The Possibility of Life
Updated: Apr 23, 2019
A guest blog contributed by Journey of Hope participant, Kieran Bohan. Kieran is Coordinator of the Open Table Network.
Last week I was with the Rose Castle Foundation in Cumbria for the fourth stage of this journey – while I was there I reflected on our third module at the Corrymeela Community, in the north of Ireland.
The focus for our time at Corrymeela was on the dynamics of conflict, power, marginalisation and border disputes, and the use of story and scripture as tools for conflict transformation.
Our hosts, community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama and public theology programme manager Glenn Jordan, are accomplished theologians and story tellers, and their offerings were abundant, rich and deep. Here are my highlights – there was much more:
Glenn described the Corrymeela community as being‘passionate about transforming division and healing difference through encounter’.
One of the ways in which such encounters are possible is in the dialogue between the story of our lives, communities and conflicts, and the reading of sacred and secular texts in the context in which we find ourselves. Glenn demonstrated this technique by guiding us through the Book of Ruth as a lens through which to view border conflicts and Brexit.
Some of the key points from Glenn’s reflection which spoke to me:
Liturgy can provide an anchor point in conflict: In the Jewish tradition, the story of Ruth and Naomi is usually told at the feast of Pentecost alongside Exodus chapters 19 and 20, an epic narrative of Moses receiving God’s law and communicating it to the people. The juxtaposition of these texts suggests that in the context of law, we are challenged not to lose sight of the personal impact – the story of Ruth shows how the law can be changed if it causes an unintended unkindness. Ruth is a foreign widow excluded from what we might call ‘social security’ in Israel – Boaz engineers a change in the law to enable her to be included.
Stories can counter-balance the dominant narrative: The story of Ruth was set against a background culture which was seeking ethnic and religious purity, similar to the re-assertion of concepts of ‘British-ness’ during the current Brexit debate. Her story reasserts the values of solidarity with and hospitality for the foreigner, the widow, the marginalised. Ruth’s loyalty to Naomi enables Naomi to be restored to her community – their temporary chosen kinship was an act of survival and resistance against the cultural norms of their day. The same Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:24 to describe how Adam felt about Eve is used in Ruth 1:14 to describe how Ruth felt about Naomi. Queer theologians have interpreted this as an indication of the nature of love between women, though this reading is disputed.
Will we continue to live with stereotypes or will we find empathy and generosity for the ‘other’?: Everyone in Naomi’s home town of Bethlehem would have known the stereotype of the Moabites. It goes back to Lot, Abraham’s nephew from about 800 years before Ruth was born. Genesis 19 tells us that after being delivered out from the destruction of Sodom, Lot hid in a cave. His own daughters got him drunk and seduced him, so they could ‘preserve our family line through our father’ (Gen 19:32). The Moabite clan arose from this incestuous disgrace, and Ruth inherited the stereotype of sexual immorality hundreds of years later. To illustrate the tendency to stereotype, Glenn spoke of the blackboard scene from the Derry Girls sitcom. This demonstrates Freud’s theory of the 'narcissism of minor differences', through which we distance ourselves from ‘the other’ by reinforcing our difference.
These three points spoke to me of the context in which I find myself as co-ordinator of the Open Table network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBTI+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church. One of the five values of Open Table is to create worship which is:
Sacred – meeting God & each other on holy ground through heartfelt liturgy and music. – Open Table Mission, Vision & Values 2019
In Glenn’s reflection on Ruth he asked, do we uphold church law or extend kindness? He suggested we need to resurrect the transformative power and importance of kindness. Liturgy done well can help to do this, by anchoring us, giving us new language, creating safe spaces for encounter, where relationships can grow and be repaired, or be held safely without further damage. This is our experience in Open Table, which primarily gathers for worship – the social, pastoral and campaigning elements common to other LGBTI+ Christian groups are rooted in and grow from this.
In our liturgy we seek to reflect the core values of the person-centred approach:
Unconditional Positive Regard: Using language which unequivocally affirms every one of us as beloved children of God.
Empathy: Recognising the importance of being named, speaking of real-life experiences with visible vulnerability, and a priestly ministry that is as diverse as the community it serves.
Congruence: Using accessible, inclusive language with integrity, not sugar coating things – life isn’t always easy and we need to acknowledge this rather than use triumphalist prayers. Sadly as a CofE church St Bride’s cannot (yet!) conduct a marriage of a same-gender couple though our hearts ache to be able to do so. Being congruent means not pretending or breaking the rules but either offering what we can, or supporting couples to find what is right for them.
The dominant narrative in our churches is of those in the majority, who are typically white British, heterosexual, able-bodied, older and married with children. For those of us who do not fit that dominant narrative, there is a power in sharing our stories. Even within our own LGBTI+ community, I have the privilege of speaking on behalf of the many hundreds of people whose stories I have heard, but where possible I will enable at least one person of a different sexual orientation or gender identity to accompany me when I am asked to present on the work of Open Table. We seek to enable members of our community to assist in worship and offer reflections from their experience whenever possible.
Last month, just a few days before my visit to Corrymeela, around 80 people gathered in Liverpool to celebrate the growth of the Open Table network across the Diocese of Liverpool and far beyond. Representatives from nine of the 17 Open Table communities were present. The event was part of the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool’s turn to host Bishops In Mission, an initiative of the Archbishop of York where each Diocese in the north of England hosts visiting teams headed by northern bishops.
As the theme of this year’s Bishops In Mission was #TellServeGive, we invited Open Table members and friends to tell stories about reconciling gender identity, sexual orientation, faith or spirituality, and how Open Table has played a part in that for some. We also welcomed Rt Revd Dr Toby Howarth, Bishop of Bradford, who is contributing to the Church of England’s new teaching document on human identity, sexuality and marriage – ‘Living In Love and Faith‘, and his team of visitors from across the Church of England. He was there in ‘listening mode’ but gave a blessing at the end, after taking off his shoes as he recognised he was standing on ‘holy ground’ – a beautiful example of the power of hospitality and counter-narrative.
Stereotypes versus empathy and generosity
This is perhaps the most challenging for the Open Table community. Many of our members have felt hurt and angry due to feared or actual rejection by representatives of Church in the name of God. When they come to Open Table, many are what is clumsily known as 'de-churched', as they have fallen out with, or of, the Church, mainly due to such negative experiences. Open Table offers a way of returning to relationship with God, healing of hurt and transforming anger into passion for equity and justice.
However, for those of us who have been the subject of de-humanising and demonising rhetoric, the temptation is to retaliate in a similar way. Some Christians use ‘othering’ language about all LGBTI+ people, and some LGBTI+ people use such language about all Christians. For those of us living in the intersection between the Christian and LGBTI+ communities, there is a tendency either to internalise this negative language, which makes it harder to reconcile our faith with our sexual orientation and / or gender identity, or for those who have felt the judgment of conservative Evangelical theology to demonise ‘con-evos’ and reject those who identify as from that tradition, even if they are on a journey toward greater affirmation of the diversity of gender identity and sexual orientation.
This is, in part, why I felt being on the #JourneyofHope pilgrimage would nourish me as I step out into the wider Open Table network and the wider Church to navigate this dynamic. Clearly I am not neutral on these issues (is anyone?), but I am learning to be a 'non-anxious presence' – a way of being in dialogue which promotes empathy, generosity and grace amid disagreement.
In our reflections with Corrymeela’s community leader, Pádraig Ó Tuama, we looked at how sacred texts might speak into the context of our story and conflict. Reflecting on the story of the woman brought the Jesus accused of adultery (John 8:2-11), we were invited to retell the story from memory, which alerted us to where we focus our attention and what we ignore. I will return to this insight with another passage later.
In bringing the woman to Jesus, the Pharisees’ motive was political entrapment, but Jesus silenced his critics and demonstrated grace, mercy, and forgiveness. He modelled non-violent resistance and assertive, non-threatening body language in a way that was powerful but challenging to the dominant masculine patriarchal narrative of the Pharisees. The contemporary voice of the poet Marie Howe enabled us to dialogue with the original story in new and enlightening ways, as we read two of her poems: Magdalene: The Woman Taken In Adultery and Magdalene: The Next Day.
We also looked at the way in which Jesus interrupts cultural expectations and the dynamics of violence when being questioned by the High Priest prior to his crucifixion (Jn 18:19-24). Jesus is physically bound, yet boundlessly free in the manner of his response to those holding violent power. His capacity to question those in authority is punished with violent assault (and ultimately death) by those who need to control him for fear of losing their power:
‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’ John 11:48
But the story we shared which spoke to me most profoundly, personally and in terms of my way of being within the wider church on behalf of the Open Table community, was the story of Jesus healing a man with an ‘unclean spirit’ [Mark 5:1-20]. This is a passage with which I was quite familiar (or so I thought) as it was one of those I reflected on during my first eight-day silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood twenty years ago.
We read extracts of the story as a group, from different translations so we could hear the different emphases present in them. This was a helpful insight into the importance of considering different interpretations of the Bible, but also of considering different perspectives in the way we retell our own and each other’s stories. For example, in the translation with which I am most familiar, the ‘demoniac’ says to Jesus:
'What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?'
Mark 5:6 – New Jerusalem Bible
whereas in the version I read at Corrymeela, the man is recorded as saying:
‘What have I to do with you?…’ Mark 5:6 – New King James Version
which has a very different tone and sense. When I queried this, Pádraig informed us that this latter version was ‘closer to the Greek’ (I am in awe of his creative and fluent way with language and poetry). The former version was a form of prayer I would use when feeling despair and far from God, doubting the wisdom of my vocation to ministry. The latter sounds more defiant and challenging, to my ears at least, and perhaps a stronger sense of his own identity than I had assumed.
Pádraig talked us through how this story offers insight into the dynamics of marginalisation as an insight into the dynamics of belonging, as Corrymeela’s approach is to focus on marginalisation as a process, not as an identity – i.e. who is victimising and why, rather than labelling and limiting people as ‘victims’.
So, in the case of the ‘demoniac’, we were invited to reflect on questions such as:
What is the system underlying this behaviour?
Who was restraining this man and why?
Was he howling because he was restrained, or restrained because he was howling?
Why were the towns people afraid of the man when they saw him ‘in his right mind’?
Who is a community willing to sacrifice to perpetuate a culture of violence?
Jesus asked the man to name his ‘demons’, which was the first step to healing. Rather than torturing him as he expected, Jesus enables him to be free from the dynamics which tortured him, internally and externally.
What really struck me about hearing this story retold in this context was the part of the story I had forgotten, or at least not fully understood – Pádraig informed us that the Greek word for ‘beg’ is used eight times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s gospel, and four of them are in this passage. Jesus acquiesces to each of these requests, except for one:
‘As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell… how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.’ Mark 5:18-20 – New International Version
The location of the Gerasene community is not known – one interpretation is that as a consequence of the scandal and shame of this encounter, it has been covered up to avoid the kind of stigma placed on Moab following the story of Lot’s daughters. Jesus restores the man to his own people, and them to him, challenging the dehumanising ‘Us/Them’ dynamic which enabled the community to marginalise him. He becomes a victim of marginalisation with the capacity to talk back to those who marginalised him, and to confront his community with its own violence to one of its own people. It echoes an insight from war theory, that those who are tortured get a profound knowledge of their torturers. Pádraig described him as an example of ‘a prophet with the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’
I heard the story as if for the first time, although I had spent time on retreat twenty years ago reflecting on this story soon after I left training for Catholic priesthood. I still have the journal from that retreat. Then, my experience of the story was to recall my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, especially the circumstances of a breakdown ten years before that. At first I felt the absence of God – the cry ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ spoke to me of remote divinity not shared humanity, since my humanity felt so debased at that time. I recalled my sense of anguish, shame, judgement, and punishment from a negative image of God and myself. I realised my experience of rejection and loss of dignity were where I needed to experience healing. Then, I heard the the call of Jesus to ‘return to your people’ as an invitation to see Jesus present in those who cared for me.
This time I experienced the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTI+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. Does this sound grandiose? I don’t think it is ego-driven – it appears to be the reality for many LGBTI+ Christian advocates.
Pádraig pointed out that this is not a template for everyone – for some within the Open Table community, it might even be dangerous. But I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church. Easier said than done, though.
Within days of this reflection at Corrymeela Sara Gillingham, an advocate for the intersex community, was invited to join a meeting with a group of Church of England bishops, senior clergy, theologians and academics in London to discuss their work on the Living In Love and Faith teaching document about human identity, sexuality and marriage. She wrote on Facebook before the event:
'It angers me that I will be meeting people today who have thought it acceptable to write theological reflections about our lives, without ever having met people born with intersex traits. It angers me that I know I will be sat alongside those who think I am ‘disordered’ as a ‘result of the Fall’. For this reason, today will be a very difficult day for me, despite the opportunities it may present. Furthermore, there are clear issues around the disparity of power, authority and privilege.' - Sara Gillingham, Facebook, 18th March 2019, shared with permission
The next day she wrote that she had left the meeting half way through, ‘because of the way I was treated’, adding:
'It is important those with ‘lived experience’ are invited to the table as equals. That means being given access to what has been written about them… and then given the freedom to comment on what has then been submitted. What needs to be understood, not just at an academic level, is what ‘power & privilege’ looks like and how it is experienced in the Church by those who are ‘other’.' - Sara Gillingham, Facebook, 19th March 2019, shared with permission
This is why the inclusive liturgy, counter-narrative and challenge to stereotypes of the growing Open Table network is needed as an example of the 'radical new Christian inclusion' called for by the Archbishop of Canterbury in February 2017, following the Church of England General Synod’s rejection of the House of Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. This act of resistance by Synod representatives was the origin of the ‘Living In Love And Faith’ group, which was inhospitable to its sole intersex representative, and has also seen a trans representative leave the process, citing a gender imbalance in the coordinating group, a ‘sense of powerlessness and oppression’, and two final triggers:
‘An LGBTI+ person known to me was demonised. It was as if a mask had suddenly dropped. Shortly afterwards, the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again, in relation to someone else I know. It was all too much.’ - Dr Christina Beardsley, Church Times, 1st February 2019
It seems Archbishop Justin and his representatives need to be reminded of the word of his own statement of intention, that this ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church ‘must be based on good, healthy, flourishing relationships’:
'No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people…
The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.' - Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, Facebook, 15th February 2017
Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and sexual orientation. My prayer for my ministry and community, and all who walk a similar path, is the we may have:
the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.
You can follow Kieran on his Journey of Hope via his website and on Twitter - @abravefaith
Views expressed by participants are not necessarily the views of Reconcilers Together.