Pride flag on altar of ‘church of woke’ triggers almighty court battle
St Nicholas Church in Leicester is so steeped in history that a chunk of 1,900-year-old Roman wall still adjoins its churchyard.
However, the Anglo-Saxon era church, which is among the 10 oldest in Britain, now features a very modern addition.
A rainbow Pride flag on the altar has triggered the first court battle of its kind within the so-called “church of woke”.
St Nicholas said that the LGBTQ-themed altar is a “profound invitation” for those excluded by the escalating row in the Church of England over sexuality, marriage and gender.
However, hundreds of churchgoers within and beyond the diocese of Leicester, even clergy, are trying to block it, with objection letters saying it “will bring the church into disrepute” and “close the door” to worshippers.
The showdown is now in the church court, in a landmark test case that campaigners argue will “open the floodgates” to political insignia on altars throughout the Church of England if St Nicholas prevails.
The row began last September, when St Nicholas announced that the Pride flags it hung from the altar at weekend services were replaced with “something a little more permanent” – a huge “Progress Pride flag” made of fabric.
It was gifted by a congregation member at the All Saints with Holy Trinity church in Loughborough, which rewrote a Christmas carol to be inclusive.
“People were actually weeping in the pews when they saw it,” said Jay Hulme, a local transgender poet and the warden of St Nicholas Church.
Last October, the church was forced to take the Pride altar frontal down and apply for the planning permission, known as a faculty, that it should have sought initially.
With hundreds of protests flooding officials inbox from churches around the country and the world, it has been sent to the consistory court, the Church of England’s ruling body, where the chancellor of the diocese will rule imminently on whether the pride altar can stay.
Sam Margrave, a member of General Synod, the Church of England’s governing council who has led the campaign, fears an “infiltration” in the Church of “moral anarchy, where they’re tearing down biological sex and the idea of monogamous marriage”.
He told The Telegraph: “My main concern is about how our pulpit and our altar table has been hijacked by political activists. Instead of preaching the gospel, they’ve turned it into a church of woke.
“People come to church to get away from the culture wars and find sanctuary. I want to welcome the gay and lesbian community, but there are better ways to do it.
“This flag is about an attack on women’s rights. It includes the trans stuff and I believe as a Christian that God says we are made male or female, there is no such thing as non-binary.
“I hope that the court will make the right decision. If the chancellor were to rule and set a precedent, then it would open the floodgates.”
Mr Margrave lodged an official objection as part of a 28-day consultation of interested parties by the diocese, represented by Stone King LLP, which closed last week.
‘Pride flag is a sign of exclusion’
The Rev Dr Ian Paul, another General Synod member who sits on the powerful Archbishops’ Council, also objected.
He told The Telegraph: “The Communion table is the place where we gather together to meet with God, remember Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and ‘receive all the benefits of his passion’ (in the words of the Communion service).
“This is not a place for political protest. It is no more appropriate than putting up the flag of a political party. And with the Progress flag, it is gender ideology.
“Worse than that, this flag is a sign of exclusion. People like me, who believe and teach the doctrine of the Church of England on marriage, could not come and receive Communion at this table, since the flag contradicts the teaching of the Church, which all clergy vow to uphold at their ordination.”
The altar is deemed to be the most sacred part of the church where the Eucharist is consecrated. The custom is for it to be adorned with white sheets normally, or green, purple, gold or red sheets on some occasions.
The design of the rainbow altar uses the progress flag, which includes a controversial triangle for transgender identities.
For St Nicholas’s part, the Rev Canon Karen Rooms has told the court in its statement of needs that the Pride altar “is about pastoral care and a simple statement of welcome and safety”.
Branding the complainers as “further evidence of this sort of hostility”, the appeal said it “is a profound invitation for people who have experienced rejection, hate and abuse, sometimes from those in the Church”.
It added: “On this altar table, in each act of worship, we remember the death of Christ. His experience of rejection and physical torture is not unknown to LGBTQIA+ people. This act of remembrance mediates the solidarity of Christ with the suffering of those in our community.”
In its advisory response, the Diocese Advisory Committee (DAC) rejected the idea of a permanent pride altar, recommending that “the frontal is used only on an occasional basis” with a large cross added to the design.
But in a rebuke, the DAC’s vice-chairman said that St Nicholas should be “wary” about its link between the crucifixion of Jesus and the Pride flag, warning: “The scope of Christ’s saving work is for all people, not just for those who unite under or around a particular banner.”
Judgment expected imminently
A judgment on the flag altar is expected from the consistory court imminently following comments from what sources say is a “whole coalition” of biblical, feminist and ideological arguments for and against it.
It will have far-reaching implications. The Rev Brett Murphy, a vicar in the Leicester diocese, said: “Given all the current debates and tensions in the Church of England over sexuality, it was a fairly inflammatory thing to do.
“It would set a precedent for abandoning tradition. We must show deference and concession in considering what we do.”
Mr Margrave added: “This test case will give us an indication of whether the Pride flag is appropriate or not and who the church belongs to – does it belong to Jesus or those who bow down to the rainbow flag?”