Before I start I would like to reinforce that this blog is my own personal blog and gives my personal opinion. The following is written entirely in my personal capacity rather than in my professional one.
There were two contrasting articles published by the Huff post yesterday, one in the UK version about the way “Soho Masses” are to end and one in the US about whether MCC is needed as a denomination. They give different perspectives on the same debate about whether specific “safe” spaces are needed for LGBandT Christians and their allies and if those spaces should be temporary or permanent in nature and can/should they be provided within the traditional denominations or not.
I start by saying that whatever labels other people wish to attach to my relationship with a trans guy who was a woman when I met him, I regard my sexual orientation as gay but practice as beyond society’s categorisations. I am also a practicing Christian and have been committed to my faith for many years. I am located at present within an ecumenical church but my identity is still strongly low church non-conformist and is rooted within the Methodist Church with a grateful nod of acknowledgement to the Baptist denomination which nurtured my faith. I have managed to navigate my journey successfully through remaining part of a faith community, I know many others who haven’t. I have been lucky to have had various people around me at key stages who have seen I have what Jonny Baker calls ‘the gift of not fitting in’ and who have known how to encourage it. (Note this gift does not relate specifically to issues of sexual or gender identity but in my case that has been part of it whilst certainly not all, just as gender identity has been part of Karl’s manifestation of the same gift which is certainly much wider. For an explanation of this gift see Jonny Baker’s Greenbelt talk this year, ‘Another World is Possible‘). My discussion of the topic thus comes from a subjective place.
Safe spaces for LGBandT Christians in the UK take a range of different forms. There are as the US article indicates MCC churches in the UK and they take a range of forms. Middle Ground’s July blog post on Pride explains how she sees ’MCC fills an important need – that of ministering to LGBT people in an appropriate and affirming way.’
Then there are services such as the ‘Soho Mass’ which are held by individual churches who are part of mainstream denominations to give space for worshippers to be able to come simply as they are without fear of recrimination or discrimination. These services are rare and are often attended by people from a wider area than just the local area.
The next set of safe spaces are local groups for LGBandT people such as MAZE which I was involved in when I was in Durham. These are occasional safe spaces (often meeting on a monthly basis) which seek to network local people who are either worshipping within established ‘standard space’ congregations or who don’t feel they have a place within the established church to worship but who want to meet and have fellowship with other Christians.
The next set of safe spaces are those offered are those which are similar to the local groups but meet less frequently and are often regional or national in nature A few examples of this are the Two:23 network which provides quarterly meetings in London, Gay Christian Europe which is an online community for European Christians which has regular gatherings and an annual retreat, Greenbelt also provides safe space opportunities.
Fitting in with this previous category are also those groups which are linked to specific denominations or theological outlook who also provide occasionally face to face interaction and which often take the form of being both a network for support and a pressure group within a denomination. Amongst these are: Inclusive Church (Anglican and focused and a range of diversity issues), Outcome (Methodist), QLGF (Quaker), QUEST (Catholic), Affirming Baptists (Baptist) and Accepting Evangelicals. Coming into this latter category but also having some local groups and being ecumenical in nature is LGCM.
The final category that gives safe space are communities that largely meet online, I have already mentioned Gay Christian Europe, another which comes into this category is Gay Christian Network which is an international organisation, with an annual conference in the US each year.
When the Christians within these groups meet together, whether it is in physical or non-physical space, there will often be a mix which varies between those who are out and those who are closeted outside of safe spaces. For some, particularly those working for Christian organisations, the issue of safety is important because their jobs can depend upon them not being publicly out. Additionally there will often be those struggling with specific family issues linked to the faith beliefs of those around them as well as those who are struggling with issues of calling and vocation and how that all works out in churches or denominations where certain doors may be closed to them. Finally and to a lesser extent they provide space for people who may not feel safe to be out as Christians amongst the gay community. Trust is a huge issue and so is the relief of not having to pretend or keep silent about that aspect of their identity which many feel.
Membership of these groups may be established and long term or may be a transitory part of somebody’s journey, often part of their coming out journey. Often these safe spaces have implicit support from the wider churches and denominations even if it is felt support cannot be publicly expressed, although sometimes it is explicitly expressed. The level of public endorsement is likely to be related to the stance of the denomination on issues of human sexuality and gender identity. For example the Quakers and URC and to a lesser extent Methodist Church have all taken a more positive stance on issues of human sexuality than other denominations, thus support for the activities of these groups is often expressed more explicitly than it would be in other denominations.
What is important about the intervention to stop the Soho Masses is this implicit permission for a safe space has been removed through explicit prohibition. The message sent out is that it is not safe to be out in a Catholic Church context.
So is the answer for LGBandT Christians who find themselves unwelcome within their church or denomination to find refuge within other denominations or in groups beyond the mainstream churches? On one level I want to say no but practically that is what sometimes has to happen for the protection of the individual. Whilst a person is more than their sexual or gender identity when they are forced to repress or hide that aspect of themselves it becomes dangerous and people suffer. That is what has happened in the past and is why MCC emerged as a safe space.
However, as the article indicated MCC has become much more than a “gay church” it is now attracting a wider variety of worshippers, particularly in places like Newcastle. Is this moving out of the ghetto and more into the mainstream evidence that they are no longer needed as a safe space? I would argue no, it is evidence of the maturing of a new religious movement into a denomination in the same way as we are seeing with some denominations which had their roots in the ‘house church’ movement.
The message which has been sent out by the misinformation around the
closing relocation of the Soho Masses and much of the recent rhetoric around the same sex marriage debate from a range of organisations, not just the Catholic Church, is that there are those within our churches – including the hierarchy – who see LGBandT people as a threat to be defended against at worst and be welcomed with caution at best. That is why the “LGBandT” focus of MCC is still an important – those who seek refuge there will know that they are moving from an unsafe space into a safe one.
Now I know this is an oversimplification because churches are made up of people of varying opinions and interpretations of the bible. Yet, when the message comes down the barriers are to go up and that the “unofficial practices” must stop it becomes harder for that diversity to exist and I would suggest harder for some safe spaces to remain safe. There is also a huge level of hurt involved, and may be a feeling of rejection. That is when alternative safe spaces which advertise themselves in that way become vital. Thus, I would argue MCC still has a vital role to play as do the Quakers and URC (although due to the congregational nature of the URC there are complicating factors in how far the denominational line of affirmation is carried into individual congregations).
One reason I think the less frequent safe spaces are good is because they enable you to openly discuss how that aspect of your identity relates to your faith without it becoming the overarching lens through which your faith is viewed. By that I mean it gives you space to go to in which you can, without fear of it being viewed as a political thing and without fear of discrimination, go into and discuss what it means to be a gay, trans or queer Christian. With the current debates there are a lot of people who are fed up to the back teeth with the issue and want the church to get away from it, thus in standard spaces it becomes difficult to have those discussions. Thus the more temporary safe spaces provide a benefit for both straight and LGBandT Christians, particularly where they allow straight Christians who do want to engage and provide support access as well. Space becomes created to discuss the issues beyond them being about LGBandT people in leadership or the same sex marriage debate.
This is not to say that standard space should not become safe space. I long and hope for the day in which safe spaces are no longer needed and standard spaces do become entirely safe and sexual or gender identity is not an issue. I long for the day when the committed, monogamous, love between two people can be celebrated in church before God whatever their social characteristics. I long for the day when there is a transgender naming liturgy in every service book. I long for the day when being a Christian within some churches and denominations is not seen by those outside the church as being complicit with an oppressive system of power and by those within it as an issue for debate and battle. Finally, I long for a day when we can all get on with concentrating on living and sharing the gospel and when we can all value what they do at MCC Newcastle:”the fabulous and the beautiful in each of us, a warm, safe, welcoming home, worship that deepens our intimacy with God, the strength we have together when we are each doing what we are passionate about and love, fun and laughter.”
*Update – it seems, (not for the first time), that the truth regarding the Soho Mass story is more complicated than the media originally indicated. This story from Ekklessia suggests that the venue is being moved, it indicates the implicit approval has not totally gone, but rather been explicitly removed from a particular space. Hence the editing which I have incorporated.