Sunday, August 1, 2010

Leeds Pride

(Daughter2 on the left making new friends.)

Today I went to my beloved's church. Her congregation has long designated the first Sunday in August as LGBT Liberation Sunday. It also happens to be the day on which Leeds Pride falls.

The sermon was delivered by the Revd. Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude and as it was taped You can hear it here. Colin took St. Paul and "There is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor free...." as his text and I was gratified because I had only preached on this text myself recently. TEXT HERE

My beloved and I have been members of Changing Attitude for some years now, although largely not in any overtly active way unless you count reading the newsletter as active.

I went to Leeds Pride last year and, apart from my younger daughter, I saw no one I knew. I milled about aimlessly in Millennium Square and wondered where the overt Christian presence was: this would have been a welcoming and supportive Christian presence as opposed to the condemnatory sort. I watched while a group of drag queens mimed incredibly badly and without much enthusiasm to "It's raining men" on stage while the crowd seemed to me to be having trouble feigning much in the way of interest. The carnival atmosphere I had been hoping for only really materialised when the procession set off.

Subsequently Daughter2 told me I had missed all the stalls and displays which were at the end of the procession route.

This year Changing Attitude had a stall and were fully intending to march in the parade. I thought I'd go and offer my moral support. I questioned my motives and discussed things with my family. It is to me an issue of witness and personal integrity. It is as simple as that.

My fear was that the church would indeed be there - or at least a faction of it - in full protest overdrive. I could think of a couple of Leeds churches who might well turn out in force to make an anti-gay statement. ("Down with that sort of thing!"?) No, I think the other face of the church needs to be seen at these events: the face of the church which doesn't condemn people for who they are, the face of the church which doesn't ape the Topeka Baptist tendency of the fundamentalist religious right in their hate campaign - the ones who carry banners that proclaim "God hates gays!" - those who are now becoming known as the LEVITICITES. Neither did I want to see the face of the church which patronises LGBT Christians in their attempt to "love the sinner but hate the sin". (Sorry, my gag-reflex just kicked in there.) Nor did I want to hear any of the theology of hate so robotically trotted out by those who know the verses but not the hermeneutics.

Was it possible that the face of the church which is inclusive and accepting of all God's people in our brokenness could make an appearance at this event? Or perhaps more to the point, was it possible for the face of the church which is inclusive and accepting of all God's people in our brokenness to make an appearance and be welcomed by those who may for very good reasons be quite antagonistic towards us because of all the crap that they have had handed out by the church over the last few years? Would we be booed out of the event? Would people take us on about the church and give us a probably well deserved hard time because of their own experiences of pain and rejection at the hands of the church? Could it also be possible that the revellers would feel that the church has lost even the right to expect to be heard? Would it be a case of "too little, too late"?

I wouldn't blame them.

For a moment it did feel as if my worst fears would be realised: "I thought Christians were against homosexuality?" one young woman asked me. But she was not aggressive: she had simply bought into the Daily Mail view of religion and sexuality.

How to respond?

There is a time and place and this wasn't it. It wasn't the time and place for a hermeneutic deconstruction of the so called "clobber" passages or of an analysis of the different categories of the Old Testament Holiness Code or of the distinction between the writings of the Old Covenant and of the New: no, this was the time for something much simpler and certainly conciliatory.

"That's the view of the vocal minority. Not all Christians accept those ideas by any means and I'm here today to try and get that across."

"Cool." And she was gone, swallowed up in a phalanx of body-glittered gladiators.

So that's my rationale so far, but it goes beyond that: as a straight man I have a need to stand in solidarity with my gay brothers and sisters. Certainly the battle is about human sexuality - by which we really mean homosexuality - and the prevailing attitude of many seems to be that it is, therefore, a battle for homosexuals. Not so. Not so at all. I am always reminded of Pastor Niemoller's words: "They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up."

Now while I find it hard to foresee any circumstances when "they" would come for the white, male, straight, protestant, middle class, middle aged graduates you take my point. To me this is not just about theology and justice, important as those are, it is about integrity - my integrity as a Christian. This is "our" battle, not "their" battle. Edmond Burke pretty well got it right when he noted: ""All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Well, I like to think of myself as one of the good guys and so the imperative is there. It is "my" fight too.

The problem with that, of course, is how does a straight man make that part of his principles clear?

"Good to see you vicar. Does your church not have a problem with an openly gay priest?" is the sort of question that is hard to unpack without it sounding like special pleading while a dozen transvestites totter past on totally unsuitable heels as a distraction.

"Some provinces of the Lutheran Church have travelled a lot further down that road than the C. of E." seemed the best response. It is a true statement and I wasn't going to get into the "Well, I'm not actually gay..." conversation. After all I wasn't the only straight person at the Leeds Pride was I? Did anyone else care if they were thought to be gay? I doubt it.

My beloved's vicar, Steve, had begun to unravel the banners he and Colin had brought with them. I took the end of a purple Changing Attitude banner bearing the legend "Christians together at Pride." Steve seemed to be wrestling with a larger red banner which, as it came free, proclaimed "Some Christians are gay: get over it." I liked that. It was confronting in a slightly stroppy way. Nevertheless I was pleased I was under the "safer" purple banner, which on reflection was silly as I wouldn't have thought twice about marching under a banner that said "Some Christians are black: get over it" or some Christians are women...."

It was about five minutes before we set off when a former student of mine accosted me and demanded a hug.

"I bet you never knew I was gay Sir."

"Well, Ryan, about that. Let's just say I was half expecting to see you here."

I got chatting to someone who had been at church this morning and I mentioned being a Lutheran in the context of the different levels of progress that some Lutheran Churches have achieved towards full acceptance of LGBT Christians in comparison to the C. of E.

"You're a Lutheran? I've been reading a blog by someone called Doorman Priest."

"That's me. THAT'S ME."

I looked at the various stalls around the Changing Attitude area and it wasn't long before I was sporting a rainbow flag transfer tattoo on my arm and a rainbow badge.

Another couple of former students moseyed on by and stopped for a chat. Was there a coach party from the knowledge college I wondered?

"I can't tell you how pleased I am to see the clergy here. Really, really pleased." one young man said to our little group with a smile as broad as you can imagine.

And then we were off. The procession had started and Leeds City centre ground to a halt. We got in just after the huge rainbow flag carried by about thirty people and the open lorry with its fancy dressed passengers and mobile disco ("Y.M.C.A.....Y.M.C.A-A.....") and just ahead of the Leeds Gay Abandon choir ("Come and join us." "No. I'm Leeds Philharmonic. You come and join me.")

The city seemed to be pulsating with the carnival atmosphere and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk. There was no opposition; no cat-calls; no rudeness; no name-calling; no unpleasantness of any description - just crowds of people who had come for (or just stopped to watch) the spectacle.

"Hello Vicar.!" To Steve and Colin.

"Good to see you here."

"Well done for taking a stand."

And then we were back at the stalls and displays, where Steve and members of his congregation did stirling work promoting All Hallows Church. (I'd like to see the size of their congregation next Sunday.) They were selling rainbow candles and a variety of badges but at the same time, with some very slick marketing I thought, were giving out changing attitude and All Hallows leaflets. A lot of people - and I mean a lot - were interested. (If I'd only thought on. I could have done that for my church.) And there were more expressions of pleasure in our being there. Everyone was incredibly welcoming and positive. The most negative comment I heard was "Its about time you lot showed up." - but said with a smile.

We were placed next to the Gay Fire Service stall which with real pragmatism was offering advice on smoke alarms and further up were the Gay Police Association offering leaflets and advice on hate crime and harassment. One of them sauntered down and introduced himself. He is now likely to go to All Hallows.

The smell of cooking from the wonderful Asian-fusion food stall was driving me wild and I couldn't work out where all the passers by were getting their beer from. "I could kill for a beer" said Steve but within minutes we had worked out that it was actually the stall next to us was selling it and so we were very quickly happy men! How had we missed that all afternoon?

"Can we have our photos taken with you guys?"

"Knock yourselves out!"

"I Can't tell you how thrilled I am to see you here this year. It does my heart good to see you. It really does"

"Hello Sir!"

"Hi Rob. Are you enjoying yourself?"

"Certainly am. And you?"

"Very much thanks. See you in September." I suspect the start of term could bring some interesting conversations.

Within fifteen minutes an ex-colleague and three more sixth-formers passed by and stopped for a chat but I felt things were starting to get really crazy when a group of my year 9 and 10 students breezed up to me in full rainbow face-paint and greeted me enthusiastically. "Sir, Sir, we need a photo." Colin obliged: me and the quartet of students. There's a picture for the School newsletter one feels.

A friend from my own church appeared at my elbow and we talked about the value of doing an All Hallows next year and being prepared to market ourselves. After all as the Swedish Lutheran Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are well down the road towards greater, if not full full equality of LGBT Christians within the church, why aren't we promoting that?

What surprises me is that relatively few gay Christians who stopped by seemed to know of All Hallows' unique position in the Diocese as an open and accepting church. I know, too, of at least one city centre church, not a million miles from All Hallows which does not recommend to its gay members that they go to All Hallows. It belongs to the Evangelical Alliance and would, it seems, be happier to keep its gays where it can preach to them the gospel of guilt and the falsehood of the ex-gay ministry.

All in all it was a great day, certainly better than my last foray into the politics of religion and discrimination. See here There were no Leviticites with their gospel of hate and in many small ways that the Holy Spirit will surely use, the Kingdom of God came a little closer. How interesting that "they" welcomed the church in ways that the church doesn't welcome "them."