To mark LGBT History Month, we held a special service celebrating the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender people that have inspired us. We lit candles to remember those LGBT community that have been part of our lives, family members as well as well-known figures.
One of the things that first attracted me to a Unitarian community, was the big-hearted, open-minded approach of its members. This extends to all people, regardless of background or sexuality. With the progress that has been made thanks to the gay rights movement over the past fifty years, it can be easy to forget that homosexual acts between the over 21s was illegal before 1967 and that an equal age of consent was not passed until 1998.
The community of Lewisham Unitarians has a long history of supporting social justice campaigns and encouraging equality in different areas of life. And ministers from this congregation and others have played an important role in the progress of gay rights in the UK.
Dr Tony Cross was minister at Lewisham Unitarian Meeting House for five years from 1968 onwards and has been an advocate and activist for gay equality for over 50 years. While we might assume that Unitarians are all very liberal and accepting these days, Dr Cross and Rev Keith Gilley (then minister at Golders Green Unitarian Church) struggled to get support from the wider national movement. They proposed motions at the national Annual Meetings regarding lowering the age of consent and realised that the fear and prejudice that some people felt – even within the liberal Unitarian movement in the 1960s – was borne of an ignorance that assumed that being gay was a lifestyle choice.
So Dr Cross set about doing what he could to foster learning between straight and gay people. He set up a pioneering discussion group at the Meeting House called Integroup in 1970. In an article called ‘Only Connect’ published in Faith and Freedom in 2015, Dr Cross wrote that
Almost in order to prove this, he invited to a Sunday service, Rose Robertson who had set up a helpline for concerned and curious parents of young gay people. Instead of a sermon at the service, he interviewed Mrs Robertson. He wanted to ‘open up a discussion about the prejudice, ignorance and injustice with which so many gay people had to cope.’ He recalls, ‘at the end of the interview, a member of the congregation who attended regularly with her husband and four sons, said to me “Well, Tony – we need to meet some homosexuals!”’ and that was the cue he needed to set up Integroup. Looking back on that time, he concluded
Rev Keith Gilley began as minister at Golders Green Unitarians in the late 60s and continued there for over twenty years, before becoming editor of the Unitarian newspaper The Inquirer. As his friend Rev John Midgely remembered in his Guardian obituary, ‘he encouraged inclusive attitudes towards homosexuality, supported a gay helpline and, with Rabbi Lionel Blue, led gay bereavement groups. He proposed the motion that "the ministry of the denomination be open to all regardless of … sexual orientation” at the 1976 Unitarian Annual Meetings. Long before civil partnerships and the equal marriage debate, he conducted "gay unions", some of the first ceremonies of their kind in the 1970s.
In 2013, the government seemed to catch up with public opinion by proposing the Equal Marriage Bill. Unitarians worked with the Quakers and the Liberal Jews to help bring this about. In his response to the news, the Unitarian Chief Executive Derek McAuley said, “We welcome the decision of the Government to bring forward legislation that will allow the holding of same sex weddings in churches and other religious buildings if that is the wish to the religious body. Unitarians will grasp the opportunity to carry out equal marriage with open arms. As one of our hymns says “All Are Welcome Here”.
And in 2014, Lewisham was granted a license to conduct same sex weddings. As far as we know, this was the first place of worship in the borough to be given such a licence and possibly the only one so far!
We continue this tradition of social justice by marking Transgender Memorial Day which remembers victims of hate crimes and proudly displaying our rainbow freedom flag from our noticeboard to show the people of Catford that ‘Unitarians welcome everyone.'
submitted by Rev Kate Dean, Minister