‘I come before you empty-handed.’
Even for a hardened preacher and speaker like me it’s always tempting to prepare what you plan to say to death and then stand at a lectern clutching your notes like a comfort blanket. But when I stood up to speak at Changing Attitude’s Unadulterated Love event in Manchester on Saturday 08th February 2014, my opening words ‘I come before you empty-handed’ were true in more ways than one. I had no script, no notes and – lacking a pulpit or lectern – nowhere to hide. And, in hindsight, this was precise how it should be at an event like Unadulterated Love.
The fact that I stood before the people at Unadulterated Love empty-handed was – in the nicest possible way - all Colin Coward’s fault. When he asked me to speak I said, ‘Great. But what would you like me to do?’ His answer – essentially – was, ‘Speak from the heart.’
One of the temptations anyone faces – whether we are liberal or conservative, queer or straight, and so on – is to try and control situations. At every level of life this happens. Sometimes it feels like the church is obsessed with stage-managing ‘God’ and ‘faith’ for its own questionable purposes. In taking Colin’s invitation seriously and standing up in front of the audience/congregation basically ‘empty-handed’ I wanted to offer space for concepts, ideas and words to emerge from my unconscious. I’ve often talked about how God is ‘spacious’ and I wanted – insofar as a control freak like me ever can – to let the Spirit speak into the silence.
The only ‘prop’ I had was a list of three dates – 1946, 1865 and 1918. It was probably not a promising place to start for a group of people looking to challenge the church to properly welcome and respect LGBTI people in the here and now. But sometimes you have to go back to go forward. And all these dates link into moments of hope, challenge and possibility.
I’m not going to bore you with a precise re-run of how I linked these dates together primarily because I was so caught up in the moment that I cannot reconstruct the precise details of what I said. In outline however: 1946 was the year the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty published ‘The War Has Taken Place’; 1865 the year America managed finally and irrevocably to outlaw slavery and 1918 was the year a group of Swiss Quakers went out to post-Great War Poland to help in the reconstruction of that shattered land and died serving others.
My reasons for bringing together these seemingly unconnected events is more interesting I think. For I wanted to emphasize that in so many ways – in ways which both we in the progressive LBGTI community and the wider, often backward-looking church community sometimes fail to appreciate – the ‘war’ or ‘battle’ for equality has already taken place. I know it doesn’t often feel like it, but there is hope in the truth that our society is radically changing. There has been a revolution in society’s attitudes towards LGBTI people in the past two decades. We are here now and we are not going away.
But we should not be children. That is what 1865 reminds us of. If slavery was abolished in the U.S. in 1865 – if ‘slavery’, in Lincoln’s words, ‘was done’ - then it is important to remember that segregation lasted another hundred years and even now equality and respect is a live issue. If for LGBTI people like us certain battles are ‘done’, then the call to live out God’s hope is predicated on how very far we still have to go to transform prejudice and hate. And I sense the church – as institution – has got a lot of repenting to do before we get anywhere near the inclusion and equality we all dream of.
And what might this dream of inclusion look like? Well maybe the parable I told from 1918 might help. The Swiss Quakers served the sick and the dying in a Polish village. They served patiently and lovingly and, inevitably, they too succumbed to cholera and Spanish flu. But the villagers they’d served recognized love when they saw it. And though the Quakers were not Roman Catholics they petitioned the parish priest to have them buried on holy ground. But, with regret, the priest turned them down. They were not Roman Catholics and, therefore, not of the church. And so the Quakers were buried in a plot just outside the graveyard. However, the following day, as people got up they witnessed a quiet miracle – over night the fence of the graveyard had been moved to bring the Quakers inside.
I don’t know if this actually happened. Does it matter? The important thing is that is captures a hopeful truth. It invites all of us whether we are LGBTI or not to be attentive to the way boundaries can both be policed and moved, for good or ill. So often we have been like people kept outside and rightly we are angry when those who have the power to ‘move the fence’ (or sit on them!) actively exclude us. But perhaps because we have been kept out we are precisely the ones who can expose these arbitrary borders and barriers for the traps they are.
We are impatient and hungry for change. We know that there are gatekeepers who will work hard to keep us out. Some of us, quite understandably, will walk away and only a fool would not be tempted to do so. But the Spirit is impatient for change too. And if she will not be stage-managed into second-rate roles or being less than she is, nor should we. The fences will fall. And God will help us tear them up.