08 July, 2010

Celebrating Diversity (pars iii)

St Botolph's with-out-Aldgate and the LGCM

In January 1994 a commission chaired by Lord Templeman produced a report to the Bishop of London about the churches in the Square Mile [cf. Brian Lee, in Malcolm Johnson (1994) 182]. The report suggested a number of churches which stood out amongst the neighbouring ones for their active role in the community and for their involvement in pastoral care. St Botolph's, Aldgate was one of them and its ministry was commended by the working party.

The Square Mile with its five thousand residents is a peculiar place for ministry as most of the churchgoers come through the doors on weekdays or for livery services and those attending Sunday Eucharists travel into the City from outside as 'church-commuters'. The abundance and variety of churches promotes the development of remarkably different attitudes and theologies in a relatively small area. For example, St Michael Cornhill is the 'Prayer Book Church', St Helen's Bishopsgate has a strong Evangelical community and St Magnus the Martyr London Bridge is the traditional Anglo-Catholic Church. Other churches attract individuals from particular walk of life or ethnic background and St Botolph's with-out-Aldgate often ran the risk to be classified as a 'gay church'.

The 'church on the roundabout' has been caring for the community around it for centuries; the Sir John Cass foundation has always been closely linked to the parish and the St Botolph's project – now merged with an even bigger venture in favour of the homeless – has been for years one of the most important projects of its kind in the capital. However, since 1974 the parish has been consistently involved in pastoral work amongst gay people as well.

The Rev Malcolm Johnson – appointed as Rector in 1974 – wished to use his City Living as a base in order to minister to the LGBT community as 'unofficial chaplain' [Malcolm Johnson (1994) 141]. It is fair to say that the new Rector succeeded in his project although not without problems; for example in 1975, Fr Johnson was denied by the Bishop of London the permission to house Sunday afternoon services for the Fellowship of Christ the Liberator – the first branch of the MCC in London. The members of the PCC supported the new Rector wholeheartedly in almost all circumstances for the consecutive nineteen years of his incumbency. Fr Johnson suffered the scorn of several Evangelical colleagues due to his pastoral work and advocacy of 'gay rights' in the Church. Nevertheless, the congregation continued to establish and nurture links with the gay community and it became a beacon of hope for many men and women who felt torn between their Christian faith, their sexual orientation and the apparent homophobic attitude of the wider Church.

In 1976, Fr Johnson became one of the founding members of the Gay Christian Movement (GCM), soon to be rebranded as LGCM with the politically correct inclusions of 'Lesbian' in the name. This group found fertile soil within St Botolph's concerns for the outcast and marginalised. The formation of the LGCM was a dramatic step forward in the quest for dialogue between the gay community and the Church and it often overlapped 'both in membership and in objectives with other homophile organizations' [Gloucester Report (sec. 12) (1979) 9]. The LGCM found hospitality in the tower room of the church for eleven years until the Rector was forced to evict them after a legal dispute with the Archdeacon in 1988. This event was criticised by the press as unchristian and immoral prompting The Independent to quote St Paul's advice to the Corinthians about lawsuits between believers [cf. Malcolm Johnson (1994) 165]. Undoubtedly the newspapers' coverage of the legal fight makes 'a very sad reading' [Kenneth Leech (2009) 61] and probably distanced many homosexual individuals from Christianity.

The Rev Kenneth Leech painted a good picture of Aldgate and he did not make many distinctions between St Botolph's care for the homeless and for the LGBT community [cf. Kenneth Leech (1997) 51]. St Botolph's was a considered an exciting place for practical theology and 'for many years the church [was] the centre of crisis ministries of various kinds' [Ibid. 52]. These aspects were fuelled by disciplined spirituality, by a courageous understanding of Incarnation Theology and by the call to speak for justice and righteousness. At St Botolph's the practical response to the Incarnation was to stand alongside the oppressed and marginalised. Many recognised this conviction when the whole congregation embodied the same sufferings of those to whom they ministered: outcast by the diocesan hierarchy and ignored by their Bishop, St Botolph's became too political for the Church of England.

Another chance for pastoral work with the LGBT community came at the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the late 80s. Since then the church has been on the frontline to help those affected by the virus and their families. Services of healing were held on a regular basis in the church as the congregation engaged with the wider public in the debate about the nature of the disease and the moral implications in caring for those affected. Other churches followed this example including Southwark Cathedral which is today the only church in London where a chapel is set aside in memory of those who died because of the virus. St Botolph's employed a SSF brother as an advisor during the first decade of the HIV/AIDS outbreak. Br Wilfred was just one of the many people employed by the church in 'crisis ministries'.

The PCC and the whole congregation continued the prophetic work [cf. Ibid. 31] initiated by Fr Johnson with the appointment of the Rev Brian Lee in 1993 and the formation of a liaison with the Inclusive Church in 2004. For many homosexual men and women 'this church [was] a lifeline' [Ibid.] and it bridged the gap between the gay community and the Church proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.

Fortunately for the wider church St Botolph's is not the only congregation which minister to the LGBT community in London. There seem to be a connection between ministry with gay people and caring for marginalised individuals like the homeless. The following two church communities also have a long record in tending similar sections of society.

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