by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
One of the delights of being involved in the Methodist-Anglican Covenant (I co-chair the national Advocacy and Monitoring Group) is the opportunity to build friendships and receive wisdom from Methodist colleagues. My Methodist co-chair, David Walton, is a past Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, and by profession a senior lawyer working with a large legal firm in Manchester. Like most organisations today, his firm is committed to diversity and inclusion, and David is closely involved in advocating for that within the firm as well as more widely.
Over a cup of coffee a couple of days before Manchester Pride, David and I were speaking about what it is to be an ally, and in particular what it is to be an LGBTQI+ ally in these days. This is a matter on which David, along with thousands of people in organisations large and small, has reflected deeply, and together with a group of colleagues he was about to join the Manchester Pride procession to stand with and for inclusion and to identify his firm with that aim. Here are some of them preparing for that day:
Of course we went on to speak of what it means to be an ally, and in particular a LGBTI+ ally, within the Church and the churches. This is something that I touched on in my book “The Table” when I spoke of some criticism I had received for becoming a patron of Liverpool Pride:
The general sense of [this criticism] was that I had made a mistake in conferring ‘legitimacy’ or ‘recognition’ on the LGBTI+ community by associating with the Pride events.
My own perspective was diametrically different from this. As I saw it, it was the LGBTI+ community which had conferred the honour of recognition on me, a representative of so much that had hurt and still hurts its people. Far from wanting to remind me of these millions of hurtful moments, my new friends and colleagues at Pride were unconditional in their acceptance and enthusiastic in their affirmation of a Christian (one of many on the event) who simply wanted to walk with the community and to affirm God’s love for its people. It was by this acceptance and affirmation that the gift of the poor Christ was given to me on that day.
And I responded in repentance for all that I and my community had done to demean and distress LGBTI+ human beings. I was able to speak with and share with and offer help to people on that day and subsequently. In short, through my involvement with Liverpool Pride I experienced life-changing friendship leading to repentance and ministry; the classic pattern of those who meet and sit at the carpenter’s table, as described at length elsewhere in this book.
What does it mean, generally, anywhere, to be an ally?
Surely it means, not that we patronisingly confer legitimacy on a marginalised group, but that we receive the gift of inclusion from those on the edge, and that we ourselves develop and grow.
This is true whether or not we wish to identify with the aims and purposes of a marginalised group. For years the Church has said that it opposes homophobia and stands against the insult and sometimes the violence perpetrated against the LGBTI+ community. It should not be controversial, or uncommon, therefore, for anyone in the church to express support for Pride and though Pride for the wider LGBTI+ community, as for example the excellent message penned by the Bishop of Chichester and sent to the organisers of Brighton Pride:
I regret that such voices are rarer than they might be. I regret that ‘alliance’ is often seen by believers as something to be avoided, as a step on the slippery slope to heresy. If you see it that way, you will keep silence, even if to keep silence is to see injustice flourish. It would surely be better if clarity of belief could be mixed with a public and non-anxious identification with those on the edge, in this as in all aspects of our life.
My coffee with my friend David prompted these thoughts, and he also gave me a resource – one that he uses in his law firm and one that I recommend here for any group wanting to learn to be an ally. It’s a TED talk by Melinda Epler, focussing on workplace inclusion in the US context, but vital for anyone, anywhere, who wants to know what it means to act as an ally, and how it’s so much more than simply passing resolutions vaguely condemning exclusion.
She ends with some small, practical, workplace-related steps – which, small as they are, would transform our discourse if we translated them into our life as a Church and put them into action:
So, what can you do as an ally? Start by doing no harm. It’s our job as allies to know what microaggressions are and to not do them. It’s our job as allies to listen, to learn, to unlearn and to relearn, and to make mistakes and to keep learning. Give me your full attention. Close your laptops, put down your cellphones and pay attention. If somebody is new or the only person in the room like them, or they’re just nervous, this is going to make a huge difference in how they show up.
Don’t interrupt. Underrepresented people are more likely to be interrupted, so just take a step back and listen. Echo and attribute. If I have a great idea, echo my idea and then attribute it to me, and we thrive together. Learn the language I use to describe my identity. Know how to pronounce my name. Know my pronouns — he, she, they. Know the language I use to describe my disability, my ethnicity, my religion. This really matters to people, so if you don’t know, just ask. Listen and learn.
An executive told me recently that after doing allyship on his team, the whole team started to normalize calling themselves out and each other out for interrupting. “I’m so sorry I’m interrupting you right now, carry on.” “Hey, she’s got a great idea, let’s listen.”
Number two, advocate for underrepresented people in small ways. Intervene; you can change the power dynamics in the room. If you see somebody is the only person in the room like them and they are being belittled, they are being interrupted, do something, say something. Invite underrepresented people to speak. And say no to panels without underrepresented speakers. Refer someone for a job and encourage them to take that job and to take new opportunities. And this one’s really important — help normalize allyship. If you’re a person with privilege, it’s easier for you to advocate for allies. So use that privilege to create change.
Three, change someone’s life significantly. So, be there for somebody throughout their career. Mentor or sponsor them, give them opportunities as they grow. Volunteer — volunteer for a STEM program, serving underserved youth. Transform your team to be more diverse and inclusive. And make real commitments to creating change here. Hold yourself and your team accountable for creating change.
And lastly, help advocate for change across your company. When companies teach their people to be allies, diversity and inclusion programs are stronger. You and I can be allies for each other, whether we’re inside or outside of work.
Although I’ve focused on the LGBTQI+ example, since it is one of the sharpest for our church, I want to stand with Melinda in her argument that together, allies can build a coalition of inclusion – what’s sometimes described as an intersectional alliance – to oppose exclusion and the abuse of power anywhere.
It’s not for nothing that the coalition of political opposition to the policies of the present Government has been described as the Rebel Alliance. People with relatively little else in common are prepared to stand together against ways of acting that they all believe are wrong. I’m asking: is there any chance that such a rebel alliance might genuinely flourish in the churches?
Melinda’s talk ends like this. It sounds right to me:
So, I realized recently that I still have lingering shame and fear from that moment in my career when I felt utterly alone, shut out and unsupported. There are millions of people out there, like me, right now, feeling that way. And it doesn’t take much for us to be there for each other. And when we’re there for each other, when we support one another, we thrive together. And when we thrive, we build better teams, better products and better companies. Allyship is powerful. Try it.
As David Walton reflected with me on seeing this article: “Allyship at heart is simply a practical outworking of loving our neighbour.”
Yes, allyship is powerful. Try it.