Pride parade shows support for gay rights and Churches should take heed
Last Saturday I watched the Pride parade march through the crowded streets of Belfast, and it was an eye-opening experience.
I wanted to see at first hand something I would be writing about, and I wanted to make up my own mind about it, rather than depending on other people's views.
I had expected a great deal of 'in your face' flaunting by LGBT people who were setting out to shock the rest of us. They were there, though they were more amusing and colourful than offensive.
What impressed me was the very large number of people parading, and the huge crowds of spectators.
There were representatives from leading banks and businesses, as well as major stores, trade unions, police from North and South, the Boy Scouts of Ireland, Christians in Pride and many others.
If you think of the Pride parade as a minority event, you had better think again. It is becoming more mainstream, with parents, children and grandparents turning up to share in a celebration of diversity.
Certainly, it exceeded my expectations.
After it was over I bumped into an older lady, a stranger who recognised me from my picture. She said: "I believe in live and let live, and I hope that you will write a fair report about this parade." Which is exactly what I am doing.
While I still have deep issues about the concept of equal marriage and other aspects of some same-sex relationships, the time has long gone when the LGBT community should be penalised and confined to the shadows.
I believe that they should be welcomed and appreciated for their contribution to our diverse 21st century.
Part of my motive for attending the parade on Saturday was also my reaction after reading an important article in last week's Irish Times by the Rev Mike O'Sullivan, minister of the Unitarian Church in Prince's Street, Cork.
He said that neither he nor the majority of his congregation were gay, but he would be leading them in taking part in the Pride parade in Cork on the same day as the Belfast parade.
He wrote, powerfully: "Churches and their clergy must be representative of a God of people's true, genuine and authentic lives. God must be the God of love, of all love, no ifs and no buts. It is not the job of the Church and clergy to restrict God, to shackle Him.
"The spirit that is God must be open to all, and so church must be a place of welcome for all. Most importantly, the welcome must be unconditional. We must put our money where our mouth is.
"We cannot welcome people into our churches and expect them to hide who they really are, to hide all that makes them unique. In short, we must practice what we preach.
"We can argue about theology and the very nature of God until the cows come home, but at the end of the day, the man called Jesus had a very simple and uncomplicated message: 'Love one another as I have loved you.'
"He didn't add in any qualifications, any ifs and buts. It was a very simple truth."
One of the Rev O'Sullivan's most challenging statements was this: "Can you imagine a sign on any church which says 'We reserve the right of admission?' Horrifying thought, isn't it?"
Yet, sadly, that is exactly what we are doing in many of our churches in Northern Ireland over LGBT issues. We are excluding people, and equally depressing is the fact that many people are continuing to exclude themselves from the churches, and leaving because of the lack of grace and welcome from those clergy and laity who have been handling the issue so badly.
Same-sex marriage is now enshrined in the law of the Irish Republic, and it will become law in Northern Ireland sooner or later.
People will continue to argue about whether it is theologically right or wrong, but we need to show more love and understanding to those who differ from us.
Christ once said: "Come unto me all ye who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He excluded no one on grounds of their sexuality or social background.
That really is worth pondering at this time.