A Christmas Message for the LGBT+ Communities

This piece appeared first at Kaleidoscot, an online publication for Scotland’s LGBT communities.

Illuminated cathedral at night

The first Christmas after I was ordained nearly 20 years ago, I happened to come down sick before Christmas. My senior colleague had to take all the services instead of us sharing them and all I could do was drag myself to midnight mass and sit at the back of the church amongst the congregation. The lights were low, but as I looked around it seemed to me that something was different. Somehow, I realised, the congregation was a good deal more gay than normal. In the half-light I could make out several young gay couples scattered through the building whom I was not used to seeing.

“Ah yes,” someone told me after Christmas when I was feeling better, “they are children of the people who live here who’ve gone off to the cities to live an easier life. This is the only time we see them. Christmas Eve is always gay night here!”

It was the perfect metaphor for where we were in those days. Young people feeling that they needed to move away from home in order to live open lives with those whom they loved, returning rather uncertainly at Christmas to a town that had often been unkind to them. Meanwhile, I sat in their midst feeling like the ghost of Christmas past. Not just because I was feeling a bit under the weather either – for in those days I was closeted. No-one knew I was gay. Or at least, that’s what I persisted in believing. I thought I was the only priest in the village.

How things have changed now. These days as an openly gay priest, I lead a congregation with gay, lesbian, trans, asexual and bi members all muddled up with the straight folk. Young straight people bring their children to church because they want them to grow up in a religious environment where equality is the norm and gay rights can be easily spoken of and fought for. And a loud, jolly party sets off to march each year to celebrate Pride. Every week is gay week now.

There’s still a lot to do of course. Lots of church congregations still have not caught up with the good news that if you are open to everyone then it is far less likely that churches will decline and die. My own congregation has seen steady growth from all kinds of people since we started to advertise ourselves as open, inclusive and welcoming.

The church leaders who still have negative things to say about us are sounding more shrill every year that goes by. Anti-gay voices are simply not trusted by the mainstream now.

Even though change in the church seems slow, we’ve still got great victories to celebrate this year. It has just been announced that a majority of Church of Scotland presbyteries support the General Assembly call for ordained posts to be opened to married gay clergy as well as those in Civil Partnerships. Another decision awaits that church at their General Assembly in May – had the presbytery vote gone the other way there would have been no chance to move forward. In my own Scottish Episcopal Church this year saw a resounding vote to bring in a two year legislative process that could well mean we are doing same-sex marriages in church by summer 2017. And even in the Roman Catholic Church we’ve moved from a Pope a few years ago using his Christmas message to condemn gay marriage to one who more recently has shrugged off questions with his famous “who am I to judge?” quote.

I’m impatient for change and want justice to come faster. But that just keeps me fighting.

It is part of the Christmas story that inspires me. When Mary was pregnant with Jesus she sang a song of justice that is part of what moves me every time I hear it. “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” We sing that song of justice every week in my congregation and I have it running through my mind whenever I go on a demo or a Pride march.

Intrinsic to the Christmas story is Mary who simply wants the world to change. With songs like her Magnificat that we have recorded in the Bible, you can imagine her singing feminist lullabies and protest ditties to the babe in the manger.

This year as I go to church at midnight mass, I’ll be praying with Mary for the world to become more just for all God’s children, gay, lesbian, straight, trans, bi wherever they are. In the year to come, let us commit ourselves to stand in solidarity with those who are persecuted wherever they are. And let us commit ourselves too to rejoice with those who rejoice in any kind of freedom won – couples now able to marry and individuals with rights they never dreamed of when they were young.

My world has changed since I went to midnight mass 20 years ago and it has changed for the better. I should have expected nothing less. God sent his son into this world at Christmas to be with those who suffer and to make merry with those with something to celebrate.

I’ve plenty to celebrate this Christmas and plenty still to work for.

May God bless you with both forms of plenty this Christmas and in the year to come too.

Midnight Mass starts in St Mary’s at 23.15 pm on Christmas Eve – with communion for everyone. www.thecathedral.org.uk

Making Scotland’s Sex Trade Safer

The recent death of Cynthia Payne provides a helpful reminder of the two-faced attitude to prostitution that we often hold. Ms Payne managed to cultivate a populist and almost comic Carry on Whoring image. She invited the great and the good to her home in Streatham and offered sandwiches and “services” merely in exchange for luncheon vouchers. In her day, she never seemed to be out of the public eye. However on the other hand, public opinion also holds prostitution to be a rather sordid transaction that needs to be heavily legislated against and which doesn’t bear thinking about.

I happen to believe that there is no law which is going to completely remove prostitution from society. Given that view, it seems reasonable to expect the law to protect those who are vulnerable. If some modest reforms of the law can help make the lives of those who are vulnerable a bit safer then our politicians should not be squeamish about making change happen.

One of our own MSPs, Jean Urquhart is doing precisely that at the moment by promoting a consultation on several possible changes to the law around prostitution. I have little doubt that she will get some abuse for her efforts. There are few votes in offering favours to sex-workers. The trouble is, Jean Urquhart is at least partly right.

At the moment, it is perfectly legal for someone to sell sex from a flat or house provided they act alone. Once anyone else gets involved, so does the law. Should two women operate from one dwelling then they can both be prosecuted as brothel keepers. Is this really right and just? Wouldn’t those two women be safer working in partnership or as a collective with a couple of others, any of whom would know that someone was on hand, if a client turned nasty?

After all no-one is going to call the police to deal with a client if they think that they themselves are likely to be arrested too.

Jean Urquhart’s proposals would lead to further decriminalisation of prostitution. It is easy to see why there might be a law to prevent “living off the avails of prostitution”. The idea is to stop people making money from the sex lives of the vulnerable. However it is less easy to see why the child of a sex-worker should themselves be guilty of a crime for accepting money from their parent to enable them to go to college.

Jean Urquhart’s proposals will not become law in this parliamentary session and she standing down as an MSP next year. Her legacy should be a parliamentary review of the law surrounding prostitution which seeks to target coercion rather than transaction. I don’t expect to see political manifestos next year make many promises to help those in the sex trade. However, that should not prevent progressive people from all shades of political opinion from raising these issues with those standing for parliament next year.

Those who see prostitution as a scourge in society need to come up with their own ways of diminishing the amount of prostitution that takes place. I believe that the best way of doing this is to tackle poor employment options for women, ensure access to adequate affordable housing, remove the wickedness of benefit sanctions, tackle student poverty and heavily legislate against those who offer at an absurdly high rate of interest, credit to those who cannot afford it. And everyone would benefit from much better sex education in schools that doesn’t just treat the sex lives of young people as a problem.

Locking up women (or men) who are engaged in buying or selling sex should come a long way down the list.

Alongside reviewing the law, there needs to be a review of sentencing guidelines and police policy. Recent heavy-handed raids against saunas in Edinburgh by Police Scotland seem to be an argument in favour of local rather than national policing policy rather than a responsible policy on how to deal with sex-work in Scotland.

I happen to be unconvinced that prostitution is a legitimate career choice. I’d prefer a society in which there was less of a sex trade rather than more of it. However, there are people who are involved in that trade currently and those who will be involved in it in the future. Where the law can be changed to make them safer and less vulnerable then politicians should be fearless in bringing change about.