Soho Masses: Can We Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time?

There has been a huge public fuss this week about the supposed “closure” of the Soho Masses, which has kept me very much on the hop, in an attempt to present a more positive image (I think a more accurate one) that this is not just an end, but a new beginning, and one that has at least the potential to be productive, and possibly and expansion, of our present ministry.

But time has been short, and I’ve been anxious not to go publicly into the very real disadvantages and risks that this move could entail – or how we can best avert them. One risk that I have referred to in some emails to the SMPC core community, is that of finding ourselves simply co-opted to implement the Vatican agenda, and thereby corrupted in our personal integrity. I have also alluded to what I see as a crucial imperative to do some deep, creative thinking on exactly what we do with this new opportunity – and suggested that this include some significant implications for Quest.

This was no more than an allusion – I’ve simply not had time to cover everything that needs to be said in anything like the depth that was required, nor do I want all of my thinking to be on public display at Queering the Church, which is closely monitored by some conservative bloggers, determined to uncover and expose my heresies and demonic influences. But now is a time, and this a suitable place, to elaborate.

In addition to my obsession with LGBT theology, inclusion and politics, I enjoy following the world of US politics, and especially progressive  commentary on it. I particularly enjoy some of the imaginative,  colourful language they tend to use – and some of these expressions are useful here.  For example, I want to suggest that the very success of Soho Masses in their present form has “sucked the air out of the room”, leaving little space for any other LGBT ministry in the London region. Quest London is struggling (as it is elsewhere, admittedly), RC Caucus is dormant at best, possibly dead. Rainbow Sash is sometimes heard of, but never seen. Bernard Lynch is there and very visible – but to what extent is he still active in community ministry?

Soho Masses have grown and flourished, in numbers, in the range of activities, and in the degree of participation, and self-confidence in who we are. This is great for those who are able and willing to make the journey to central London, sometimes over great distances – but what of those who cannot, or will not? What of those who simply prefer to worship in their own, local parishes – even if at the cost of remaining closeted in church, and all that that entails? What of those who believe, as I do, that in matters of justice, “campaigning” is a theological and Gospel imperative?

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.

-Luke 4:18

Confronting the dangers, and the risks.

I’ve had many thoughtful responses to my upbeat posts at Queering the Church, and in email correspondence. Many have been appreciative – but some, quite correctly, have reminded me of the dangers and risks. One reminded me, for instance, that the church is a “corrupt and corrupting institution“. If we allow ourselves to be simply co-opted, there is a very real danger of being thereby, corrupted ourselves.

Another correspondent, Stephen Lovett, made the point to me on facebook, with a direct reference to Quest history:

 Stephen Lovatt I hope that you are right; but I seriously doubt that you are correct. The “Soho Masses” are clearly in (happy) contradiction with the policy of the hierarchy and Vatican.

What Vincent Nichols is asking for is a “Courage” style “ministry” to self-disrespecting “sufferers of same-sex attraction” as opposed to a true pastoral care of gay-folk. I suppose that he’s got to do this if he wants to obtain a red hat any time soon: though his tardiness in toeing the Vatican line will, I suspect, have forever queered his pitch.

I remember when Basil Hume tried to force Quest to undergo a similar transformation and how most of Quest’s leadership were going to capitulate and how I led the opposition to that proposal and had it defeated at Quests AGM.

Following Quest’s example, should the Soho Masses have simply refused to co-operate? Had we done so, the opposition, which was so determined to shut us down, would have won outright. I replied

Agreed, Stephen, that there are serious dangers here of being co-opted – but there are many ways to skin a cat. There’s much more to be said – and not all of it publicly. I will have more though, later.

And that’s what I’m attempting to do, here.

Another correspondent wrote directly, by email (heavily involved in LGBT ministry, but not in the Soho Masses, and also not directly in Quest, but unidentified here, as he has not authorised publication).

I am very sad and angry to hear about the demise of the Soho Masses. I have read what you have said in your blog, and can see the sense of expanding ministry and having more space, but can’t see how abolishing a Mass tailored to the needs of LGBT people can be anything but retrograde. ‘Going to Mass’ is what Catholics do, so what is the idea of a pastoral approach which does not have Mass at its centre?

I note that people can attend the Farm Street evening Mass, but that’s not going to be popular unless it is specifically geared to the LGBT community.

I am sure you will have read what Bernard Lynch has said, and I have a great deal of sympathy with him. This comes at a time when the RC church is actively condemning gay marriage at every turn. I know I for one would never encourage a young person to have anything to do with the Catholic Church; even though a former Religious and seminarian myself, it really believe it is spiritual and emotional death to so many, especially LGBT people.

I wonder whether the ban can be defied and a Mass set up elsewhere? We don’t have to bow to such reactionary pressure?

Others have raised the same point, about setting up alternative Masses, elsewhere.

To this, I answered (in part):

Thanks, ——,  for these thoughts. I fully understand your anger – many of our congregation would agree and share it. …..They’re important questions, which do need to be answered. The short answer though is that we have an extremely good relationship already with the Jesuits, and will work closely with them to ensure that we will in fact continue to be catered to specifically – but not exclusively. Also, while we need to have a Mass which caters directly to our specific needs, we also need more than just a Mass twice a month. While there are obvious risks in this move, which we will be very careful to consider, there are also risks in remaining as we were. LGBT support is all very well – but it’s not ideal to operate exclusively in a gay ghetto. It’s time, as one of our team wrote in an email, that we stop simply preaching to the choir – and engage constructively with the wider Church as well.

We will most certainly be discussing all possibilities, including that of defying the decision, and setting up an independent program elsewhere – just as we used to do, at St Anne’s. I do not believe though that this is still a viable practical possibility. With all that has happened, it would be just too difficult to find celebrants willing to so openly defy a clear decision by the Archbishop. We should also note though, that there is no rule at all that in moving to Farm Street, we are somehow unable to develop additional strategies and programs, elsewhere. This may well be an ideal opportunity to revive the Roman Catholic Caucus of LGCM, or for Quest once again to come into its own, or to develop entirely new activities – even, perhaps, some form of underground church, with the help of Bernard Lynch and the like. Who knows what is possible?

Someone else wrote, in an email to the SMPC:

What might things be like if some, even a few of us, refused to absent our Church?  What if, as in other countries, some were to present themselves regularly wearing rainbow sashes during the no doubt rather conservative setting of the Ordinariate Masses? Does the Archbishop realise just how compliant and co-operative we have been, and how much more troublesome we might be? I suggest that the Archbishop be reminded in Charity and with respect, but formally, of the damage that this proposal has already done, and of the anger and hurt experienced.

Again, my response:

What, indeed?  ….. There is a real risk, in moving, of being simply co-opted into administering the Vatican’s agenda, and becoming corrupted by it. We must find creative ways to resist this possibility. There is an important distinction, though, between what we do as a community, and what we do as individuals, or as groups of individuals, independently of the wider group. We faced precisely the same problem six years ago, when we made a conscious but deliberate decision, to become a purely pastoral, and not campaigning, community……..  I resolved my personal conflict over these obligations, by simply taking my campaigning elsewhere: on- line, to other organisations, and recently, into my home parish and diocese.  To use an American expression, it’s perfectly possible to walk and chew gum at the same time.

As we move to Farm St, it may well be time for “some of us” to revive RC Caucus, or to strengthen Quest. And why not, for those see an obligation there, to revive the London Rainbow Sash? There have also been suggestions that we should consider a return to Dean St, or similar. There are many reasons why this is simply not feasible. But what might well be possible, is a return to an even earlier incarnation – private house Masses, with priests who are distinctly friendly with no need to look over their shoulder at episcopal oversight.

Now, I am emphatically NOT advocating for any particular one of these possibilities – merely pointing out that for those so inclined, there is nothing to stop them thinking about them, and if they reach such a conclusion – from following them, as conscience dictates.  The really important point I want to make, and this involves Quest directly, as well as the Soho Masses, is in the current fuss, most of us are missing a crucially important point: what matters is not really the survival or modification of one particular Mass, in one or other particular location – but the very much broader one, of LGBT ministry in the Catholic Church, in central London – and across the entire country.

Varied Models of Ministry

This brings me back to my earlier question: irrespective of what happens to Soho Masses as we now know them, what is to be done for everyone else – those who do not currently attend, and for those who refuse to make the move, for whatever reason?

Experience from the USA, Catholic and other, has shown that there are many, many models for ministry. Some operate within formal and approved diocesan or parish structures, some on the fringes of approved structures – some entirely outside. Some high profile examples are primarily LGBT parishes, comparable to Soho Masses, others are support groups within conventional parishes – a few are so thoroughly integrated into mainstream parish life, that there is no longer a need for formal support groups. One example I love (from Maryland) is of a suburban parish that decided in principle that it was important to develop an explicit LGBT ministry as a natural extension of their Justice and Peace work. They went ahead and did so – even though at the time, they were not even aware of the existence of any gay or lesbian people in the parish. So the LGBT ministry went ahead – without any actual LGBT people. Naturally, as they went ahead, the queers came crawling out of the woodwork, began to take on leadership roles – and attracted more and more from neighbouring areas.  The result was a vastly stronger, more vigorous parish, to the obvious benefit of all.

In my former parish in central Johannesburg, after I left they developed a strong program of HIV/Aids  ministry, so important in South Africa. One of the people involved went to the parish priest and pointed out the need for an associated ministry for gay men, in particular. The priest (a Jesuit) agreed. The result was a formal support group, represented on the parish council alongside all other recognised parish sodalities, and represented in every aspect of parish life, as readers, ministers, in the choir and serving the tea.  The group has their 0wn private meetings, where they can speak freely – but also hold open meetings and discussions, where all parish members can participate. At some of these, direct hostility is expressed – and countered. On some occasions, those who are hostile, have said afterwards their minds have been changed.  When the time came for gay pride, the group asked if they could participate, as an identified parish group. As it happens, the route for the parade passed within the parish boundaries – and the priest (who is not gay) walked with them, carrying a large crucifix.

In my presentation to Conference last September, I spoke a little about the experience of the American Protestant groups, which seem to have emphasised not separate support groups, but persuading individual local parishes to declare themselves, one at a time, as “open and affirming”, or as “welcoming” parishes. These formally declared LGBT – friendly parishes were prominent in the ultimately successful campaigns to have the ELCA (Lutherans), and  PCUSA (Presbyterians) to change their regulations on ordination, so that it is now possible for gay men and lesbians to be ordained, if partnered and not celibate, as long as these relationships are faithful, committed, and publicly accountable, in a manner equivalent to marriage. The next step will almost certainly be that those denominations will soon approve full gay marriage, in church (the Lutherans probably this year), where it is legally possible, and blessing ceremonies for civil unions or commitment ceremonies, where it is not.

Limitations of the Soho Mass model

The model that is familiar to us from Warwick Street, has been a highly successful one – but in many respects is not ideal (quite apart from the numerous practical difficulties of the present Warwick St arrangements, and its having sucked the air out of the room for other programs).

The first, very real problem, is that it leaves its members simply preaching to the choir. It helps individuals to grow in faith and confidence, so that they may move on and join other, more conventional parishes – but it does nothing to confront other Catholics to think about the errors, prejudices, and misconceptions that are hidden in conventional, heteronormative thinking. If we are serious about LGBT “inclusion” in church- this should mean inclusion alongside everybody else, openly and without embarassment, shame or fear of rejection or being judged, not simply “inclusion” among ourselves.

The second problem, is that it is simply not one that can be replicated, elsewhere. “Soho Masses” is unique, world – wide. It has developed with its own particular history, and the people who built it. For the past year or so, I’ve been trying to work with Ricky to build some sort of ministry in Brighton, and one thing that has become abundantly clear to me, is that to try to import the Soho model, would be a complete dead end.

LGBT/Queer Ministry – not a particular Mass.

What I want to get to, what I want us all to be thinking about, is not just “What should we do about Soho Masses”, or “What should Quest be doing”, but – what can I do, alone or with others, to further develop LGBT ministry, wherever I am?

Also at conference, I referred briefly to a superb workshop I attended in June, run by Frank DeBenardo of New Ways Ministry, who was here on a visit and working holiday, for World Pride. This was a truncated form of a regular workshop that New Ways runs in the States (alongside a wide range of other activities).What I loved about this workshop, was its very clear and practical focus. It was titled  “Next Steps in LGBT Ministry”, but instead of considering “What should be done”, or “what could we do”, or even, “what could I do”, it took participants through a series of reflections, leading to the final crunch: “What will I do, personally” – and not just some time, in principle, either.  Rather, it was to come up with three very practical, personal and realistic actions that we would implement over the course of the next twelve months, in our own location and faith community.

In reporting publicly on those decisions at the end of the day, I was struck by the variety and creativity of the decisions people had reached.

Of my own  three actions, I have implemented one, and am making progress on the other two:

I have extended my involvement in my local parish, openly and publicly as a gay man and gay activist – and have had two extremely frank and helpful discussions with my local priests – in small group sharing. I am also getting involved at diocesan level, through the Call to Action process, and again, pulling no punches in discussing my concerns.

I am working together with Martin Pendergast towards developing and conducting a form of the Next Steps workshop, suitable for local conditions. I would hope to offer these for a range of group, in London and elsewhere, for priests specifically, as well as for the wider community, and ideally, also in an ecumenical setting.

I have not yet made any formal approach to meeting with Bishop Conroy, to discuss promoting ministry in Arundel and Brighton, but I am making progress in preparing to set up such a meeting. Both my local priests have offered to help, and at some stage, A&B Call to Action will invite him to their meetings. I’ll introduce myself then, and that will be an opening. Twelve months since the end of June, 2012 gives me just under six months. I’ll get there.

My challenge, to YOU

So, here’s the thing. Whether we lament the decision over Soho Masses, or the process, or welcome it, cautiously or otherwise – and whether you are reading this as a member of the Soho congregation, as a member of Quest (London or elsewhere), or of LGCM, as Catholic, other, or uncommitted to a denomination, in the UK, or elsewhere:

What are YOU going to do, to promote LGBT ministry?

(If any Quest or other group would like to take me up on a Next Steps  workshop for your own location – just ask).

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