Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Safe Haven: Why This Brighton Church Is Flourishing In Britain's Gay Capital

Archie said it got real when a 24-year-old woman was found dead on his church's doorstep.

Along with his wife and four children, Archie Coates had just moved to Brighton to try and resurrect St Peter's, known as the "cathedral of Brighton", which had £1 million worth of urgent repair work needed and almost no congregation.

That was in 2009, just months after the diocese had recommended the church be made redundant. Almost exactly seven years later St Peter's has more than 800 people attending across its six services each weekend.

But just after they arrived, before they had held their first service, Mel was found in the church's doorway. She had overdosed after years of living on the streets. They held a memorial service and a lunch for her friends and out of that the church started 'Safehaven'. 

The weekly sit-down meal for people living on the street led onto 'Safehaven Women', billed as "a cosy, comfortable space to relax in, with homemade meals, tea and coffee, hairdressing, manicures and pedicures, facials, craft sessions and a clothing bank". 

It's become a major part of the church's weekly routine.

"I think what we've realised is, people don't just want to come to church," Archie tells Christian Today. "It sounds twee but they want to come and make a difference. It's not how can we persuade people to come to church but how can we bless this city.

"We are relentlessly outward-focused," he says. "It's in our DNA – we are designed to look out and give away."

As well as an extensive homeless community, Brighton is the unofficial "gay capital" of the UK. 

The Church of England bishops have spent years wrangling over teaching on same-sex marriage and there has been no change yet. 

But for Archie the difficulty is not with the teaching but with the barriers that have resulted between the Church and gay people.

"People from the LGBT community mainly do not want to go anywhere near a church," he says. "They assume they would not be welcome and assume they would be judged.

"It's almost like living in two parallel worlds. That is what so sad. It's an issue of trust."

Holy Trinity Brompton, the St Peter's mother church, is known for not taking a stance on the issue. 

It has made no public statement other than to say it supports the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in whatever he says. And Archie is equally reluctant to come down firmly either way.

"I quite like a church where there is not a party line on things," he says. "We're Jesus-centred in how we approach different people and different lifestyles.

"Whatever their lifestyle I encourage people to find their identity in Jesus and be a child of his. That is what we go for and other things begin to shake out of that in different ways with different people.

"It's such a hot topic and people want to label you and push you into a corner. Whereas I prefer the idea of people coming and working it out for themselves."

The decision not to take an outspoken position either way certainly has not harmed HTB or its plants like St Peter's in any way. Archie has planted three churches out of Brighton including congregations in Hastings and Portsmouth and is looking at a fourth. Welby himself is from the HTB mould.

And as the brand grows, inevitably more and more LGBT people are finding a home in HTB-based churches. "We haven't done a strategy for reaching LGBT people," said Archie. "It has been a bit more organic than that."

He tells the story of one 50-year-old woman who joined St Peter's after 18 years in and out of prison. She did the Alpha course and became a Christian.

And Archie seems much focused on that kind of issue than anything else. 

"See her in church praising God with her life completely transformed – that makes it all worth it."

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