Tracey Byrne on Pride Sunday – Today is the Day!

LGCM

Today is the day when LGBT people hold hands in public.

Many of us already do, although we’re pretty good at checking our safety when we do.

Today, we will hold hands and know that there are enough of us that we don’t need to fear.

Today people whose jobs threaten them will come and watch from the sidelines and plan when they, too, can hold hands in public.

Today is a day when we take pride in the lives that we live, even though many of us were schooled in shame.

Today we honour and celebrate all those who worked for visibility of LGBT people.

Today we remember those for whom the struggle to live was too much.

Today we remember those who are in countries that deem them illegal.

Today we hope that our detractors can feel invited into a rich celebration of this being human together.

Today we rejoice in the truth that without LGBT people, the world would be poorer.

Today is Pride.

Happy Pride peoples.

Happy Pride!    (Padraig O Tuama)

I’m slowly realising that there’s a real mischief about Heston, your parish priest, and I think I rather like it. You see, when we finally caught up with one another earlier this week, to talk about the arrangements for today, there was a real lightness about him. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘just pick whatever readings you’d like. Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel, two Gospels – whatever you’d like.’

Well, I’m telling you now, don’t be taken in! You have no idea how difficult that is! Rather like – and thankfully it’s never happened to me – that former work colleague you ask for a reference who says, ‘oh just write something for me, would you?’ – asking someone to choose their own readings is one of those things which can end up revealing far more about you than you might ideally like. Rather like writing your own reference, in fact.

So I thought a good starting point might be the theme of this year’s Pride. This tactic carried me through the reflection at the London Pride service in June, when I reflected on their theme of ‘Pride Heroes’. So at 5 o-clock yesterday, in increasing desperation, I resorted to the Leeds Pride website, where I was greeted by the following announcement:

“This year, we have a brand new website with lots of new content and interaction. We hope you enjoy the new look and find it easy to find all the information you need.” – So far, so good, thought I. It goes on…

“Along with a new website, we decided to no longer theme Leeds Pride – instead we are introducing a slogan that represents our core value and message. “Your City, Your Pride” Well – cheers for that!

So this morning as Leeds is preparing to celebrate Pride, I would like to invite you to reflect with me on two passages which remind us of both the simplicity, and the challenge, of our Christian calling.

‘…what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’

It seems to me that Pride is a kind of patronal festival for the LGBT community. Now, I came to faith at university, in the context of a Christian fellowship, but when I moved to my first job, I became an Anglican – quite by chance – when I stumbled across the kind of Anglo-Catholic church where festival days – our own and other people’s – were the points which shaped our year. I became nd Anglican, and remain an Anglican, not because of the theology of St Peter’s, Swindon – in fact, quite in spite of it – but because I experienced in their celebrations and their hospitality, something of the abundant generosity of God. Something about belonging, forgiveness, humility, transcendence, acceptance, promise and hope – and that was never more powerfully experienced than on St Peter’s day, when we reflected on our foundation as a community, when we remembered those who had gone before us, and when we pledged ourselves again to trying to become the people of God in that place. And if all of that sounds a bit earnest and virtuous, I can promise you it wasn’t – it was one of the most genuinely joyful occasions you could possible imagine.

And I would like to hope that Pride is a great deal like that; a chance to remember where we’ve come from as a community, to celebrate and give thanks, to be together and in doing so to recognise all we have in common, as well as all that makes us unique and complex. Pride reminds us who we are, and helps us on the way to becoming all that we’re called to be – as individuals and as a community.

And what are we called to be?

Sometimes, listening to some of the voices we hear in the media, or online, or as debates rumble on about LGBT people’s lives, and the ‘gay agenda’, you would wonder what exactly we’re called to be, what we’re all about. Sometimes as I go about my work, as I meet people who tell me they’ve ‘never met a gay person’ – I kid you not – as I hear how we’re all about the dismantling of the fabric of society, we’re undermining sacred institutions, how we’re out to ruin everything that’s good, or wholesome or true – I wonder if these people actually appreciate just how ordinary our lives are? That the gay agenda, in my house at least, extends about as far as:

  • get up, hold down job.
  • live alongside the people I love with as much kindness and forgiveness as we can muster, because life is complex and we constantly fail God and one another
  • live alongside the people I don’t love, because they’re likely to be far more of a transforming influence than the ones I do
  • look for the daily hints that God still believes in us, and rejoice when we think we’ve spotted them

Or put more eloquently: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.

But of course, those things are not really so very ordinary at all – and they’re certainly not easy. They are easy words to say, but the living out takes a lifetime, and we are dependent upon God and upon one another for the grace to undertake that costly, ongoing, daily transformation.

Because justice sounds like a great idea – but it requires that I first of all acknowledge my own part in the injustices which surround us, that I recognise my own privilege – privileges of birth, or education, or clean water, of a relatively secure way of life, of being free to express my faith, to explore my identity, to share my ideas, to choose from many more options than I probably need on an hourly basis. To recognise that, even as I commit myself to justice for LGBT people – about which I happen to be, as you might expect, especially passionate – there is a whole bigger picture right on my doorstep.

When I visited All Hallows back in June, I was really struck by your passion for justice – not in an abstract, sign an online petition kind of way, but in real, creative, practical outworkings. By sharing food, by offering hospitality, by becoming involved, by sharing your skills and gifts, by taking up the unpopular causes, and saying that each and every one of the people who cross this threshold – in person, or in your prayers – matters to you, and matters to God. This will be costly, but this is your calling, and it’s my calling too.

And it was Jesus’ calling. It’s the calling that lies at the heart of my second reading:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

Now, when I first became a Christian, I used to attend a Sunday evening fellowship group in the home of a couple – Nick and Grace – who had a ministry to students where I lived at the time. And on their living room wall was a really beautiful drawing of a woman with long, auburn hair, dancing – and those words. I’ve always thought of them as such joyful, energising words, such a joyful and life-affirming commission.

The woman in the drawing looked just like Grace – whose ministry has been a very powerful and profound one, as a speaker, and as director of a charity which sends people as mission partners to some of the most hostile and challenging places in the world. Putting it bluntly, Grace doesn’t pull her punches, and under the fluffy, auburn exterior beats a heart of absolute fire. Grace and I could not have turned out more different – and yet whenever I read this passage I’m reminded of our shared calling, lived out in such profoundly different ways; I would not have become the person I’ve become without her. That reading, like no other, takes me back almost 30 years in an instant, connects ‘then’ with ‘now’ and challenges me to ask myself how far I’ve lived out that commission. What does it mean to me now? What is the good news I’m proclaiming? Will anyone believe me? Are the words I speak matched by the way in which I try to live out my own life, or is there a gaping chasm of hypocrisy undermining it all? And if I constantly fall short, does my own forgiveness of the people and situations around me, add credibility to the promise of forgiveness and transformation?

And yet – there’s no shying away from the costliness and the discomfort of this calling.

Jesus warns is that this call to justice will not make us popular, will not make for an easy ride; will not always lead to acceptance and an honoured place at the table. Today, Pride is all about celebration – but as countless LGBT people and our allies will testify, challenging the institutions of power and privilege, creating movements for change, engaging in dialogue which questions deeply held and intimately personal convictions – these are costly and challenging things. We will not escape without some bumbs and scratches, some sleepless nights, some dented friendships, and we too will be driven out of the town. We will be called upon to bear one another’s burdens, to tend one another’s wounds.

Those in the LGBT communities who have been deeply, deeply hurt by the churches will understandably turn their anger on us. They will want to chase us Christians out of their town. They will see in us condemnation, judgement, unloving. I’m not sure that I can apologise to them for the oppression they’ve felt at the hands of my sisters and brothers in Christ, although I greatly admire and respect those who do just that at Pride events up and down the country. I think the best I can manage is to be alongside them and hear their pain, their anger, their hurt, and to say, yes – that sounds pretty real, and pretty reasonable. You’ve been badly let down by some Christians, and those Christians certainly don’t speak for me, or for the God I find in Jesus Christ. I can argue scripture passages with them; but more authentically, I can hope that my life speaks of a different way of living out that calling – to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.

And so on this Pride day, like every patronal festival, I’m reminded of all those who have gone before us and lived a different way. I’m reminded of those who founded LGCM in 1976, many of whom are elderly, or no longer with us. In my office, I have a pile of copies of Gay News from the mid-1970s, and it really was a different world, in which people who were open about their sexuality would expect to lose their jobs, to be denied the opportunity to qualify as teachers, for example, could not get visas to visit the US, would be routinely harassed by the police and the wider public – the list goes on. And those people paid an enormous price. Many were so deeply emotionally and psychologically damaged by the repression of growing up in an age when homosexuality was still illegal, that forming relationships of the kind we now enjoy was difficult, if not impossible. A significant number of LGCM’s earliest members are facing an old age of isolation and loneliness, as the world moves on around them. We owe them so very much, and how we repay that debt of gratitude remains an ongoing concern for me, and for our community.

And I’m reminded too of the broader picture, as social media widens our focus and we recognise that the world is not becoming a kinder place. I’m reminded of those who, even today, can only look on and watch us gather with pride, fearful of their own existence. If you stay around later on today, you’ll catch me in what I consider to be the least flattering garment in my pretty unspectacular wardrobe – the bright purple, high-necked Christians at Pride t-shirt. In the weeks running up to Pride in London, LGCM was selling these, and they were, I have to say, the bane of my life. They sold out faster than I could get them from the printers and of course – of course – despite the deadline people left it til the last possible second to order them, during a particularly busy week when I was at Jeremy Pemberton’s employment tribunal every day – for which read ‘completely absorbed by my own priorities’.

So as I parcelled up yet another consignment of t-shirts, to go on an overnight delivery because it was SOOOO last minute, an email pinged in:

“Thank you so much for the t-shirts, which I’ve just received. They’re for some gay and lesbian asylum seekers who attend our church. You have no idea how liberated they feel, being able to wear them in public.”

‘He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive’.

So as we go on our way, off to Pride, our patronal festival, I wonder if I might be permitted a third and final reading? Heston didn’t specify only two!

It’s some words from Padraig O Tuama, a Belfast poet and writer and allround excellent person, who takes seriously the idea that God is to be found in the texts of our ordinary, extraordinary lives, alongside the sacred texts we’ve inherited. Padraig offered these words for Belfast Pride – which was yesterday, along with Brighton Pride and Liverpool Pride – but which we can make our own:

Today, in Belfast, is the day when LGBT people hold hands in public.

Many of us already do, although we’re pretty good at checking our safety when we do.

Today, we will hold hands and know that there are enough of us that we don’t need to fear.

Today people whose jobs threaten them will come and watch from the sidelines and plan when they, too, can hold hands in public.

Today is a day when we take pride in the lives that we live, even though many of us were schooled in shame.

Today we honour and celebrate all those who worked for visibility of LGBT people.

Today we remember those for whom the struggle to live was too much.

Today we remember those who are in countries that deem them illegal.

Today we hope that our detractors can feel invited into a rich celebration of this being human together.

Today we rejoice in the truth that without LGBT people, the world would be poorer.

Today is Pride.

Happy Pride peoples.

Happy Pride.

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