Over the August Bank Holiday weekend I joined a group of church friends to camp at the Greenbelt festival at the Cheltenham Racecourse. Greenbelt is a Christian arts, faith and justice festival, which has been going for 39 years. This year's theme was Paradise Lost and Found.
I had an amazing time. So much to see and do! Talks on the environment; on ethical economics; on Muslim-Christian interfaith action; on an atheist's perspective of hope ... much fun and fellowship with old friends and new ... Yoga in the morning; morning prayer with the Franciscan monks; Sunday Communion service with 15,000 fellow believers; sitting in silence with the Quakers; an Anglican charismatic Evensong ... live music; street performers and foraging for tea ...
The most memorable event of all was probably the communion service held by OuterSpace, a group of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered) Christians, and their family and friends. It is a group which is committed to the Church and to helping everyone find their way in the Church, no matter what their background.
I had decided to go along, because I wanted to stand with my homosexual brothers and sisters. I am aware of the continuing theological discussions and debates about homosexuality - but all that aside I wanted to show my love and support by sharing the bread and wine with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
On the evening before I had talked with another friend and we had pondered how a 'gay communion service' may be different from any other. "Perhaps it is more flamboyant" my friend mused, thereby throwing us both headlong into a fine stereotype which heterosexual people have of homosexual ones ... and I began to expect something like the Gay Pride of eucharists.
On the morning, as I entered the venue and left my muddy wellies at the door (did I mention it was a very muddy weekend??), I looked around the hundred or so people sitting on the floor. Not a stiletto or a false eyelash in sight!
What I saw was a group of ordinary people, and - apart from those who were clearly couples by their body language, how close they sat or how they related to each other - there was no telling as to who was and who wasn't ...
So how then was this service different to other communion services I have been to?
The answer is simply that it was the most gentle and welcoming and healing communion service I have ever been to!
By the words of the service and their tenderness, and by the warmth and encouragement in which they were spoken I understood something about the people who were present.
I understood that amongst the congregation gathered in this special service, there were people who had never told anybody in their own church about their sexual orientation for fear of repercussions; there were people who had left their church (or perhaps even their faith) because of the treatment they had received; there were people for whom this OuterSpace service once a year is the only time they can be truly themselves, without fear and worry ...
I understood something about the fragility and vulnerability of being a homosexual in a Christian church ...
And it filled me with great sorrow and sadness.
For me too, this Greenbelt weekend was something I will really cherish. For reasons which do not relate to my sexual orientation, this was a time of great freedom and liberty. The freedom not to have to curb my spiritual desires and appetite, to go out and try, taste and experience God's presence in abundance!
It was a time to spread my spiritual wings and to SOAR!
So my heart went out to my LGBT brothers and sisters. Nobody should have to hide who they truly are, or even have to pretend to be somebody else!
If in our churches there are people who have never felt able to show who they really are, people who sit in our pews and pretend to be somebody else, then we are failing as a church! Whether on account of sexuality or different ethnic, social or racial backgrounds, we should invite and empower people to be themselves and to bring who they are into the church community.
Instead of expecting people to 'become like us' before we welcome them into our community, we should say "You are different from me. Tell me about that. What can I/we do to make you feel welcome here?"
Let me end by sharing the prayer of the confession of sins, which was used in the OuterSpace service, and which really speaks for itself:
You made us to be one family,
yet we have divided humanity,
Lord, have mercy.
You were born a Jew to reconcile all people,
yet we have brought disharmony amongst races.
Christ, have mercy.
You rejoice in our differences,
yet we make them a cause of bad feeling.
Lord, have mercy.
Thank you, OuterSpace, for a wonderful service.