Twenty years of history
On Saturday 11 May 2002 Aasmund (Open Church group, Norway) told the Forum members a lot about the history of the European Forum.
There are always some people at every annual meeting for whom this is their first Forum. A special welcome to you into our community of spirit called the European Forum for short. We have been around for 20 years and for many of us this meeting has become an event not to be missed and a regular part of our lives.
We're getting a history, made by all the named and unnamed men and women who have helped build what we enjoy today. I think we should be aware of our history - it's been said that the one who doesn't know his or her history doesn't have a future. I want to concentrate on the first ten years, as this is the period just a handful of you - as far as I can see - have been a part of.
Every plant must have a root. Those of the Forum, which has become quite a large tree by now, were planted in Paris. Everything that comes into being starts as an idea in somebody's mind and the person in this case was a priest from Nantes in Bretagne, who spent a sabbatical year in Paris. .
He was a member of David et Jonathan, and on one particular occasion when he visited a member of Quest in Britain, the vision was born. Why not extend this visit? Can we give a sign to other gay Christian movements in Europe? Can we do something together on a European scale?
An invitation to join in on this idea was printed in the bulletin of David et Jonathan (No.35) in the summer of 1982. This bulletin had a readership that stretched well beyond France itself and the response to this idea meant the start of a process - a first gathering was held in Paris in October, on the weekend of 23/24.
There were 16 persons present, representing 7 groups from 5 countries. Each movement introduced itself, telling about its relations to the established churches and to the secular gay movements around. On Sunday, after a deeply felt celebration of the Eucharist, the discussion centered on whether this first gathering was to be followed by another. Those present saw the start of something and it was proposed to follow up these first steps towards an organisation, the name of which was to be decided later. This decision to pursue the idea of getting together on a European scale was taken on October 24 - the UN day - so we may say that this is the birthday of our organisation.
The next stop was Strasbourg. The choice of this city was for symbolic as well as practical reasons. It had already been decided that the yearly meeting would be held in turn in the various countries where there are member groups.
The First Annual Meeting which established the association took place over a weekend in June 1983, in this city with its unique European quality. The practical work had been done by the Strasbourg-group of David et Jonathan, and English and French were to be adopted as official languages. At this meeting an increased number of groups were present - another 7. In addition to the groups present positive response had come from groups in Sweden and Finland.
The main issues on the agenda were:
1. Why create a European ecumenical movement for gay Christians?
Two main advantages came up:
a. To keep groups mutually informed
b. To engage in common actions
A name was adopted for the new organisation: FORUM OF GAY CHRISTIAN GROUPS OF EUROPE.
The groups decided to meet again in June of 1984, this time in Amsterdam.
This was to be the First Full Forum as we know the Forum today. One very notable change this year was the increased number of groups present, and the choice of venue naturally gave the numerous Dutch groups a chance to show up. For the first time a non-continental country like Norway was represented by Open Church Group
There were 7 other new groups present, including some that no longer exist. Among these was a group from Belfast, and GCM - now known as LGCM - was there for the first time, and MCC had status as observers. They were somewhat on the fringe at the time as a Church in its own right.
The theme for the meeting in Amsterdam was: Proud to be gay - and what this means to the churches.
The organisers had underestimated the interest in the Forum, so the accommodation for all 50 participants was rather cramped. And the venue was a special one indeed: the boatel 'Columbus' moored right behind the Central Station in the city of Amsterdam, and the cabins below deck were pretty small with 4 beds like narrow shelves in each.
I remember the excitement I felt for being among gay Christians on a larger scale, although my own group was not over-enthusiastic about the whole idea. Some thought the energy should rather be spent on domestic affairs as we were a relatively young group - now among the European seniors - and Norway wasn't even part of Europe - politically ...
The speakers came from the Dutch reformed churches, both the one with only one reformation and the one with two or perhaps more.
This meeting in Amsterdam largely initiated the format we know today with one or two speakers. On this occasion they were by some names I remember well: the reverends Kuipers and van der Zee, the latter as Secretary General of the Council of Churches in The Netherlands.
What is stuck in my mind is the story he told about the meeting in the World Council of Churches in Vancouver, where van der Zee raised the question of homosexuality in the Church, upon which a Nigerian representative declared: 'We have one homosexual in Nigeria, and he's in prison'.
It can honestly be said that this first full meeting of the Forum for Gay Christian Groups of Europe was a success - and here's a remark by one of the participants, made on the evaluation sheet:
'I am hopeful for the future of the Forum. If we have more experience I think it is possible to start more important activities in Europe - Ad multos annos'.
Antwerp was the next city out with Called into liberty as the theme.
The venue in Antwerp was the Provincial House, in a Congress Hall with modern equipment for simultaneous translation. I remember in particular the comfy black leather seats, with the feeling of sitting in the UN-building rather than in that of a European province.
The Forum did not yet have a board as such, only an appointed commission to look into the feasibility of a permanent structure. The members of this group were from The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany and the UK.
It was decided that Norway should host the Forum of 1986. The decision was not unanimous. Some actually thought that the month of May that far north would be bitterly cold and voted against.
A new tradition was established in Oslo, that of getting together on the Ascension week-end to be able to spend more time in each others' company. The number of groups had by this time reached 24, with 60 delegates in all. Even Spain was represented this far north in Europe.
The theme for this conference was: Gay Christians as a resource and one of the speakers was a person present here: Rev. Bernd Wangerin. The very first secretariat was elected in Oslo.
One thing in particular the delegates in Oslo will always remember is the official reception in the City Hall, when the conservative Mayor of Oslo welcomed every single delegate in person. The message we as organizers got from the city hall in advance was that after all the Forum is an international convention and should be shown esteem accordingly.
The host group, Open Church Group, or Åpen Kirkegruppe, celebrated its first ten years during the Forum. Thanks to the fact that we were denied access, due to homophobia, to the hotel we had booked in February, and with generous support from the Foreign Office all delegates could be invited free of charge to a banquet to celebrate the occasion.
Norway, as a country with liberal laws regarding homosexuality, was considered for registration of the organization, but in the end The Netherlands was chosen. The Forum came to be legally registered in Utrecht. Tom , as secretary of the Forum, was the one who led the process towards its legal status, and also the work that eventually led to an adopted constitution for the Forum.
Broaden your vision was the theme for the 1987 conference, chosen by the host group, HuK - Frankfurt, at Mauloff, a conference centre in the Taunus mountains.
The principle of having a female co-president caused quite some discussion, largely from the fact that among the delegates this year there was but one single woman. It was decided to let the matter rest until the next meeting.
The organisers, HuK, founded their organisation in 1977, and this Forum was part of their 10th anniversary. There were at the time of the Forum some 24 regional groups in Western Germany.
An official approach had been made to the Rathaus in Frankfurt for an official reception like the one in Oslo, but the Mayor was apparently 'too busy' to meet us. Eventually there was a reception by the 'Green Party' and we also met the pastor of the ecumenical centre Christus Emanuel Kirche.
Not just gay, not just Christian, but wholly human was the theme in 1988. This year also saw representatives from Finland and Sweden. As many as 30 groups were represented at Brunel University in Uxbridge near London.
There was one person present for whom this Forum meant something special: Günther from DDR, a pastor who was sponsored by his own Evangelical church to go to London. Observers to this conference came from as far away as Australia and the US.
At the time when we were in London the Conservative government led by a woman, whose name is better forgotten, had come up with this thing that became known as Clause 28 - and LGCM was going through a tough time being evicted from their office St. Botolph's. What happened this year was that the Forum included Lesbians in its full name.
In 1989 the Forum rose to new heights, more precisely 1500 metres above sea level. The venue was the AGAPE Ecumenical Centre, in a village called Prali Ghigo. 10060 is the post code, if you're interested! The centre is run by the Italian protestant community: The Valdensians.
The setting was majestic. High snow-capped mountains surrounded the village at the end of the narrow valley. Quite a cathedral for the outdoor worship service on Sunday morning!
And there she was: Beatrice! What a stunning woman - with a name and an apparition like taken right out of Dante's Divine Comedy! I think she was a member of the group in Torino.
The speakers were all from the protestant Church. It doesn't surprise me at all that there were no Catholics 'available'.
In all 23 groups were represented in Italy this year and for the first time there was a female co-president from the DDR, but admittedly that didn't work too well.
It was thought possible to host a later Forum in the DDR, but before we knew that country had disappeared off the map.
In 1990 we got back to some roots in Strasbourg. From the freedom of loving to a Christian Community was this year's theme. About one hundred delegates met for this 8th conference at the Youth Hostel. It was estimated at the time that there might be a total of 75 gay Christian groups around Europe, representing some 10 000 members.
The first address to this Forum was given by one of the more memorable speakers we've had over the years: John , the ex-Jesuit, author, academic and psychoanalyst, and he came with his 'husband'. In particular I remember him saying that 'The best thing the Church can do for me is to get out of my way!'
The organising committee was granted an interview with the Mayor of Strasbourg, Catherine , who later became a government minister. A few of the delegates were picked out to go. As a protestant theologian she showed herself to be receptive to the witness made to her by the members of the various Christian denominations.
Then on Sunday morning French TV was at the door with their cameras to film the worship. We were all unprepared for this, but it was agreed to carry on as planned.
One issue in the business session that was particularly stressed was the small number of women. It was decided that a women's work group be set up, separately from the board, co-ordinated by the petite parisienne Caroline .
This board met again in Paris in September, under very dramatic and uncertain circumstances. Joseph ; of Centre Christ Libérateur, our first co-president, had been harassed by the secret police during the summer and kidnapped in July. He had not been seen since and people were giving up hope of ever seeing him alive again. A body was found in a forest outside Paris in October believed to be his remains. A committee was set up to find out the truth about this tragic case. A memorial service was held in Paris on December 1, and December 8 was a Day of Action all over Europe. The French Embassy in Oslo also got a visit that day.
Utrecht, or more precisely 'Kerk en Wereld' in Driebergen was the venue for the 1991 conference of the Forum: The Future Is Ours. It is worth noting that in order to reduce expenses for the delegates financial support was given by the Franciscan friars (o.f.m.), who are supposed to be poor. Austria was represented for the first time by two delegates from HuK in Vienna.
Time out was spent in Amsterdam; first on the waterways, of course. Locals served as guides to the local attractions, incl. the bookshops, before gathering around and on the Homo monument at Westermarkt. The Secretary of emancipation of Amsterdam City Council opened a moving ceremony in memory of all those who lost their lives because of their homosexuality. Every nation present gave a contribution, like a poem - and flowers were bought in advance to be left in memory of our brothers and sisters. The monument is a large triangle in pink granite, partly in the canal pointing towards the house of Anne Frank. It is also a part of a larger triangle, best seen from the air, of which one corner is pointing towards what used to be the centre of the gay lib organization COC.
The latest board meeting had decided to send another letter to the French Ministre de l'Interieur and to ask for a reply to the previous letter he had from us on the affair of the missing Joseph. The case seems to have become a hot potato for the politicians. No reply had come so far, and I don't think anything ever came.
Europe - a challenge to us all was the theme for the 10th conference at Boldern, an Evangelical Centre at Männedorf, outside Zürich.
After the first ten years we had established a form, a time: the Ascension weekend.
There are such a lot of good memories that come to mind from the last ten years, like the service at the lake in Höör on that sunny morning in 1993.
The entertainment at the 95-Driebergen conference gave us an educated insight into lesbian lives - backstage so to speak - by a group appropriately called 'Behind the Dykes'
The reception in the city hall in Edinburgh and the 'ceilidh' - and my compliments, Richard - you look splendid in a kilt!
You've had your bookstall around Europe for a number of years - 'driven by passion', as the advert says and by Brian's car named after Olga or another one of the 'Three Sisters'.
There was the National Holiday in Oslo, and the European Song Contest that same week end (1996). We thought about changing the date when we realised this, but we decided to go ahead as planned. And it was the first time an open air service during the Forum was cancelled because of snowfall! And in Oslo there was this Siberian from Omsk, who had travelled the distance between Oslo and Moscow - only to get to Moscow!
It is a special pleasure to see more representatives from Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe
There was the meeting in the Slovakian countryside at Pila, with the more or less spontaneous Sunday service - a deeply moving experience. To this day the service on the final day of the Forum remains one of my religious highlights of the year. And we went to Bratislava to fold out the largest pink triangle in the world - 'ein bisschen kritisch beobachtet' by the police.
In Vienna there were long corridors and Johannes singing his oh so tragic and sentimental songs in Jiddisch - with a feeling - and the Feuer Feier at midnight.
And talking about women - the Forum took another great step forward when the women started to have their pre-conference.
One thing about the Forum of today is the number of attractive women I find - particularly attractive because of their self-consciousness and engagement. Allow me to mention two in particular that have impressed more men than me: The Two Margarets we met in the Polish pine forest outside Warszawa. I am constantly reminded of them since this pop group called The Margarets has popped up in Norway.
I'll never forget the women who waved goodbye to some of us men when we left the venue in Frankfurt in 1998 singing 'Brother carry on - it may be rocky and it may be rough, but brother carry on!' - Thank you, dear sisters, and I think one reason why this Forum means so much to us is that we work so well together.
I have the feeling that Frankfurt 1998 was a jump ahead for the women of the Forum. I remember in particular Herta and the speaker Claudia . And there was the choir 'Liederliche Lesben' with the male honorary lesbian conductor.
There are also some names that deserve to be mentioned especially tonight for their contribution and enthusiasm for the Forum: I think of Lothar Koschig, Gordon Drabble, the before mentioned Joseph Doucé and Tom Lombaers, a true enthusiast, Will Sluyter and Paul Ekström.
Sometimes we also encounter some cultural (mis-)conceptions, like the Italian I met in Toulouse who looked me squarely in the eyes and asked: 'Can you ride a reindeer?' - The answer is: I have never tried, but I know how to milk a cow if there should ever come up a demand for that qualification in our circles.
We celebrate our first 20 years tonight and we're building a tradition. The Forum came into being at a time when internet and e-mail were science fiction. I think the European Forum was an idea whose time had come in 1982, just waiting for somebody to download it, to use a more modern term.
Our annual conventions have found a pattern that works well yet gives the host groups ample room for doing things their way. And one of the fascinating things about us is the enormous sum of qualifications we represent, religiously and professionally.
'The European Forum of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Christian Groups' may not have changed the face of Europe over its first twenty years, but we have certainly added some smiles and wrinkles of Lesbian and Gay Christian pride.
May we all carry on the tradition of this Forum that we have learnt to love so fondly. Ad multos annos!