The Methodist Conference has voted to extend the definition of marriage to couples of the same-sex. Now this decision goes to the 30 or so Districts across the country and then back to the 2020 Conference for confirmation or amendment. Over the next twelve months, Methodists will be called upon to address the issues of marriage and relationships in local churches and CIrcuits as well as District Synods. Believe it or not, we have been talking about this for forty years and yet, I know, many have not taken the opportunity to discuss this with fellow-Methodists. It saddens me that there has been wholescale avoidance in parts of the Church, or that gatekeepers have prevented others from a thorough-going conversation.
If we are to find our way forward, we will need bravery. Two weeks ago I was involved in an inspiring conversation at Iliff School of Theology in Denver. It has a reputation as the most progressive seminary in the United Methodist Church and puts into practice what it preaches - fully one third of its students indentify as LGBTQI+ or non-binary, and it has recently adopted a commitment to 50 in 5, 50% of students from a BAME background in the next five years. But the School has also promoted a policy of ‘Brave Places’ as well as ‘Safe Spaces’.
Because of the world we live in, there is continuing need for safe spaces. As an openly gay man, I recognise the continuing violence of mainstream society towards people who identify as LGBTQI+, to people of colour, or women, or disabled people. We continue to need a place where we know we will not be subject to abuse for who we are.
However, the echo chambers of social media have contributed to a fragmented public space where we only hear opinions we already endorse. We need to ask difficult questions about our safe spaces and when they become ghettos and echo chambers, barriers to dialogue or encounter with difference. Safe Spaces do not (and are not meant to) teach us how to live with difference; only Brave Places (and brave people) can do that.
A Brave Place is one where difference is present. It involves a certain amount of risk, but it is a calculated risk. At best, it is a curated or facilitated space, where entry demands vulnerability from ALL and not just the few. It calls forth a willingness to listen as well as speak, a commitment to try to understand the other (even if you disagree with their perspective) and an openness to be transformed through encounter.
For some of us, we treat Church as safe space, assuming that all agree with us and we can therefore be ourselves. For many of us, it is anything but. Instead, the Church is a place where we are always wondering what will be said about ‘people like us’, especially when it is assumed that none of us are present. In that context, I have been privy to conversations that have compared LGBTQI+ people to child rapists, bestialists, and dogs, and it has been deeply painful to hear, especially from fellow Methodists. The lack of safety has been palpable.
Brave Places are intentional as well as invitational, where we deliberately do not make assumptions about who is, or is not, present. Instead, we invite all perspectives to be present and to speak for themselves. Brave Places are necessarily places of vulnerability, where heart speaks tenderly to heart. Only when intention, invitation, inclusion and vulnerability are present, can trust, honest and truth flourish.
The next twelve months will not be easy, but I pray for the creation and curation of Brave Places where we can grow together in love and understanding.