‘Subversive, scandalous, dangerous take-over’ – The growth of Open Table

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One of the case studies in the Appreciating Church book tells the story of Open Table, an ecumenical worship community for people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer / Questioning, Intersex & Asexual (LGBTQIA+), who have typically not been well served by mainstream church.

The case study shows how, after seven years meeting monthly at St Bride's Liverpool, the community began to multiply to other host churches in other denominations, so that by the time they gathered for an 'Appreciating Church' day in July 2016, there were four communities.

Using Appreciative Inquiry principles, the 2016 away-day led to a statement of shared mission, vision and values which would make it easier to share the ministry of Open Table with other communities. This proved so successful that, within fifteen months, there were eleven Open Table communities, and more than forty other churches had been in touch to explore whether this ministry was something they could offer.

In October 2017, thirty people gathered for a second away day called ‘Dreaming around an Open Table’, for members of active Open Table communities and those considering whether this is a ministry they wish to offer, to share experience, insight and visions for the future.

Here is the reflection with which we introduced the day:

The Parable of the Mustard Seed is one of the shorter parables of Jesus. It appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Here it is in the Gospel of Matthew:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.
— Matthew 13: 31-32

The plant referred to here is generally considered to be black mustard, a large annual plant up to 9 feet (2.7 m) tall, but growing from a small seed (this smallness is also used as a symbol of faith in Matthew 17:20 and Luke 17:6). The parable suggests the growth of the kingdom of God from tiny beginnings. The man sowing the seed represents Jesus, and the plant is the Kingdom of God. The nesting birds recall Old Testament texts which emphasize the abundance and universal reach of God’s kingdom, such as:

Black mustard (brassica negra) believed to be the plant Jesus referred to in the parable of the mustard seed

Black mustard (brassica negra) believed to be the plant Jesus referred to in the parable of the mustard seed

Its leaves were beautiful, its fruit abundant, and on it was food for all. Under it the wild animals found shelter, and the birds lived in its branches; from it every creature was fed.
— Daniel 4:12

However, a real mustard plant is unlikely to attract nesting birds, so Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize astonishing extravagance in his analogy. Some commentators have suggested that the birds represent Gentiles seeking refuge with Israel or the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus was criticized for associating.

Some have identified a ‘subversive and scandalous’ element to this parable – the fast-growing nature of the mustard plant makes it a ‘weed’ with ‘dangerous takeover properties’. Pliny the Elder wrote that:

mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild… once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.
— Natural History (published around AD 78)

Jesus could have spoken of a genuine tree – the mustard plant demonstrates that

though the kingdom of God appeared small like a seed during Jesus’ ministry, it would inexorably grow into something large and firmly rooted, which some would find shelter in and others would find obnoxious and try to root out.
— Dr Ken Baker, The Company of Jesus

Open Table is now in its tenth year – when we first gathered as half a dozen members of a Changing Attitude group in June 2008, we couldn’t have dreamed that we’d be here in 2017 with representatives of 11 other OT communities and more than forty other churches wanting to join us in bringing this expression of the abundance of God’s love and outrageous hospitality to their church and community. In June 2016 there was only Liverpool, then came Warrington, then Manchester, relaunching its monthly inclusive Communion service which had begun a year before Open Table, then North Wales, then St Helens and Wigan, Stoke and London, Open Table Northeast, Sefton and Isle of Man.

Its growth has been both wild and, we hope, beneficial – it has provided shelter for those on the edges of our Christian traditions, like those Jesus was criticized for associating with by the religious authorities of his day. Some see it as subversive and scandalous, and would want to root it out – as we reflect on our growth as a diverse and dispersed community today, let’s pray for the courage, the creativity and the clarity to see it grow into something large and firmly rooted – a true image of the kingdom of God here among us.

We also launched our new short film to inspire people considering whether to offer this ministry in their community, called ‘Will it be Open Table?’ You can watch it here (3 minutes including subtitles – don’t forget to switch them on if you need them):

Open Table is crowdfunding!

We are developing a network of safe, sacred, sacramental, sustainable spaces for LGBTQIA+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church – if you value Open Table, you can help! Starting Sunday 5th November at 6.30pm when we gather for an agape meal at St Bride’s Liverpool, until 6.30pm on Sunday 31st December, we aim to raise £15,000 to raise the profile and capacity of Open Table to respond to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church‘. We believe the Spirit is moving in this, as the growth of the network in the past two years is truly

immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine
— Ephesians 3:20
A dream for Open Table in 2019 - an LGBTQIA+ community fesitval

A dream for Open Table in 2019 - an LGBTQIA+ community fesitval

When the first four Open Table communities met in July 2016, we dreamed of what Open Table might be in 2019. One group created a vision of a rainbow of people from Open Table communities across the UK gathering for an LGBTQIA+ Christian community festival. They also depicted a storm cloud overhead, representing the challenges we faced, and a rainbow breaking through, representing our diversity and achievements. If we exceed our target of £15,000 for 2018, we have taken inspiration from one of the 'dreams' for Open Table in 2019. We'd love to make this vision a reality in Spring 2019, when the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool,  in which Open Table began, welcomes the Archbishop of York and the 24 other Bishops from the northern province of the Church of England for a four day mission. Open Table will celebrate its tenth anniversary, and two of its founding members, Warren Hartley and Kieran Bohan, will celebrate completing three years as Local Missional Leaders (an authorised lay ministry) with responsibility for the Open Table community. This would highlight the success of Open Table on a national stage, with your help, and keep our momentum going once we've achieved our crowdfunding goal for 2018. Thank you!

If you value the ministry of Open Table, please share the link below, and give if you are able: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/open-table-community-for-lgbtqia-christians-in-uk

To find out when and where you can ‘come as you are’, visit opentable.lgbt

To enquire about joining the growing network of Open Table ecumenical worship communities, email Kieran: opentablelgbt@gmail.com