Pride at The New Room, Bristol

Revd Mandy Briggs, our Education Officer, shares the story of Pride at the New Room.

It all started with a conversation. In 2016, I was talking to my friend Louise at the book club we both go to. She asked if she and her partner Lucy could arrange to have some prayers said in the New Room before their wedding at the register office.

This request was a first for the chapel. But as part of the Methodist Church’s Pilgrimage of Faith, it was now permitted to offer prayers (but not blessings) for same-sex couples. Our trustees agreed, prayers were said and a wish became reality for Louise and Lucy.

Fast forward to 2018 and an email came through to the office from Elaine, the co-ordinator of Christians at Bristol Pride – a small group of LGBTQI+ Christians and allies. Bristol has one of the largest Pride marches in the country – around 25,000 people take part – and the route goes right past the doors of the New Room.

The group asked to use the chapel for a celebration service on the morning of the march, before joining the march itself. Again the trustees were consulted and all was agreed.

We started to plan the service. It was to be a celebration of a Christian presence at Pride featuring worship songs, prayers, testimony and symbolic actions. We started to promote the service – and that’s when people started to react. As well as many positive and encouraging responses, we had some emails of complaint. What do you think you are doing holding this service, it’s sinful! What kind of ‘symbolic acts’? (we were planning to hold up paper chains and break them as a sign of freedom and liberation to be ourselves).

The New Room sometimes attracts more attention than other Methodist churches might because it is the oldest Methodist building in the world. But when a small Christian charity posted a blog about the service on its website and encouraged its supporters to picket the service, we realised things had got slightly more serious. This was new territory but we still felt it was important to go ahead with the service, showing welcome and love to everyone who wanted to attend.

On the day, about 80 people came to take part in the service. So did two protesters, who barged their way into the pulpit and interrupted the worship. This was an experience which left us shaken, and yet those gathered were able to show the protesters grace and love; they said their piece and were politely asked to leave.

It gave us insight into the challenges that members of the LGBTQI+ community face every day – simply for being, simply for daring to celebrate being made in the image of God.

It shook us, but it also made us more determined to hold another service the following year. It went ahead, with some nervousness – what if the protesters came back? – but this time the service was not interrupted.

After the service, some of us joined the march and a second group stood on the pavement outside the chapel, cheering on the march as it passed. We held signs which said things like “You are Beautiful” and waved rainbow flags. The response from the marchers was amazing – people waved, smiled, gave us stickers and a few came over to hug us and say thank you.

We realised that further down the road, a group of anti-LGBTQI+ protesters HAD gathered – but due to the route of the march, it was our group that the march saw first. We were so glad to be there.

Some people still asked us – why are you hosting these Pride services? Our response was – well, who are our neighbours? On Pride weekend, 25,000 people become our instant neighbours as they walk past the door. So instead of shutting the gates, we fling them wide open and celebrate the fact that LGBTQI+ Christians are unashamedly loved, accepted and welcome. We become part of the presence, the protest and the party.

    

In 2020 and 2021, we shared Pride services online due to COVID restrictions.

Since 2022, annual Pride services have returned to the chapel and continue to be supported by the LGBTQI+ community as well as by allies from partner churches across the ecumenical spectrum.

2022 was also the year that the trustees at the New Room unanimously decided to register as a place where same-sex marriages could be celebrated. This has led to two weddings and one blessing of same-sex couples being held in the chapel, to great celebration.

Has it been a journey? Yes

Have we made mistakes? Definitely

Would we do it all again? Certainly.