by Anne Dannerolle, Church Minister of Hull Community Church (soon to become Oasis Church Hull) and East Yorks Regional Ambassador for Inclusive Church
The day I stood up to tell our church congregation in Hull that we were opting in for same-sex weddings, back in 2018, I felt a mixture of thankfulness and dread. I had a picture of my head above a parapet and wondered if it would be shot down in flames, and if my brief stint as church minister was about to come to an end. Was I about to split the church, and what would happen next?
Hull Community Church had once been a very typical conservative evangelical church in the 1990s. One of the ‘new’ style churches it appeared informal, fun and exciting. There was certainly a buzz about the place when I arrived as a student, with a newfound faith and desire to get stuck into a local church. There was a great sense of family and community, but underneath the modern appearance, there were also deeply held conservative views and a purity culture to follow. But in the late 1990s, a number of community projects grew out of the church, and with these came a change in thinking. The church grew less conservative in its views, and more open and loving and accepting.
In 2015, I was asked to become the church minister, after having headed up the community work of the church for 10 years. But I was becoming increasingly torn about being silently affirming instead of openly vocal about my support for the LGBT+ community. Like many church ministers I stuck my head in the sand and pretended that by staying neutral, I could serve and love everyone. I remember reading the words of Desmund Tutu and being haunted by the truth of them, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality”.
In the summer of 2017, I felt that God was kicking me off the fence, and asking me to stand up and be honest. Not long afterwards, Lucy Gorman from the local LGBT Christian Fellowship asked if we would host Steve Chalke at the church for him to share his story about inclusion – we were the only church in Hull willing to have him speak, with a big enough room to meet in. That took us on an eight month journey of conversations with the church and bringing people’s stories into the light. We encouraged the church to read widely, and listen and talk respectfully together. While Biblical interpretations did have an importance, in truth it was people’s stories that made the real difference. Seeing God at work challenged people’s preconceived ideas and led to deeper relationships and understanding.
And then came the day. As an independent church, the decision was ours to make. The trustees and leadership team agreed that the church would opt in for same-sex weddings and become fully and openly inclusive. And it was time for me to stand up and deliver the news. If you’re interested, you can take a listen to the talk I gave.
Listening back now does make me cringe. Some of my language and understanding still had a way to go, and you can hear the nervousness in my voice. But it was a key moment in our journey, and unforgettable for me.
Afterwards, two people came to tell me they were leaving the church, which was a moment of real sadness, but the church did not split. The most memorable conversation though was with a young woman who came to tell me that she was gay. She said it was the first time she had felt safe to say that aloud in a church. The thing was, this young woman had been in my home, babysat my kids, walked my dog, eaten meals together, and been part of the family. Why hadn’t she felt safe to tell me before? Why didn’t she know I would have loved her?
It brought home to me in the starkest possible way that even though I believed I was loving, inclusive and safe, I wasn’t. Being silently affirming was simply not good enough. Not for a group of people who had suffered so much at the hands of organised religion. I needed to be bold enough to speak aloud words of affirmation and support. Love looks like being valued, affirmed and celebrated, not just accepted and tolerated.
Since then I have heard hundreds of heart-breaking stories, and I now believe that the most important work of my life has been to take the church to a place of being openly and vocally inclusive. I know I have a long way to go, and this is not the end of the journey.
This week, we will be announcing to our church congregation that we are joining the Oasis Church network. We have been in conversation for a while with the church, so they know it’s coming. We will no longer be Hull Community Church, but Oasis Church Hull. We’re proud to become part of a church network that is fully inclusive in every way. This is embedding irreversible change into the church, meaning that we can never go back to being a conservative evangelical church, no matter what. It gives a safety net by being part of something bigger, and we’re excited about this new step.
Sometimes change in church feels like an impossible mountain to climb. But Steve Chalke said when he came to Hull in 2017 that it’s like a slow tide. There’s only one way it’s coming in, and it isn’t going away. Change is coming, slowly, too slowly, but I live in hope that in my lifetime our LGBT community will be valued and celebrated in every way in our churches. I can only say that I am sorry we didn’t vocalise it sooner.
And thank you for not giving up on church. We need you, more than we know. Without everyone being a part, we are not whole. Only when include, love, affirm and celebrate every human being in our midst will we see God’s kingdom come alive here on earth.