In June 2008, six people gathered at St Brides Liverpool with a vision to start a regular communion service for the LGBTQIA+ community called Open Table. Fifteen years later, the Open Table Liverpool community hosts around 50 people each month, and more than 30 other communities now meet across England and Wales, hosting hundreds more each month, and reaching thousands online. Ahead of Open Table’s 15th birthday celebration this Sunday (18th June), we chat to Kieran Bohan from the Open Table Network (OTN), to discuss his experience as an LGBT+ person of faith, the progress made, and the work that remains to be done.

First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and the Open Table Network.

I’m originally from London, and have lived in Liverpool for 20 years. Does that make me a scouser yet? I’ve been involved with LGBT+ faith groups in the city for much of that time, mostly supporting people from different Christian traditions, but also people from other faiths. Since June 2008 I’ve been part of Open Table, an LGBT+ affirming Christian community at St Bride’s Church, Toxteth, which has grown and multiplied into a network of communities across England and Wales – 33 at the last count! Six of them are on Merseyside. It’s now my full-time job to run the Open Table Network, the charity created to support these communities. So we have much to celebrate on our 15th anniversary this month.”


What was your experience of faith growing up as an LGBT+ person?

“I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family in London. When I was at school, I felt I was different from others but didn’t know why. I was bullied by other boys who thought I was gay, but I couldn’t admit it to myself. At university I knew there was a group for LGBT+ students but I wouldn’t go because I had a negative stereotype of LGBT+ people and I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’. Because of my Catholic upbringing, I thought it wasn’t ok to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Some Christians, and people of other faiths, believe that all sex outside marriage and having children is ‘unnatural’, so it’s not just about homosexuality, though you could be forgiven for thinking it is, because of all the attention it gets. 

“I became very involved with the church and got half way through training to become a priest. Catholic priests make a promise to be celibate (not to have intimate relationships). I thought I would probably never marry so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents. Then I saw the film Priest, written by Jimmy McGovern and set in Liverpool, about a Catholic priest who falls in love with another man. I thought it was beautiful and moving, and it helped me to accept my feelings. I used to feel unhappy and depressed; sometimes I wished I didn’t exist. My mum used to say ‘You can tell us anything’ but I didn’t believe her. Then, after I left training to become a priest, I decided to tell my parents I’m gay. 

“My dad said ‘God still loves you,’ which was the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. He went on to say ‘You won’t be getting into a relationship, will you?’ as his Catholic upbringing taught him that if you’re attracted to the same gender, you can’t do anything about it. Mum said ‘I won’t tell anyone about your problem.’ I told her that being gay was not the problem – being unable to talk about it and be myself was.”


You and Warren were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, can you tell us a bit more about the journey to that, and the experience itself?

“Over time, my parents could see I was happier being myself. Knowing my parents accepted me made it easier to accept myself. I felt more loved, and lovable. When I met Warren in 2007 they were very welcoming to him. We also found St Bride’s Church which welcomed us both and supported us to use our gifts to develop a monthly Christian service for LGBT+ people (the first Open Table community), in June 2008. In 2012, after four years together, we celebrated our relationship with a civil partnership service. We arranged to have a blessing at Ullet Road Unitarian Church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like most mixed-gender couples sign the register during a church wedding. 

“We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK, and we made news headlines. The Liverpool Echo did a good report, but they didn’t tell us they had sold the story to the Daily Mail, which misrepresented us. We wrote our own service and deliberately avoided using words associated with marriage because the law still said we couldn’t marry. But the Daily Mail said it was a marriage not a civil partnership, and their readers were outraged. Comments on the newspaper’s website included: ‘A church that agrees to this diabolical state of affairs is no church’, and ‘Why don’t they start their own religion, instead of hijacking and trashing the majority’s established beliefs?’ Then in 2013 the law changed to allow same-gender couples to marry not just have a civil partnership, and couples already in a civil partnership could convert it to marriage. We converted our civil partnership to marriage in 2015, and the community at St Bride’s Liverpool held the most amazing thanksgiving celebration for us! (The CofE would not allow it to be called a blessing at that time).”


Through your experience, what positive changes have you seen with regards to your faith and the inclusion/support of LGBT+ people? What do you think have been the most significant milestones?

“It might surprise some people to know that the Church of England’s cultural and political influence in the 1950s and 1960s had a significant role in shaping the 1967 Sexual Offences Act which partially decriminalised male homosexual activity. Given the tone of the continuing debate around sexuality and marriage in the CofE, you could be forgiven for being surprised!

“When I was within the Catholic Church, the former Pope, Benedict XVI, issued a statement advising the exclusion of candidates for priesthood with ‘deep-seated homosexual tendencies’. If you are celibate it should not matter who you are attracted to! Pope Francis has been more compassionate. When asked about gay people, he said ‘who am I to judge?’ Recently, before visiting Africa where many countries still criminalise homosexual intimacy, Pope Francis said laws criminalising gay people are an injustice – the first time a Pope has spoken out in this way.

“Locally, when I was on the committee of the Liverpool branch of Quest, the LGBT+ Catholic charity, in 2007, we were forbidden by the Archbishop of Liverpool from meeting on Catholic premises. Now, The Archdiocese of Liverpool has a support and prayer group for LGBT+ Catholics which hosts Masses in Anfield and Widnes quarterly. I never thought I’d see that happen!

“Meanwhile other faith communities in the UK have led the way. The Quakers, Unitarians, and Liberal Jews were first to support same-gender relationship blessings, civil partnerships and marriages. Among the larger faith traditions, the United Reformed Church (URC) voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing all couples to marry in its buildings in 2016, and the Methodist Church followed in 2021. The URC, Methodists and the CofE have also voted to ban so-called ‘conversion therapy’ practices to ‘cure’ people’s sexual orientation or gender identity, and called on the UK Government to ban these practices. We are still waiting for them to do so.”


What was your reaction to the recent decision by the Church of England to provide blessings to those entering civil partnerships and civil marriages between same-gender partners but not accept it as ‘holy matrimony’?

This was sad news. Other Christian denominations now welcome same-gender couples who wish to be joined in holy matrimony (marriage in church, not civil marriage). England’s state church still denies LGBT+ people this equality. There are increasing numbers of communities in the Church of England where LGBT+ people may feel genuinely accepted, until they want to get married. 

“It seems that the pressure of being an international denomination, with thousands of Anglican churches around the world, has influenced the Church of England in delaying doing the right thing. The Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, voted to accept the proposed prayers of blessing in February this year, but they were not given a free vote on whether clergy who want to marry same-gender couples could be free to do so. Some see this as continuing inequality and discrimination, some see it as a small step in the right direction. Time will tell – the bishops have said that they will ‘monitor the Church’s use of and response to’ the proposed prayers of blessing and ‘report back to Synod in five years’ time’. Feedback on the proposals made in February will be debated at the next General Synod meeting in York in July, so it’s likely to make the news again.”


What impact has this most recent announcement had on LGBT+ people of faith?

“In the week that news of the CofE bishops’ proposals broke in February, I received so many media requests, did so much social media moderation, and heard so much hurt, anger and confusion. We had been led to believe, after six years of conversations about identity, sexuality, relationships and marriage, that greater change might be possible. 

“The bishops also made a public apology to LGBT+ people ‘for the way in which the Church has rejected or excluded them’. Members of our communities remain sceptical. One wrote on Facebook: ‘an apology means you acknowledge your wrongdoing, make amends and stop doing the negative behaviour’. It remains to be seen whether a true change in behaviour has begun.”


Looking at broader LGBT+ history, do you think lessons have been learned from the past?

“Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It sometimes seems that the wisdom that allowed the CofE to influence the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the 1960s has been lost, as more than half a century later we are still expected to debate the validity of our identities in faith communities. 

“The contrast is even greater for our gender-diverse siblings. High levels of transphobic prejudice and discrimination, in wider society and in faith communities, echoes the struggles of LGB people in earlier generations. Last year, I met members of the LGB Alliance who don’t accept the gender identities of trans and non-binary people. They don’t appear to know the importance of solidarity in our history. The original language of ‘gay rights’ was expanded to include lesbian and bi people because we share a common cause in resisting prejudice based on narrow definitions of gender. The same is true now – we need to stand in solidarity with our gender-diverse siblings so we all might be liberated from the patriarchal male/female binary that limits everyone.”


What key things do you think need to happen to make LGBT+ people feel comfortable to embrace faith and feel welcome in the church?

“In 2021 more than 750 LGBT+ Christians took part in a survey on safeguarding LGBT+ Christians. The survey showed that only a third ‘feel safe to be out’ in their local churches, and just one in five feel ‘safe to be out to the wider Christian community’. When asked what can be done to help them feel safer, nearly half (46%) said ‘knowing that our leaders affirm same-sex relationships’ alongside ‘putting an inclusive statement on the website’ (41%) and ‘positively recognising LGBT+ people in sermons’ (36%). The most significant factor that is currently helping LGBT+ people feel safe in their churches is being ‘aware that there are other LGBT+ people in our congregation’ (52%). In addition to the 33 churches which now host Open Table communities, I have spoken to more than 140 churches about how to be more affirming and inclusive for LGBT+ people, and I would be happy to talk to anyone who wants to explore this in their faith community.”


What support is there out there for LGBT+ people of faith?

“The Open Table Network is just one of a good number of LGBT+ affirming faith communities and organisations. We work in partnership with many others on shared goals. For example, OTN was one of nine organisations that supported the 2021 Safeguarding LGBT+ Christians Survey. There is support within many faith traditions – if you search online for ‘LGBT Christian support’ or substitute the word ‘Christian’ for the name of your faith tradition, you may find that there is hope and understanding. You are not alone. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, please contact OTN and we’ll help if we can. As I’m the only paid worker, it will usually be me that you’d speak to if you get in touch!”

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Walking with integrity – Celebrating Open Table’s 15th birthday, Sunday, 18th June 2023 6-8pm, St Bride’s Liverpool, Percy Street, L8 7LT

Image credit: Tanith Holloway

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