A Chat With: Kieran Bohan, Open Table Network Coordinator

As we approached the festive break, we spoke to Open Table Network (OTN) Coordinator, Kieran Bohan, to find out more about the organisation’s work providing safe, supportive and affirming spaces for LGBT+ people wishing to explore their religious beliefs and identities.

So, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be involved in Open Table?

My name’s Kieran Bohan – I’ve lived in Liverpool since 2003, and been involved with various groups for LGBT+ Christians in the city, including Quest, a social and support group for LGBT+ Catholics.

I was running the local Quest group when Open Table started in June 2008 at St Bride’s Anglican Church in the Georgian Quarter, near Liverpool Cathedral. The first Open Table community was started there by a group which campaigned for LGBT+ equality in the Church of England, but several of the people who came to the first meetings weren’t Anglican, like me. 

The handful of people who met expressed a desire to start a monthly Communion service. Many churches celebrate Communion as a remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his friends before he died. Communion comes from the Latin word for sharing, or taking part. It’s the central act of hospitality of the Christian faith, so for us as LGBT+ Christians, many of whom felt excluded from other churches, it felt important that our meetings were based around this tradition.

So what exactly is ‘Open Table’ where did the name come from?

At the first planning meeting, someone said “Will it be ‘Open Table’ and I didn’t know what that meant, as it’s not a common practice in the Catholic Church, so I asked. She explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, without judgement, or test of membership or worthiness. 

We felt this was so important because we’d heard too many stories of people who feared exclusion, or were excluded, from their church community. People who felt unheard or unable to express themselves or give their talents, because of their church’s attitudes to their gender identity or sexuality. So Open Table was born.

In 2011 I stepped down from the Quest group to help Warren (now my husband) to run the Open Table community as it was really growing. We led the group together until 2015 when other churches in the North West and beyond started asking about how we did it and whether they could too. So I started volunteering to help other communities get established. In 2017 we did a crowdfunder so I could start doing a day a week of paid development work. 

We did another crowdfunder at the end of 2019 to help us prepare to become a charity and apply for grants to sustain and grow our communities. Thanks to the National Lottery Community Fund, we got a grant this year to enable me to take on the role of Open Table Network Coordinator full-time in October. It’s a temporary contract so we’re working hard to help people understand why our communities are needed so we stand a better chance of getting the funding we need to help us help those who look to Open Table communities for friendship and support.

Open Table is now a nationwide network, was that always the plan?

We never planned to form a network of communities, but people were coming to us at St Bride’s from across the Liverpool City Region and places further afield, such as Manchester, Chester, and North Wales. We were clearly meeting a need that wasn’t being served by local churches. As our community grew, it was a challenge to maintain the intimacy which made Open Table feel like a safe space. Then in 2014 a local church leader, who went on to work for the Church of England nationally, advised us “Don’t grow bigger, multiply”.

After less than a year in post, the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, visited in July 2015, and allowed us to publicise his presence and record and share his reflection, which went viral and raised our profile across the region and beyond. He charged the community with a mission to give “the love that you share, and the openness that you manifest” as a gift to the wider church, which struggles to receive it.

Bishop Paul has become an outspoken ally – for several years he funded our community stall at Pride in Liverpool. In 2017 he accepted an invitation to be a patron of the LCR Pride Foundation, gave a speech to more than 8,000 people mustering for the march and walked with around 70 members of Open Table and other affirming congregations under the banner ‘Christians At Pride’. He marched with us again in 2018 and agreed to us hosting a Post-Pride Chillout reflective service at the Anglican Cathedral, which has become a regular event and would have happened again this year if we’d been able to gather. In 2020 he also became a Patron of the Open Table Network.

Where are the other Open Table communities located and how were they formed?

Until 2015 there was just the one Open Table community, in Liverpool, though we had contact with groups of similar intentions in Manchester, Hertfordshire and Canterbury. In 2015 we began talking to three other communities about sharing the Open Table name and ethos – in Warrington, Manchester and St Asaph in North Wales. The founder of the Warrington community used to run a national group called the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian & Gay Christians, so her confidence and experience also helped to raise our profile across the country. Since then, we’ve grown to 17 communities, from Bangor in north-west Wales to Cambridge in south-east England.

So, the Open Table Network (OTN) has become a growing and connected partnership of Christian worship communities which welcomes and affirms people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer / Questioning, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA+), as well as our families, friends and allies. The network has been created by – and for – LGBTQIA+ people. In our communities, LGBTQIA+ people of faith gather and feel affirmed in the support of the community, and in mutual support. There is huge value in the security of these sound and supportive communities, which welcome everyone – of any faith background – who recognises that all people have equal worth.

It is a joy that Open Table continues to welcome people of many Christian traditions to worship together, and it’s also a partnership of inclusive churches from different traditions, including the Church of England and Church In Wales, plus Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches.

In 2017, Danny Kilbride from Thinking Film made a short video for us, to help us share our story as we grew. You can watch it here.

What are the biggest challenges that you find are faced by LGBT+ Christians and how do you help to tackle these?

Many LGBTQIA+ people are isolated and marginalised at the best of times. We can suffer more than the average person from poor self-esteem, depression and anxiety. Whereas some people can turn to faith groups for support during difficult times, LGBTQIA+ people often cannot.

Churches don’t always feel ‘safe’ or welcoming to LGBTQIA+ people. Fifty-nine percent of LGBT+ young people interested in joining a religious organisation have stopped or reduced their involvement owing to their sexuality or gender identity (Youth Chances, METRO 2016). But our name, “Open Table” is an open invitation to come in – just as you are – to a safe and affirming community.

Those who come to Open Table communities are often people who have experienced prejudice and exclusion, maybe at home, in the workplace, local community, but especially in faith communities. In other words, people wishing to explore their religious beliefs and identities with nowhere to turn. We try hard to develop ‘safe’ spaces.

What we mean by ‘safe’ is affirming, honest, empathic and unconditionally loving environments, where LGBTQIA+ people of faith can explore personal and spiritual growth through developing relationships with others who understand the unique barriers they face.

Members of our communities are significantly more likely to experience poor mental health, which research has shown relates explicitly to discriminatory practices of some local churches, and the Church’s substantial contribution to negative attitudes in society (In the Name of Love, Oasis Foundation 2017).

A minister supporting one OTN community told us: “I would say that about 50 per cent of my direct pastoral work comes from Open Table. I have been really very deeply shocked about how many people have had such dreadfully hurtful experiences, and have been to varying degrees quite damaged by really awful religion. Extremely sad. But glad that some find a space and community here to help in recuperation and restoration.”

How does Open Table usually operate? How have you adapted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic? What changes have been made and how has the network responded?

The Open Table Liverpool community usually meets in person twice a month on Sunday evenings, for a bring-and-share meal on the first Sunday of the month and a Communion service on the third Sunday of the month. Most other Open Table communities have been meeting once a month for a Communion service.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, all people of faith miss their gatherings, but members of our communities tell us they miss them even more deeply, owing to the huge emotional and spiritual support that OTN gatherings offer. It’s been a challenge for many Open Table communities, as some have been unable to gather. Those that have cannot always reach everyone who would normally be present. Yet some have found they are reaching new people who might otherwise might not have returned to church, but have found it easier to reconnect online.

Most of our communities have been meeting online and adapting to sharing through Zoom meetings, YouTube videos and Facebook Watch Parties. Together we are learning to continue to offer safe space and build community in new ways.

As a Network we’ve also gathered people online, beginning with a service in March, then our anniversary celebration in June, and in July a Pride-themed Communion in the parish where the first Open Table community began.

You were recently awarded a COVID-19 crisis grant, How much were you awarded and how is the grant being used to support your work?

The National Lottery Community Fund has awarded us £15,000 for a crisis response project running between October 2020 to March 2021. This money is to enable us to invest in time and technology to do more to support the members of our existing OTN communities in their – currently increased – isolation. We’re also building our online presence to raise awareness for the many more people who have been contacting us or visiting our website since the first lockdown, and many more we are not currently reaching. We’re also supporting two new communities, with whom we were working before lockdown, to get started, including one in St Helens.

We are already supporting individuals and communities struggling to stay connected during isolation. As a dispersed community, and given the increased isolation of people we support, we’re increasing our online presence to do more for people in crisis. In this time when deep life-and-death questions are being raised, we need to give extra space to those questions, and the beliefs from which they arise. We aim to do this by expanding our outreach programme with an uplift in online support.

Since October we’ve also begun to offer online services monthly. Our October theme was inspired by Coming Out Day on 11th October and in November we led a vigil for Trans Day of Remembrance on 20th November, honouring those who died because of transphobia in the past year. This month we’re looking forward to our first online carol service!

How can people get involved with Open Table in the Liverpool City Region? Are there groups in all six boroughs?

As well as the Open Table Liverpool community, there are four other communities across Merseyside, based in Sefton, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan. There has been a community in St Helens which is not currently meeting, but there are plans to relaunch it in a new, more accessible venue, possibly in 2021. The full list of our Open Table communities, including their usual meeting times, is on our website.

Everyone is invited and welcome, without exception, which is probably best explained by one of our members. One told us: “I didn’t see myself as a Christian. However, having looked at the details on the church website, I was drawn by the promise that I would be accepted and welcomed. That promise was fulfilled in bucketloads!”

While another said: “I’ve felt comfortable inviting friends and family to join us at Open Table, no matter what their beliefs, sexuality, gender or background.”

What events are coming up next at Open Table then?

As I write we’re preparing for our first online carol service, led by the first Open Table community in Liverpool, which has organised a similar service for the parish where they meet for 12 years. This service has grown steadily each year, until last year when around 200 people attended.

As we can’t gather so many people together this year, we’re sharing their effort with the help of all the digital skills we’ve had to learn to stay connected. This year’s carol service has traditional and contemporary seasonal readings and music, including songs by the fabulous Liverpool Rainbow Chorus. It will be a YouTube Premiere on Sunday 20th December 2020 at 6.30pm on our YouTube channel. If you are reading this after 20th December, the 45-minute video will still be on YouTube throughout the Christmas season.

This year we also had big plans for the 12th anniversary of the first Open Table community in Liverpool and the fifth anniversary of becoming a network. We’d hoped to hold a day conference at Liverpool Cathedral in June, but that became a half-day Zoom event (highlights here). We will explore whether we can host a similar event there next June.

Plus we were planning to host another day conference at Liverpool Hope University in October which also became a half-day online event instead (highlights here). So we’ll explore offering that again next year too.

This year our theme is ‘Young At Heart’, which promotes the right for LGBT+ people to live happy, healthy and carefree lives, regardless of how they identify. What does this statement mean to you and how important do you think faith is to overall well being?

It’s a brilliant theme – I love it! It also links well with the theme of LGBT History Month in 2021, which is Body, Mind, Spirit. It’s about being, and loving, your whole self, everything that makes us human and what makes it good to be alive. It’s liberating to be free of the shame and judgement many of us have experienced, especially in faith communities. At its worst, a faith community can be a risk factor to someone’s well being if it’s a judgemental, conditional, unloving space. At their best, faith communities can be sources of great hope and resilience – that’s our aim.

Again, it’s our members who best illustrate this. One told us: “For years and years I thought I was broken. I now know that I am not, and that I was made as I am – and for that I am grateful. Being able to be in a sacred space and be all who I am is truly incredible. I love it.”

While another said that they felt our OTN communities were: “Leading the way, supporting faith of people of all ages, bringing body, mind & spirit together in community.”

We’re grateful that the spaces we’ve helped to create enable people to feel that way about themselves.

Where can people find out more and get involved?

Our website is currently being expanded with features members have asked for, thanks to the Lottery grant. Our YouTube channel is also updated regularly. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, and we also have an e-newsletter which goes out once or twice a month. 

If you’d like to join our e-news list you can subscribe here.

As I’m the only paid worker, it will usually be me that you’d speak to if you get in touch. If you need support, it’s best to email [email protected] or call 07501 753 618 (please leave a voicemail if there is no answer and I will get back in touch!)

Our website is: http://opentable.lgbt/

 

Image credits: Mark Loudon (Christians At Pride group, 2018).