowed to to be part of a church (despite my orientation), not even being permitted to use my gifts and to serve at every level in the church (despite my relationship) – but to be able to bring my whole self, including my loving-and-being-loved self, and knowing that all of me and my partner’s life together is welcomed, supported, and helped to flourish under God.
Too often, what we’ve thought of as being a welcoming, affirming inclusive church has really been a sort of silent, presumed inclusion. It goes a little like this:
The Vicar assumes that his congregation know his affirming stance, so there’s no need to make anyone uncomfortable by bringing it up – so sexuality is never mentioned and questions go politely unasked. But the nervous gay couple sat at the back of church have no idea if they’re being silently welcomed or silently judged. When a marriage course is announced in the notices, they have no idea if they’d be allowed to go. They read about the Dads and Kids Saturday morning breakfast, described as chance to ‘give Mum a lie-in’, and they hear the message that this is a church for heterosexual couples and their children. Lingering over coffee, they overhear an disparaging comment about a gay priest in the neighbouring parish, and assume that everyone in the church feels the same. And the next Sunday, they decide not to go back.
So, affirming straight Christian, what can you do to make LGBT folk like me feel truly included in your church life? How can you break the conspiracy of silence?
- Take the same interest in my relationship as you would a straight couple. Ask how my partner’s doing when she’s not there. Refer to her as such, rather than as my ‘friend’. Make the same cringey jokes about young love as you do to embarrass the young, straight couples you know. I might blush, but inside, I’m so glad you’ve acknowledged my love.
- Don’t make assumptions about anyone’s orientation before you know it. Ask if I have a partner, not a boyfriend. I know many LGBT people who’ve squirmed through the well-meaning prayers of older Christians that they’d find a godly husband, when they really long for a godly wife. So train yourself to talk about relationships, partners, other halves, spouses, significant others instead. It’s tiring enough to ‘come out’ to every new community you become part of, but it’s even more difficult when you have to correct the assumption they’ve already made. There’s no shortage of inclusive language you can learn.
- Be conscious of marking life-events – new relationships, engagements, civil partnerships, marriages, births, adoptions – in whatever way is appropriate. Often that’ll be in exactly the same way as you do for straight couples. A round of applause in the service for news of an engagement. Asking how the wedding plans are going over coffee. But sometimes you’ll need to be more creative: you can’t read banns of marriage in an Anglican church for a gay couple, but why not have them up the front to pray for them a few weeks before the big day?
- Be more explicit than you think you need to be in offering your support. If you hold an event for married couples, include ‘and civilly partnered couples’ on the publicity too. If you have younger gay couples in your church, offer to mentor them or just invite them round for dinner – you might be the only older person they know who has shown that care. Put up signs, posters or statements that show your church is welcoming to everyone, especially those who are sometimes excluded – LGBT people, people with disabilities, refugees, homeless people, anyone who might not be 100% sure that they are included in your welcome. Make it clear.
You may well feel that you’re making an unnecessary political statement. You are making a political statement – but it’s a necessary one, a radical one, one that Jesus got in trouble for making.
All are welcome in the Kingdom of God, all should be welcome in your church. But for those who’ve been excluded as a matter of course, that welcome needs to be explicit, persistent and loud. It’s just what Jesus did.