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.
The Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth is the Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow. Midnight Mass starts in St Mary’s at 23.15 pm on Christmas Eve – with communion for everyone. www.thecathedral.org.uk