Yesterday's Pride festival in London was one of the deepest spiritual experiences I've had for some time. Prayer, protest, witness and celebration are often at their most meaningful in unfamiliar contexts.
I was moved and challenged by encounters with old friends, new acquaintances, lesbian Quakers, transgender Christians, non-religious Pride participants and anti-Pride protesters.
The Christian presence at Pride was more visible than ever – and deliberately so. Christians at Pride have for some years easily outnumbered those who turn up to protest against it, but the latter group tends to get mentioned in the media and noticed by other participants. We thought this should change.
Pride promotes diverse sexuality and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. Pride events take place around the world, with London Pride usually being the largest such event in the UK.
Over a hundred Christians marched under the banner of Christians Together at Pride, wearing purple T-shirts declaring “Christian and Proud". About another thirty people marched as a Quaker group while no doubt more Christians joined other parts of the parade.
Christians Together at Pride included hardened activists along with people who had never attended Pride before. For some of them, being open about their sexuality in a Christian context was a novel and exciting experience. I'm delighted that we were also so open about our faith. The usual image of Pride marches does not involve people singing “We want to see Jesus lifted high”, “This is the day that the Lord has made” and – a particular favourite of mine - “We are marching in the light of God”.
The reaction of others to this behaviour varied from amazement to amusement – but on whole, it was overwhelmingly positive. Only once or twice did I hear an anti-Christian comment shouted towards us. The general reaction was cheers, applause and positive shouts. People approached us to tell how great it was to see Christians supporting Pride. When the Christian group assembled for photos at the end, several other participants spontaneously came up to applaud us. No wonder that one Christian said she felt like a celebrity.
It is not easy to say how much other participants understood our position. Hopefully our hymns and language made clear that we were at Pride because of Jesus, not in spite of him. Who can say how many people were moved towards a positive attitude to Christian faith at yesterday's event?
Perhaps surprisingly, the most moving experience for me involved marching past the anti-LGBT Christians who assemble to protest against Pride. It must be difficult for them, maintaining their position as thousands march past (some of whom, I'm sorry to say, are likely to shout abuse). I'd hoped to talk to them, but the police arrangements meant that they were kept in a protest pen some distance away. Indeed, I could barely see their faces and struggled to read the read the biblical quotes on their placards.
As we marched past them, we sang “Yes, Jesus love you – the Bible tells us so”. I stretched out my hand to try to indicate blessing on them. I'm far more used to being in the protesting minority than in the accepted mainstream, which thankfully helped my ability to empathise with them. I had to remind myself that while Pride makes diverse sexuality feel utterly normal, prejudice and discrimination remain common and what equality we do have is due to years of campaigning. And that's just in Britain, to say nothing of countries in which members of sexual minorities face torture, imprisonment or death.
My delight with the day does not mean that I was comfortable with everything that happened. I heard opinions I disagreed with and saw things that I objected to. I would rather there had been less alcohol around at times, and I suspect Pride needs a more explicitly campaigning focus, whereas for some people it seems to be a party only. But for many people, it is the one day in the year when they feel they are being true to themselves, and I've no doubt that this was the case for a number of Christians
Arriving slightly late for the communion service at St Martin-in-the-Fields' Church, I found myself trying to share an order of service with three other people. Someone whispered that the reason for this was a turnout that vastly exceeded expectations. Indeed, they had moved us to a different room, and we still struggled to fit in it. There were people crying during the sermon and prayers, and I felt my own tears start during the hymns. Next year, I thought, let's fill the whole church.