Ben Bloom, coordinator of our LGBTQ+ Group ‘Pride of St James’s’, talks about the importance for Queer spaces in church.
Last week, around 50 people gathered in the church, with many more joining online, to celebrate the relaunch of St James’s LGBTQ+ group. We have named this group “Pride of St James’s”, and we’ll be running a variety of activities each month, from social outings, prayerful gatherings, discussion groups, and speaker events. If you wish to be added to our mailing list, please email me. We genuinely want everyone to feel welcome to join us at any of our events, however you define, or don’t define, your sexual and gender identities.
But why is this important? Why the big relaunch? We all know how diverse and inclusive St James’s is, so why do we need a separate group?
Well, the reality is, most Queer* people have at some point in their life felt rejected and unwelcome by the Church. They may not have faced direct discrimination, although most of us have, but we have all heard the pervasive messaging by the dominant Christian Churches that say that Queer people are not welcome in the Church in the same way that straight and cisgender people are.
Now you may not know this, but I didn’t become a Christian until about 5 years ago. For most of my life before that, whenever the Christian Church showed up on my radar, the message I heard was generally a klaxon screaming “STEP AWAY FROM THE ALTAR! THIS IS NOT FOR YOU!”. I was told, many times, that God doesn’t think very much of my “lifestyle choices”, and there’s certainly no place for me in the church as I am. I was told that marriage, or even a relationship, with someone I was in love with was not something that’s meant for me unless I ignored my natural inclinations and married someone of the opposite sex. I was told that I will almost certainly burn in hell, and probably for quite some time. I was even told once, by an overenthusiastic Christian student, that I could be cured of my homosexuality. She didn’t exactly go into how, but I didn’t like the way she was looking at me one bit, so I excused myself from the conversation and got on with my big gay life.
Others of course, who grew up in a family or community deeply entrenched in conservative Christian beliefs, had it much worse. While I was protected from most of the vitriol by being excluded, many Queer people who grew up in these types of Christian households heard these messages up close and personal. Many people were, and still are, left struggling with how they can have a relationship with a God who apparently feels that everything about them is wrong. Many people were, and still are, put through horrendous programmes of conversion therapy to try to change them from being who they really are into someone who their families/church/preachers can accept. Many people were, and still are, ostracised from their entire families and communities when coming out as Queer and choosing to live their authentic life. And many people were, and still are, hiding their true identities because the society they live in would rather put them to death than allow them to live as God made them.
All of this, all of these acts and words of exclusion, lead only to one hopeless destination: shame. They compound feelings of separation, of not belonging, of being broken, and of not being worthy of the love that God so freely gives to everyone else. If they have a faith already, each harmful word is a tear at the stitching that connects them to God. If they have no faith, then the wedge is driven even deeper, separating them ever further from the possibility of encountering the life-giving love of God.
But the good news is that shame is not impenetrable. Shame can be overcome and neutralised as soon as we begin to build connections with others in ways that are loving and affirming, just as God intended. For we are called to love one another, just as we are loved: completely, wholeheartedly, and unconditionally.
1 John 4:7
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
And so Pride of St James’s is not just a safe space to enable us to gather together, to make friends, and have some fun talks and cultural trips (although it is definitely all of that too). Pride of St James’s is a collective of people who want to live bravely, and encounter God in a fellowship of love, where their vulnerabilities are held preciously, and their unspoken realities of being Queer in this world are understood without explanation.
So I encourage you, if you’ve ever experienced the word of God being weaponized against you, I pray that you come and experience God’s peace. If you’ve ever been told you’re broken, or that you’re an abomination, then I pray that you come and experience God’s healing. If you already know how much God loves everyone, then I pray that you come and share that love with those who do not know it yet, and receive God’s blessing in return. And if, despite all of the cries to the contrary, you have just heard Jesus knocking on your door whispering “Peace be with you”, then I pray that you come and be loved into the fullness of life.
*I use the word Queer as an umbrella term to describe people who are not heterosexual or are not cisgender (a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth.) I realise the word Queer will have very negative connotations for some people, but please know that I use it not to provoke, but in the spirit of solidarity.