The theology and spirituality of Open Table – A person-centred approach
OPEN TABLE – an ecumenical Christian worship community which offers a warm welcome to people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) and all who seek an inclusive Church – began at St Bride’s Liverpool in June 2008, meeting once a month for a communion service.
Since July 2015 we have been growing beyond Liverpool – now there are eleven active Open Table communities reaching up to 200 people a month, and we are in touch with more than forty other churches who are exploring this ministry in their communities. One of the most frequently asked questions we receive is
‘What is the theology / spirituality of Open Table?’
On Saturday 21st October 2017 at Coventry Central Hall, we held a day for members of Open Table communities and others who are exploring this ministry. Warren Hartley, the LGBTQIA+ Ministry Facilitator for Open Table Liverpool, presented this reflection in answer to that question:
It is a real privilege to be here and to share the experience of being a part of this extraordinary community for close to nine and a half years. I would like to share with you a theological reflection on the spirituality of Open Table in Liverpool and how it informs our values and practice which may hopefully inform and inspire yours.
Just a couple of caveats – First, I’m not a professional theologian. However, as we have heard in the history of Open Table, one of the joys is that we don’t just need to be professional religious people to ‘do ministry’ though priestly ministry is also important. Second, I certainly don’t have all the answers! Anyone who thinks they do is sorely deluded, though many may wish they did. We have made mistakes along the way but I trust I remain open to learning and changing as I discover more about people, God and our world.
When I was confirmed in 2009, the then Bishop of Warrington said in his sermon that getting confirmed was a ‘dangerous thing’. You never know where the Spirit will lead you. How true that has turned out to be.
I was just a ‘punter in the pew’ until the vicar who was running the Open Table initiative stepped back and the Rector of St Bride’s said to me: ‘You’ll open up and make tea and coffee won’t you?’ while sticking a set of keys in my hand. I thought, ‘Sure, I can do that…’ and that’s how I found myself effectively running a ministry. I still joke today that all I ever agreed to do was to make tea and coffee! Little did I know where this was all heading – I have been stretched, encouraged, challenged and moved… Likewise so has the community as we’ve set out on this extraordinary adventure.
While I may joke about it, only making the tea and coffee is really what we’re doing. I, WE, host Open Table rather than run it. My title at Open Table Liverpool is LGBTQIA+ Ministry Facilitator, we facilitate the space rather than run Open Table. Henri Nouwen in his book Reaching Out says:
‘When we think back to the places where we felt most at home, we quickly see that it was where our hosts gave us the precious freedom to come and go on our own terms and did not claim us for their own needs. Only in a free space can re-creation take place and new life be found. The real host is the one who offers that space where we do not have to be afraid and where we can listen to our own inner voices and find our own personal way of being human’
The key phrase is
‘offering space where we do not have to be afraid
and find our own personal way of being human’.
Or to paraphrase Henri,
‘space where we do not have to be afraid
and find our own way of being LGBTQIA’.
Not the way the church or media often reinforce, that you aren’t good enough and you must follow their way.
Something that has always struck me is not just the diversity of age, sexualities and gender identities, but also of faith in our community. In Open Table Liverpool we have folk from Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, URC, Baptist, Quaker, independent churches and other faith communities. We approach our faith across the spectrum of Christian thought from progressive liberal to conservative evangelical and all points between. In the presence of such diversity how do we worship, build community and deepen our faith? Or to use inelegant and rather hackneyed churchy language how do we do discipleship and mission?
Discipleship is often thought to be about imparting doctrinal teaching which may (or may not, depending on your perspective) be important but, in a community like ours, a broader approach is needed. How do we create the
‘free space where re-creation takes place and new life
can be found without claiming others for our own needs’?
The approach we have embedded in the life of our community is known as the ‘person-centred approach’. It is most frequently used in the realm of counselling and psychotherapy, but it is far broader. To me, it is a deeply spiritual practice. Like all models it can only go so far, but unlike many models it is open to new insights.
I do want to be very clear however that what we do is NOT counselling! We use the principles and the disciplines to shape worship and pastoral care. Person-centred practitioners follow the approach of Dr Carl Rogers who emphasises the quality of relationship and a person’s ability to discover within themselves the resources for personal growth and fulfilment. I’m reminded of these words of Jesus:
‘I came to give life, and life abundant’ – John 10:10
‘The Kingdom of God is within you’ – Luke 17:21
Carl Rogers began training for Christian ministry but gave this up to become one of the most influential figures in 20th century psychology. Brian Thorne, a former lecturer in Psychology at Norwich University and a committed Anglican is perhaps the best known British writer on this approach. In his 2003 book Infinitely Beloved: The Challenge of Divine Intimacy he described being person centred as involving:
Forming relationships where people can:
feel safe enough to face their pain
increase their awareness of themselves and others
enhance self-confidence and self-worth
feel genuinely accepted and understood
begin to reveal the wonder of their own natures
and can become:
More responsive to others
Better able to harness their gifts and abilities in the service of the wider community.
Note that this isn’t something that someone does to another – it is about creating relationships where both parties grow. Creating relationships which offer this quality require three Core Conditions:
Unconditional Positive Regard – non-judgmental warmth and acceptance
Empathy – ‘walking in someone else’s shoes’.
Congruence – being genuine, real, authentic, honest.
It is worth emphasizing that empathy is NOT sympathy. Empathy goes deeper – it is a compassionate response which which promotes connection between equals.
But what has this got to do with a Christian community?
Well isn’t Unconditional Positive Regard what God offers? Some scripture verses that speak of this are:
‘Let us create them in our image… and God saw that it was good.’ – Genesis 1
‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’ – Psalm 139:14
‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ – Mark 10:21
‘My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.’ – John 15:12
‘For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future,
nor any powers,
neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from
the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.’
– Romans 8:38-39
‘… how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’
– Ephesians 3:18
Empathy – is that not what the Incarnation was about? God became one of us, walked among us, experienced life as one of us:
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable
to feel sympathy for our weaknesses’
– Hebrews 4:15
And if our faith is about anything it is the call to Congruence – authenticity. To be all that God has called us to be and liberating others to do the same:
‘Worship God in spirit and in truth’ – John 4:24
You are the light of the world – Matthew 5:14
Carl Rogers would describe these three Core Conditions as all that are necessary and sufficient for transformation. His most famous quote is shown here:
I want to be crystal clear that I am not in any way talking about the abusive practice of attempts to ‘change’ or ‘heal’ sexual orientation or gender identity. I love the quote: ‘’m bent not broken!’
The transformation I describe is the path of growth in our faith, as beloved children of God, of becoming, or blossoming, as author and diarist Anaïs Nin beautifully described in a metaphor for our ‘coming out’:
‘And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.’
The person-centred approach isn’t about telling others what to believe or how to think, but to grow a genuine, affirming and empathic relationship, thereby creating the sacred space in which we can ‘come as we are’. As the mystic Hildegaard of Bingen puts it:
‘We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others.
An interpreted world is not a hope.
Part of the terror is to take back our own listening.
To use our own voice. To see our own light.’
The prolific Jesuit author Gerard Hughes in his book God Of Surprises writes that the only person who can teach us about God is God. I take this to be the challenge to create a space of radical hospitality, a place to build relationships evidencing the core conditions and where an individual can meet God. How can we do this in some practical ways in the lives of our LGBTQIA+ communities and worship communities?
Unconditional Positive Regard – unequivocal affirmation of ourselves as beloved children of God.
Empathy – being named, speaking of real life experiences, visible priestly ministry that is as diverse as the community it serves, visible vulnerability.
Congruence – accessible language, integrity, not sugar coating things – we screw up, life isn’t always easy and need to acknowledge this rather than using triumphalist prayers. Confession/absolution. Sadly as a CofE church St Bride’s cannot (yet!) conduct a marriage of a same-sex couple though our hearts ache to be able to do so. Being congruent also means not pretending or breaking the rules but either offering what we can or supporting couples to find what is right for them. One of the ironies of Open Table is that we exist within the existing rules of the Church of England and yet can be authentically affirming.
Unconditional Positive Regard – expressed in how we invite, welcome and offer hospitality:
People will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel’
– Maya Angelou
Empathy – learning from the experience of others, expanding our knowledge of the breadth of experience of members of the communities. e.g we listened to the stories of our community and expanded the acronym from LGBT to LGBTQIA+.
Congruence – creating a community where each person can be genuine/authentic doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’. Compromise and empathy are needed which alters interaction while maintaining authenticity. It does not deny that difference exists. Unity implies that there is difference, otherwise what we would have is uniformity. I’d much rather seek a colourful and riotous unity than a bland and tasteless uniformity!
Empathy – listening. Resisting the temptation to appear to be all knowing or the ‘master fixer’. The end goal isn’t to ‘come out’ but to achieve self-acceptance. Also not assuming other journeys are the same as ours! As a married, white, cisgender gay male, early middle aged, Australian, former evangelical now liberal Anglican my experience is rather different to my friend who is a black, Nigerian, Catholic, lesbian seeking refuge in the UK, but we worship, pray and journey together offering support, encouragement and empathy. My experience also entirely different again from the confident, energetic 16 year old who bounces into St Bride’s and has, praise God, never experienced the rejection of a faith community.
Congruence – challenging others where behaviour stops community members from experiencing the core conditions, sign posting, being prepared to say we got it wrong, being real and not trying to be all things to all people.
Unconditional Positive Regard in the Sacramental – meeting God, meeting Christ it is God in whose unconditional regard we are held.
Empathy – listening to our community AND more challenging with those who oppose or disagree with us (I told you this wasn’t easy!)
Congruence – authenticity, integrity. As John Bell said at Greenbelt in August 2017:
‘Those of us who have known the Love of God cannot stay silent!’
This is both simple, yet radical. It isn’t about campaigning but it can bring external change a form of non-violence resistance. It is a ministry of presence. Being visible. It is counter cultural and hard work but can give us a real taste of the kingdom.
Open Table is a space offering hospitality, affirmation and authenticity in which everyone but especially we as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Intersex and Asexual folk can also come to know the love of God.
I want to close with these words of Maya Angelou:
‘I believed that there was a God because I was told it by my grandmother and later by other adults. But when I found that I knew not only that there was a God but that I was a child of God, when I understood that, when I comprehended that, more than that, when I internalized that, ingested that, I became courageous.’
So let’s be courageous. Having known the love of God we cannot stay silent!
Discussion questions (there wasn’t time to respond to all of these on the day – we would welcome your responses):
What one thought or idea from this talk has particularly intrigued, challenged, encouraged, helped or surprised you?
Share a story of a time you have experienced outstanding hospitality
How do you respond to the idea of the three Core Conditions as a spiritual discipline?
Imagine what it would be like to be a part of a church community that attempted to live out this approach to the LGBTQIA+ Community.
Action: what might you do differently as a result of your reflections.