Love’s pure light
by Angela Hanley
On Saturday night last, Rev Bridget Spain, of the Unitarian Church, Dublin, welcomed us to the 19th LGBT Annual Christmas Carol Service with the following:
Love is the doctrine of this Church, the quest of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace. To seek knowledge in freedom. To serve humankind in fellowship to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine. This do we covenant with each other and with God.
Though my faith is deeply Trinitarian, I find much to admire about the active welcome one finds in the Unitarian Church. Theirs is no theoretical welcome that ticks the boxes so long as the congregant fits the right profile – not in a same-sex relationship (no matter how life-giving), or not finding happiness in a second, committed relationship after a marriage crumbles. Theirs isn’t a “tolerating” welcome – ok, so you don’t fit the profile, but we’ll be tolerant and grant you compassion. No – this welcome is rich, all encompassing and full of the love of God. Which, in truth, defines what our Trinitarian faith ought to foster in us, but sadly our Church leadership too often fails to hear the voice of the Spirit in the gentle breeze.
Michael Murphy, former RTE broadcaster and now a psychotherapist, spoke about his experience as a gay man. A gay man who found deep and abiding love in his relationship with his husband, Terry O Sullivan. Rather than present an address as such, Michael read five of his poems, with short commentary in between each. Michael’s poems read more like poetic prose, nevertheless, one could not but be moved by the depth of feeling they conveyed. They told us of a man who found self-acceptance, and who found love. The blessing and joy of that love radiated from Michael like an energy drawing others into its blessing.
In the prayers of intercession the call and response to each intercession was: “fall in love, stay in love…” “…and it will decide everything.” This could have been a little twee, but it wasn’t – not when accompanied by sincere prayers that situated it in the Christian setting where falling in love with God and staying in love with God actually does decide everything. It will decide how we treat our LGBT sisters and brothers who are equally made in the image and likeness of God. It will decide how we treat our brothers and sisters who are struggling with homelessness, whether actually on the street, or trying to live as a family in a hotel room. That love will decide whether or not we will make parents and other carers struggle for every aid or assistance their loved ones need to live a dignified life.
Can we be in love with God if we are always setting limits and boundaries about who is acceptable to be part of the wider Christian family?
There is something especially beautiful in a Church when all the lights are down and there is a candlelight ceremony. When it is accompanied by O, Holy Night it lends particular meaning to the idea of the light coming into the world. The full Church meant the light from all the candles progressed from a little flickering flame at first to a warm golden glow by the time everyone present lit their candles. In this gentle light, Silent Night was sung by the Dublin Gay Men’s Chorus who, with their musical director, provided the beautiful, dignified music for the carol celebration. In front of us were two young (and indeed handsome) men – possibly late 20s, maybe early 30s – and when they returned from lighting their candles, they stood close together and then, in a small movement, one reached for the other’s hand. They held hands, not looking at each other, for the duration of the carol. There was something intensely moving in that little point of contact. It was private and gentle but seemed so full of meaning for both of them. And it made me wonder about the make-up of the families represented at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin next year – will same-sex couples and their families be represented, not as a tolerance, but as full, participating members?
The marriage equality referendum and the collective “coming out” it entailed for many in the LGBT community have certainly helped people reclaim their rightful place in our society. But there is still a long way to go. Suicide and self-harm is still statistically higher in LGBT groups than the wider population. Prejudice still exists – and we do not need to go beyond our own Church to see it codified as acceptable prejudice.
If this year’s carol service is anything to go by, it will soon outgrow its present home in the Unitarian Church. However, I hope it doesn’t move to another location – there is something about the welcome here that is unique. People will just have to get there early enough to get a seat. And others will just have to learn how to provide the same welcome in their own churches.