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Churches’ apology to sex and gender diverse community

“Equal Voices is a movement that was born out of frustration. It was born out of determination. But most of all, it was born out of love.”

Natalie Cooper at Pitt Street Uniting Church. Photo: Supplied

Natalie Cooper at Pitt Street Uniting Church. Photo: Supplied

And so we began the introduction of Equal Voices to those gathered at Pitt Street Uniting Church on Monday April 3 for our official launch by the Hon. Michael Kirby. Fittingly, representatives from across the Christian and wider communities were there in support; the LGBTIQ community bearing witness to our commitment to repentance.

It was wonderful to welcome, among others, the Rev. Dr Peter Catt, Anglican Dean of Brisbane; the Rev. Myung Hwa Park, Moderator of the Uniting Church in NSW and ACT; and the Rev. Robert Clark of MCC Sydney. Likewise, PFLAG was represented by Shelley Argent, who travelled from Brisbane, and ACON by Dr Justin Koonin.

Earlier, on February 24, we had gathered at St James King Street, in the heart of the Anglican Diocese, to commission the National Apology. That occasion was one of reflection, of exploring why and how the church of Jesus Christ had come to such a place that many of its children need to repent of the way we have treated our siblings.

Those who came together that evening represented those who were convicted of the need to apologise, and those to whom an apology was long overdue.

We now gathered in the Uniting Church, symbolic of the ecumenical nature of Equal Voices. This was the public declaration of what we are here to do. We were the churched and the unchurched, those who were no longer part of “religion”, those who bravely came into a place – Pitt Street Uniting Church – that has long held up a light for those on the margins. This gathering of 330 people represented those currently part of and yet to be part of Equal Voices – and those with whom we will do this work of reconciliation.

We cannot begin that reconciliation without apology, and we cannot apologise and “leave it at that”. And so, referencing the words of Dr Martin Luther King: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people”, I offered the apology to my Equal Voices co-chair Benjamin Oh, who, holding the Rainbow Flag, accepted the apology for the first time.

One thing we stressed on that evening of declaration, and continue to emphasise: the apology will continue. It is an ongoing work, that begins with acknowledgement, individually and corporately, that damage has been done. Many remain unconvinced – or unaware – of the need for apology.

But how had we come to this place? Why, in Michael’s words, had we decided that “this is the time, this is the hour, this is the opportunity”?

In July 2016, the conversations that had been taking place between a number of us, across networks, friendships, denominations and links, became something tangible. Some had been involved in advocacy previously, both within and outside the church; others were keen to put their words into action. The goal from the beginning was to provide a platform for allies to stand up with – never for or on behalf of – our LGBTIQ siblings.

It was out of the conviction that allies have failed to be advocates that Equal Voices was born; that for too long Christians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer have had to stand up for themselves in the church, and for too many people this has come at a terrible price.

Michael Kirby noted, “We will get there in the long run … but it won’t hurt if we hurry up the process a bit.” I stated the same urgency: that gradual public debate and “well timed” progress comes too late for those suffering in our churches now. The fact that being a person of faith drives young people to despair instead of to hope should outrage every single one of us.

We fully acknowledge those who have worked before us, and are aware that those who have stood up for inclusion and affirmation have often paid the price, with loss of jobs and being put to the outer. That this happens as a result of working to end pain is a disgrace, and is further motivation to all. We determined that at ground level, work had to be done to move the church to a place where the full recognition of the human dignity of us all would not be up for debate.

And we are the church – the church belongs to all of us, it is for us to act.

The particular power of a grassroots movement lies in us, as individual Christians, taking responsibility for what we have done and failed to do. Where people have been made to bear burdens alone, we stand up, individually and visibly, against the “othering” we have witnessed and failed to stop. We take responsibility to speak up when we hear the words that lead to hateful actions and exclusion. It creates the personal relationships necessary for conversations to happen and be heard.

Change happens at the grassroots level. Momentum is powerful when built from the ground up. It creates the ownership necessary for commitment to ongoing work, to seeing this through, to continually asking ourselves: “what more can we do?”. Being cross-denominational, we have the freedom to act across traditional lines, partnering with and speaking to all who wish to become involved.

For this reason, Equal Voices announced our two main works, which will run in parallel: education and resourcing. Our first annual symposium was announced: October 2017, with plans for smaller and ongoing seminars and workshops.

We welcome the opportunity to speak with community groups, churches and others involved in advocacy. It was wonderful to have Acting Assistant Commissioner Tony Crandell representing NSW Police, who have already invited Equal Voices to participate in the induction of new recruits on LGBTIQ inclusion.

 

 

Natalie Cooper is Co-chair of Equal Voices. The National Apology is at: http://equalvoices.org.au/apologise

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