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Pride flag as an altar frontal: Leicester Chancellor delivers her verdict

19 February 2024

St Nicholas’s, Leicester/Facebook

A makeshift Pride flag on the altar of St Nicholas’s, Leicester

A makeshift Pride flag on the altar of St Nicholas’s, Leicester

THE consistory court of the diocese of Leicester has refused to grant a faculty for the introduction of a new altar frontal at St Nicholas’s, Leicester, displaying the Progress Pride flag and incorporating a cross in the design.

The Progress Pride flag was “not a Christian emblem”, the Chancellor Naomi Gyane said. While it was “a sign of welcome for people from the LGBTQIA+ community, and although not itself political,” it was, she said, “a secular contemporary emblem used for many causes and contemporary discourse”.

St Nicholas’s is a Grade I-listed early medieval church built on the original site of Leicester Cathedral. The cathedral was short-lived, as the area was invaded by the Vikings and the bishop fled. St Nicholas’s is one of the ten oldest churches in the UK, and has a nave dating from 879.

The worshipping community at St Nicholas’s has doubled in size since 2022. It is intercultural, and its congregation is largely under 35 years of age. It has a growing reputation as a safe place for LGBTQIA+ people of faith, most of whom have experienced conditional acceptance, rejection, or spiritual abuse in other churches. St Nicholas’s has faced continued hostility and vandalism because of its clear and visible welcome of LGBTQIA+ people.

In September 2022, it was given an altar frontal displaying the colours of the Progress Pride flag. It was displayed on the nave altar until a complaint was made to the archdeacon by someone outside the diocese. The altar frontal was then removed, and permission was sought by way of a faculty petition.

The registry received nine objections to the petition, and the Deputy Chancellor, David Rees KC, considered the question whether any of the objectors were “interested persons” within the meaning of the Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2015. He concluded that two of the objectors, the Revd Brett Murphy (News, 22 December 2023) and the Revd Dr Ian Paul, had sufficient interest in the petition for the purposes of the rules.

The proposed altar frontal is a bespoke piece of fabric sewn from high-quality cotton to display the colours and design of the Progress Pride flag. The petitioners also wished to add a cross to the design. The proposal was for the frontal to be placed on the nave altar for Sunday services, and on Saturdays when the building was open to the public.

The petitioners explained that the ongoing reputation and the viability of the church as a safe place for LGBTQIA+ people were signalled by the proposed altar frontal; that the design was a universally recognisable sign of welcome to different racial groups of LGBTQIA+ people; that the inclusion of the cross was a clear expression of God’s love and acceptance of all; and that the instant recognisability of the design was important to the ministry team as a sign of welcome to all.

In response to the petition, the vice-chair of the DAC did not recommend the permanent use of the Progress Pride flag as an altar frontal, but said that some thought might be given to its use on the altar on an occasional basis.

St Nicholas’s, Leicester/FacebookSt Nicholas’s, Leicester, is lit in rainbow colours in celebration of Pride, last year

Dr Ian Paul, who is a member of the General Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, did not wish to become a party opponent, but made written objections.

He stated that the purpose of the table at which holy communion was celebrated was to focus the congregation on remembering the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and not to focus on contemporary and political issues; and that the presence of the Progress Pride flag introduced a tension with the teachings of Jesus and the scriptures as a whole into the centre of the rite of communion.

In addition, he stated that the teaching of the Church of England was that marriage was between one man and one woman, and the proposed frontal brought to the centre of the rite a contradiction to the Church’s teaching; that placing a symbol that introduced the concept of sexual identity at the centre of the service was inappropriate due to the presence of children, and therefore caused a potential safeguarding issue; that there was contemporary debate in wider culture on aspects of the ideology underpinning the flag; and that the use of the frontal would be divisive as there was strong feeling and debate within the Church of England on the matter of doctrine underpinning it, so that those with contrary views, including clergy or laity, might feel excluded from worship at St Nicholas’s, and/or unable to participate in the central rite of communion.

The Chancellor said that, having taken into account all relevant points, she had found it helpful to focus on one aspect of the petition that was at its core. The petition related to one of the most symbolic parts of the building, the altar. The vice-chair of the DC had equated it with that of the font, pulpit, and lectern.

Canon F2.2 states: “The table, as becomes the table of the Lord, shall be kept in a sufficient and seemly manner, and from time to time repaired, and shall be covered in the time of divine service with a covering of silk or other decent stuff, and with a fair white linen cloth at the time of the celebration of Holy Communion.”

The Chancellor said that the Progress Pride flag was not a Christian emblem. The “decent stuff” referred to in Canon F.2.2 was material that was readily associated with ecclesiastical heritage that pointed towards, or maintained the focus on, the celebration of the holy communion. The focus, purpose, and celebration of the holy communion was for all to come to Jesus and remember his sacrifice, she said, and we come to the communion table not to forget who we are, or our identity, but to remember the sacrifice of Jesus and our identity in him.

It was clear that there was not a unified belief that the proposed altar frontal achieved that purpose of oneness in Christ, and that, in the Chancellor’s view, was the purpose of an altar frontal. The petition was on the basis of drawing to the communion table one group within the Anglican Communion, albeit a marginalised one. It was therefore inherent in that objective that not all were represented in the design and the call to draw near.

While those from the LGBTQIA+ community could resonate with Christ’s suffering, the remembrance of Christ’s suffering related to its saving grace and our redemption through it; the Chancellor was not persuaded that the petitioners’ response provided a good reason with that core purpose in mind, and for that reason she had decided not to grant even occasional use of the proposed altar front.

Any concern about the impact on mission and pastoral care at St Nicholas’s was outweighed by the Chancellor’s view that the altar frontal should be of a design that all could gaze on, and immediately focus on, in remembrance of the saving work of Christ and Christ alone.

The Chancellor expressed “grave concern” at the petitioners’ view that the outcome of their petition would indicate whether there was support for St Nicholas’s and affirmation and acceptance by the Church as an institution of LGBTQIA+ people.

The Chancellor said she appreciated that, for some, her decision might be “viewed as a rejection of them, their experiences, their traumas. It was not.” Her judgment related simply to a petition for an altar frontal. A rejection of a petition did not equate to saying that LGBTQIA+ people were not welcome, nor did it imply that. The two notions should not be conflated, she said.

While she had not granted the petition, the Chancellor said, she hoped the clergy and church community at St Nicholas’s remained “proud of their successful efforts in creating a safe space within the Church of England for LGBTQIA+ people”.

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