Tag Archives: Soho Masses

London Cardinal's Blessing for Departing LGBT Pilgrims

As a London group of LGBT Catholics were preparing to depart on a Lentent pilgrimage to Rome, they received a blessing, greetings and  support from their Cardinal,  Vincent Nichols:

You are at the threshold of Lent. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday. What an excellent time to be on pilgrimage in Rome! You are at the thresholds of the Apostles. What an excellent place to be on pilgrimage at the beginning of Lent. May Saints Peter and Paul, and indeed all the Apostles, be your constant teachers, guides and companions throughout your stay in Rome – and when you return. Their heroic witness to the life, death and resurrection of the Lord is an inspiring example for us all. May their prayers again turn your gaze to the merciful face of Jesus, who calls out to you in unfailing love. He will give you grace to be his faithful missionary disciples. May you bring others into the family of the Church, founded on the Apostles, teaching us how to follow the pathways of faithfulness to Jesus in all the different aspects of our lives. In this way may your lives be a true witness to all who are striving to find God’s love. Only Jesus can truly bring us the joy and fulfilment for which we all yearn. Let us be close to him. Be assured of my prayers for each and every one of you. Please pray for me at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, and at all the holy places you visit. Have a wonderful pilgrimage. God bless you all. + Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Continue reading London Cardinal's Blessing for Departing LGBT Pilgrims

Politics, Sin, and the Soho Masses

Soho Masses

The Catholic Masses with a particular focus on the pastoral needs of LGBT Catholics, their families and friends have now come to an end – and the Soho Masses community is preparing for the next phase in their growth and development, the transition to greater integration in regular parish life, at the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street, Mayfair.

It’s time to step back and examine some of the misinformation and outright lies that have mischievously been sown around these Masses, and about the move to Farm Street.

Is the Catholic Catechism a Gay Political Manifesto?

One of the odder objections raised to the Soho Masses in Warwick Street, was that on special occasions, they would drape a rainbow flag, or a set of rainbow coloured ribbons, over the lectern, or at the base of the altar. I had never really understood the particular intensity of the objections to this, until quite recently I came across a reference to the flag as a “political statement” – repeated this week, by a woman from the Catholic Herald who was interviewed for the BBC “Inside Out” program on the Masses. Now I can better understand the thinking – but that does not make it valid. The rainbow flag is a statement of identity, not a program of any political action. It is not associated with any political party, and does not promote any particular law. It is sometimes used to celebrate legal victories, especially over marriage equality, but the equal marriage cause is not universally agreed on by all LGBT people. The flag does not in any way belong exclusively to marriage activists. It is a symbol, not a political manifesto  – so what does it symbolize? Continue reading Politics, Sin, and the Soho Masses

Epiphany: Soho Masses Community Celebrate the Feast of Coming Out

On Sunday, January 6th, the Church celebrated the great Feast of the Epiphany – the feast where Jesus is shown to the world, revealed.

At the Church of the Assumption, Warwick Street, the Soho Masses community celebrated too, for the first time since Archbishop Nichols’ announcement of our move next month to Farm Street – and heard his letter to the congregation read.

Wise Men_Adoration2 (1)

 

From the liturgy, the homily, and the discussions which followed the Mass, I offer here some personal reflections. Continue reading Epiphany: Soho Masses Community Celebrate the Feast of Coming Out

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

What Really Happens at the Soho Masses?

Last night, I was up in London, attending once more one of the bi-monthly Masses in Soho which have a particular focus on the pastoral needs of the community of LGBT Catholics, their families and friends. Once again, I was struck by the remarkable value of these Masses, how strongly they are contributing to the spirit and ideas behind the Year of Faith for our community – and how much we have grown as a parish in the five years since we left behind our earlier base at St Anne’s Dean St, and made our home in a Catholic parish, as part of the pastoral program of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

There is a great deal of misinformation about these Masses out in some corners of the blogosphere, much of it sadly promoted by people who have not actually attended, or joined in serious conversation with the congregation. I, on the 0ther hand, have been attending regularly for a little more than eight years – and if not quite for every Mass, twice a month, then pretty close to it, and have nearly always stayed for conversation afterwards.  A rough calculation suggests that this approximates to something approaching 200 Masses that I have attended personally.

So –  what really happens at these Soho Masses? Sadly for those who like to spread or consume salacious gossip about these Masses, I can reveal, as one who was there these 200 times – much the same as happens at any other Catholic Mass, with one very notable difference: we do it so much better than most.

For instance, let me simply describe “what happened” at Mass yesterday, with a comparison with where we were when I first started attending eight years ago.

First, some raw numbers. By my count (not just a guess, but a rough head count) the total attendance was just shy of 130 people, on a cold and dark November evening, for a Mass which was not any particular special occasion. This was perhaps a little  more than the usual number  of somewhere between 100 and 120. For a congregation that comes together only for two Masses a month, it’s probably fair to put the  average total monthly attendance at about 220 – 230. We know that many of the congregation do not attend every time: some have regular commitments in their home parishes, some travel great distances, others have other reasons. The best estimate from earlier research is that “typical” attendance by the “average” member  of the community is of the order of every second Mass, representing a total nominally “regular” congregation estimated to be of the order of something like 400 – 45o people attending one average once a month.

That congregation is by no means an exclusively “gay” one. Looking at tonight’s congregation, which was fairly typical of those we have seen in recent years, we included substantial diversity, of age, sexuality, gender and ethnicity – including some heterosexual young married couples and older singles, gay men, lesbians, transgender and many others whose sexuality and gender identity are simply unknown to me – which is precisely as it should be.   Also present in the congregation, I spotted four  priests in active ministry of different kinds elsewhere, who had chosen to attend for the personal benefits they experience. As always, some of the congregation had traveled substantial distances to get there: one woman had traveled from Somerset, some others that I knew of had come from Reading, Basingstoke, Haslemere, and from Kent and Essex in addition to a full range of London boroughs.

So, the congregation was substantial, suitably diverse, and highly committed – but the Mass itself is not where it began. Long before the opening hymn, extensive work had gone into planning the Mass, by our liturgist and organist between them, selecting hymns and bidding prayers, and typing and printing convenient Mass sheets and our regular information – packed monthly newsletter.

My own involvement yesterday began well before Mass, with a committee meeting of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, reviewing recent progress and planning ahead. It would be inappropriate to disclose too much detail of those discussions, but I can reveal that part of it included feedback on a recent Young Adults Group weekend retreat. One of the men who had attended reported that for him, the main value of getting away in a group was just to have the opportunity to discuss the Catholic faith with others of a similar age group. How many regular parishes are able to say they offer such opportunities for their own young adults? And this, the second year in a row that our young adults have arranged such a retreat, was fully booked, with an attendance of about two dozen people. Looking ahead, two developments for next year included confirmation that we will be beginning at least one (possibly more) men’s faith – sharing group, and perhaps initiating adult catechesis, in the form of an RCIA program and / or faith refresher program for those existing Catholics who simply want to know more about the faith.

Meanwhile, simultaneously with the committee meeting, another group of about a dozen people were rehearsing in the basement for our Advent carol service next month. Add in the people who prepared and distributed the hymn books and Mass sheets in welcome, read the lessons and bidding prayers, the cantor, the eucharistic ministers, those who took the collection, and the catering team for refreshments after Mass, and that’s well over thirty people (a quarter of the congregation) who were present not simply as bums on seats (“pew warmers”), but who were participating actively and directly, either in today’s Mass, or in preparation for the Advent carol service. Again I ask – how many more conventional parishes can claim that degree of active participation in the work of setting up a and conducting a Sunday Mass?

What of the Mass itself? One notable feature, familiar to all the regulars and obvious to any newcomers, was the sheer strength of the congregational singing, and participation in the liturgical prayers and responses. The homily, delivered by our celebrant Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle who is both our parish priest and vicar – general for the diocese of Westminster, was as we have come to expect from all our celebrants – thoughtful, intelligent, delivered with clarity and at times a light touch of humour, but on an absolutely orthodox, appropriate Catholic theme for the readings of this November day, on the last things that await us all: death and judgement. The bidding prayers that followed were similarly on completely conventional, appropriate themes for the season and current events: prayers that we should be ready for that day of judgement, for peace in the world , that we may be renewed by the Holy Spirit, for interfaith week, for prisoners and those who work with them, for those who have died,  and for the victims of violence (in particular, the victims of transphobic violence – the only reference in this Mass to the LGBT community specifically, and that because tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance, for those trans people who have been murdered in hate crimes).

After Mass, many of us went downstairs for refreshments – tea or coffee, and biscuits. I did not count numbers, but my guess would be about 40 people – again a substantial proportion of the evening’s congregation. When I left well after seven, an hour and a quarter after the end of Mass, a good number of people were still there, with conversations going strong. I have never seen such a high turnout for tea after Mass in any of the other parishes where I have worshipped, nor have I found people so deep in conversation, for so long after Mass has ended.

But what were they talking about? To believe the rumour mill, you might expect that these notorious homos were looking for sexual pickups, making trysts and the like. I cannot state categorically that this does not happen (just as in any other human gathering, there may be people meeting and making connections that may turn sexual) – but I can state emphatically that in the 200 odd Masses that I have attended, I have never encountered any such sexual conversations or assignations. Instead, the kind of conversations that I have been aware of, are pretty similar to those I have heard after Mass, in all the parishes I have ever been part of.

These are examples of the conversations I remember  personally participating in, or hearing others discuss:

  • Talk about family (in my case, my granddaughter).
  • Talk about our countries of origin – with two others who, like myself, are not British.
  • Talk about travel plans for the month ahead.
  • Talk about work (and for one Religion Education teacher, it’s looming end, as he prepares to  cease his work at school, to start a new life in a Benedictine monastery).
  • Talk about religious books, at our impressive and extensive bookstall – specifically, a book I particularly wanted but was not there tonight, on reflections on the lectionary readings for the coming liturgical year.
  • Talk about the year of faith, available resource materials, and what local parishes are doing
  • Talk about the evening’s homily
  • And continued discussion of some of the business dealt with earlier in the SMPC meeting, especially about plans for faith sharing groups, and possible adult catechesis.

We have then, a vigorous and thriving, personally supportive congregation with a strong sense of community, and an ever expanding range of opportunities to explore and strengthen our Catholic faith, in the context of the Mass – and outside it. Those described above, and the degree of participation, could be the envy of many more conventional parishes of ten times the monthly attendance of our own 220- 230.

Looking back

When I first starting attending eight years ago, typical attendance was about 40, and overwhelmingly white, older gay men. By the time we moved into our new home in Warwick Street, in a Catholic parish and under the auspices of the Diocese of Westminster, attendance had increased to about 60, with just the beginning of some greater diversity. The activities, however, were still largely restricted to Mass twice a month, and conversation afterwards. It is clear from the above description of yesterday’s service, that we have grown and developed over the past five and a half years, as part of a Catholic parish – in numbers, but even more importantly, in depth of involvement, and in exploration of Catholic faith.
But it’s not just our congregation that has benefited. Our presence has invigorated the parish, which without a significant resident population, was low in numbers before we joined them. Three Sunday Masses a week (thirteen, on average, a month) were previously poorly attended, but numbers have been increasing steadily, as some of our community have made this parish their regular Sunday base, in addition to the special Masses on the first and third Sundays of the month. Even so, our attendance of something like 220 – 230 a month at just two Masses represents about half the total monthly attendance from all thirteen Masses: or as much as all the other Masses put together. The indications and expectation for the year ahead, are that our congregation will continue to boost the overall numbers of the parish, as even more of us begin to attend for the second and fourth Sundays, in addition to the first and third, as at present.
Nor is the value of these Masses restricted to enriching and deepening the faith lives of our own congregation, or to the invigorating new life it has breathed into the parish. Over the years I have participated, I have noted a number of people who began attending after long years of absence from the Church, with no participation at all in its sacramental life. By returning to the faith by means of Mass in an explicitly welcoming atmosphere, they have found a measure of reconciliation with an institution that had seemed to them threatening and hostile. Some of these no longer attend – because they now prefer to practice their faith in their own local parishes. Others, like myself and a fair proportion of the most regular participants, do both.
In my own case, I no longer simply attend a local parish, I participate fully in parish life. I serve on the team of readers, I help to gather hymn and Mass books after Mass, join in the tea and discussions after Mass, and participate where I can in social and other functions. For the current activities around the year of faith, I am leading one small group working through the “Radiating Christ” booklet, and have been joining another weekly group, watching and discussing a DVD series on Catholicism. Over the past few weeks, I have had full and frank discussions with both of the priests who serve the parish, in which I described my journey in faith, and also the ways in which I try to promote ministry to LGBT Catholics.  From my perspective, I find it deeply satisfying to be able to participate so fully in parish life in a spirit of full openness and honesty, with no attempt to “pass” as straight – and to note the acceptance and support I have experienced in doing so, from clergy, sisters at the convent, and laity alike. But I could never have found the confidence to be this open and honest in my own parish, without the support of the Soho Masses and its congregation to help me to grow.
“Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth will set you free”, we are told in Scripture – and reminded by Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF, in the “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”.  For helping us to grow in truth and honesty, we should be deeply grateful to the Soho Masses. I know I am.
If you agree with me, please write to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, to show your appreciation – and to balance the nonsense and lies he is constantly receiving from our opponents, most of whom have never actually attended one of our Masses, to see for themselves what really happens at them.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols
Archbishop’s House
Ambrosden Avenue
London SW 1P 1QJ

A Tribute to the (London) Soho Masses Congregation

After Mass one Sunday evening last month, one of those celebrated twice a month at the Church of the Assumption and St Gregory in London’s Soho with a particular focus on the pastoral needs of LGBT (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Catholics, their families and friends, I was talking to one particular member of the congregation. She is not in fact any of LGBT herself, but conventionally heterosexual and a mother, who had travelled into the West End from Kent, as she does as often as she can for our Masses – usually, but inaccurately, described as Soho “Gay Masses”. She was telling me how much she enjoys the experience. “It’s the community”, she said.

And so it is. I have previously heard exactly the same sentiment from another heterosexual mother,  married to her husband for over 40 years, who was also present at Sunday’s Mass.  She travels up for our Mass once a month only – all the way from Somerset, a very substantial journey. Later, I came to reflect on the achievement of these Masses, which have a particular focus on the needs of LGBT Catholics, their friends and families – but which take place in the context of a regular parish. When a visiting priest from my former parish in Johannesburg attended last October to see for himself how we operated, I was curious to know just what he thought. “But it’s just a Mass”, was his response.

Again, so it it – but what a Mass! Far from the hotbed of iniquity imagined by our critics, here’s a run-down of what actually happened on Sunday night, and some other recent activity: a record that puts many conventional parishes to shame.

  • Well in advance of the Mass, our liturgist had prepared and printed Mass sheets, bidding prayers, and our regular, extensive newsletter.
  • Members of the organising team began to appear at the church from about 4 pm onward – a full hour ahead of the scheduled start.
  • Two people inserted the Mass sheets/ newsletters into hymn books, offering  one to each Mass-goer in welcome, on arrival.
  • The celebrant for the Mass was Monsignor Seamus O’Boyle, parish priest and also the Vicar – general for the diocese.
  • Assisting Msgr O’Boyle on the altar was a sacristan / server
  • Music was provided by a highly skilled organist (one of a team of four), assisted by a superb cantor to lead the vigorous and enthusiastic congregational singing.
  • Readings and bidding prayers were shared between four readers.
  • Four more were Eucharistic ministers.
  • A further four people took the offertory collection, and a retiring collection for the registered Catholic charity, CAPS (Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support).
  • Notices at the end of Mass included some matters concerning our planned pilgrimage to Rome, due to take place next April.
  • Out of about 100 worshippers, possibly 50 moved downstairs for coffee and biscuits provided by the catering team, and to browse through the extensive information tables and collection of religious themed books on our magnificent bookstall (with subject matter ranging across Scripture, spirituality and prayer, Christology, Vatican II, reflections on the liturgical year, and many more – and simply to chat among friends, or to discuss recent activities and future plans. When I left shortly after 7 pm, over an hour after the end of the service, conversation was still going strong.

I make that something like 20% of the congregation who had contributed directly to the planning and conduct of the Mass, and 50% who gathered for refreshments and discussion. Talk about community! How many conventional parishes can claim that degree of  active involvement?

The “recent activities” under discussion will have included a successful Marian Day of reflection last Saturday, arranged by one of our team, led by a notable theologian and attended by eighteen members of the congregation, a weekend retreat the previous week for members of our Young Adults Group – the second retreat set up, planned and organized by the young adults themselves. Our young adults group have become a prominent, vigorous part of the congregation, as ministers of the eucharist, readers and on the Pastoral Council, as well as conducting their own regular social and religious activities – such as this, the second retreat they have arranged.

In addition to the young adults, we also have a women’s group and a transgender group meeting monthly before Mass for discussion and mutual support, and we will soon be starting a regular men’s faith-sharing group. Coming up for the Christmas season will be a Carol service, and for next year, there will be repeats of the successful “Next Steps” workshop on extending ministry to LGBT Catholics. Also on the horizon, is serious discussion on launching an RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), to welcome people wanting to join the Catholic Church.

Last July, we had a large group participating alongside other Christians in the London gay pride parade – promoting to the wider LGBT community the idea that they too, could be welcome in Church.

In addition to the deep involvement in our own parish community, I should also note the investment in travel time and money it represents, and that for many of us, this isin addition to participation in local parishes.  I had travelled up from Haslemere in the south of Surrey – some 40 miles. Others that I know of had come similar or even greater distances – from Basingstoke, Salisbury, Somerset, Tunbridge Wells and Brighton and elsewhere in Sussex.

Many of our people also participate in local parish activities, as liturgists, musicians, special ministers – or passive pew sitters – and in affairs of the diocesan and even national church. Possibly also under discussion may have been the recent “Call to Action” gathering at Heythrop College, which some of us attended. Out of about 4oo  total attendance,  from right across the country, I spotted about ten of our community. (The whole of Arundel & Brighton diocese did not have many more than that).

Not all of us are active in local parishes: some have felt so rejected by the Church that they have not participated in any Catholic sacramental life for years. But our experience has been that many of the people who come to us for the first time after years outside the Church, become reconciled to the faith and move on to attendance, and then deeper involvement, in local parishes as well.

In this year of faith, Catholics around the world are reflecting on the twin themes of evangelization, and on the unfilled promises of Vatican II – one of which was much greater lay participation, in sharing the burdens of ministry. In the Soho Masses congregation, we have strong examples of both: extensive lay participation in planning and conducting our liturgies, and by our continually expanding pastoral programme, active ministry / evangelization to the broader community of LGBT Catholics.

Contrary to the apparent belief of the critics of the Soho Masses, the “face of Jesus” is not one of rigid enforcement of doctrinal rules and the loyalty to a religious hierarchy, but one of love and service to the community. (Jose Pagola, in “Jesus, an Historical Approximation“, describes Jesus’ mission above all as that of preaching the immanence of the reign of God).

When I first joined the congregation in the days at St Anne’s, the group was notable for comprising mostly older white men (at 52, I was probably at about or under the median age). No longer. We are now notably younger, and although there’s some way to go, we are also notably more diverse in gender and ethnicity. We have grown in numbers, but more important is that we grown immensely in community and active life in the faith. Summarizing the points above, this includes, in addition to the Masses themselves the following characteristics which any Catholic parish would hope to support:

  • Growth in spirituality (retreats and days of reflection)
  • Special interest support and faith – sharing groups
  • A planned pilgrimage
  • Community outreach activities and regular charitable giving (in our case, especially to CAFOD, CAPS and some other causes)
  • Informal catechesis through our extensive bookstall / information tables
  • A possible start to formal catechesis and RCIA
And above all, a most remarkable, powerful community spirit and fellowship. Yet all of this astonishing achievement is produced by a group meeting for just two Masses a month. Although some people undoubtedly contribute more than others, this is no longer something arranged by just a small group, or even by the formal pastoral council. This is a collaborative venture, strengthened and invigorated I am convinced, by the Holy Spirit working through us all, in which many gifts contribute for the greater good – of our community, and of the church as a whole.
Soho Masses community – I salute and thank you.

Soho Masses Provide Welcome and Community for London’s LGBT Community

While in London, England, for World Pride, I was blessed to be able to attend one of the Soho Masses, sponsored here by the Archdiocese of Westminster (London) for the LGBT community.  It was a beautiful service filled with a great spirit of hospitality and solidarity.

Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory

The Masses are held on the first and third Sundays of the month, 5:00 pm, at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory, Warwick Street, in the Soho neighborhood of London, which is the center of the LGBT community.  When I attended yesterday, the church was packed, with what I estimated to be about 125 people.

The community gathered for liturgy was amazingly diverse in terms of age, gender, race and ethnicity.  At the social hour afterward, even I, as a newcomer, was made to feel very welcome by people I had never met, and who did not know that I was a foreign visitor

The Soho Masses are clearly doing the work of God here in London, not only providing a welcome to the ostracized, but providing an opportunity for people to be of service to one another and to the church and the world.  If you visit  London, you should be sure to schedule a visit for one of these wonderful liturgies.   For more information, click here.

– full post at  Bondings 2.0/ New Ways Ministry.

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Give Thanks For This Kairos Moment of LGBT Inclusion

For Thanksgiving, More Light Presbyterians have released an important statement “Giving Thanks for Change in Our Church“:
This Thanksgiving, we give thanks for God’s extravagant love for all of God’s creation…no exceptions, no one outside of God’s embrace. This Thanksgiving, we give thanks for God’s sustaining grace in and through difficult times, loss of those we love, illness, economic hardships and war. This Thanksgiving, we give thanks for the peace that passes all understanding that comes from trusting that God’s redemptive love and justice is at work in our own lives, in the lives of others, in our Church and in the world.
The rest of the statement is worth reading, but is specific to the Presbyterian General Assembly’s approval last summer of 10-A, on the ordination of openly gay or lesbian pastors. Thanksgiving is a specifically an American observance. The principle of recognizing and giving thanks for progress, though, is an important one for all who are queer in church, anywhere in the world, as the evidence for progress is strong, across all major denominations and regions of the world.
Sometimes this is dramatic and hits the headlines, as in the ordination of openly gay or lesbian bishops, or approval for same sex weddings, or blessing same-sex unions, in church. Sometimes, it is less conspicuous, as where there is not  a new decision, but a gradual shift in emphasis by some Catholic bishops from outright condemnation, to more attention to the quality of relationships, and the importance of “dignity, compassion and respect”. Sometimes, it is marked only by local, personal experience, as individual church members and their families find that in many congregations (admittedly not all), they are able to worship and participate with full acceptance by fellow parishioners. For many people, this direct experience at parish level is far more important than the theoretical pronouncements from church leadership.
In the UK, one of the most prominent opponents of the LGBT- oriented Soho Masses is William Oddie. In the Sept-Oct issue of Faith Magazine, he rants once again about the continued existence of these Masses, and the role of the English bishops in supporting them. (Like the other opponents of these Masses, he totally ignores the even more important role of the Vatican itself, through the CDF, in their support). Introducing his lament, he refers to this time (of toleration for the Masses) as a “defining moment” for the English Catholic Church.
The affair of the Soho Masses has rumbled on for years now; and it has become one of the defining issues of the Catholic Church in England at the beginning of the new Millennium. That sounds a little pompous, maybe: but I predict nevertheless what, at my age, I will not live to see – that when the history of the English Church in this dire period for its fortunes is written, this subject will merit more than a passing footnote.
The question the affair poses is very simple: are those set in authority over us, the bishops, at this juncture in our history prepared to defend the teaching of the Church as though it were indeed, as Catholics have always believed, part of a body of faith given by God and not constructed by men?
When I first saw this, my immediate response was that he was grossly overreacting. On further reflection, I think he is right, but probably not in the way he intended, and not only for the English Catholic Church. This is not (as he thinks) about the bishops supposed failure to defend teaching “given by God”, but about moving away from sexual prejudices that were constructed by men, justified by distorted translations and misinterpretations of  a selected handful of Bible verses, and erroneously presented as central to Christian faith.
There is a much bigger, worldwide movement under way here, towards a more authentic understanding of Scripture and theology, and towards full inclusion for all in Church. William Oddie described this time as a “defining moment.” Theologian John McNeill has described it in more precise theological language as a “Kairos Moment“, a time ripe for transformation.  The Holy Spirit is everywhere to be seen, nudging us along the paths to change that are possible and appropriate in specific denominational, local and family circumstances.  It is incumbent on each one of us, queer and straight ally alike, to reflect and discern the ways in which we can best co-operate with the Spirit in her work.
Let us give thanks for the opportunity – and for my American readers, have a great holiday weekend.

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman, Soho “Gay” Masses

Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman by John Millais

When I first wrote about Newman a year ago, I wrote that he has particular significance for gay Catholics, on account of his deep commitment to his beloved friend Aubrey St John, and his writing on conscience.  That initial post was simplistic: I did not then realize how sharply opinions on John Henry divide, specifically on his ideas of conscience and loyalty. While some progressive Catholics celebrate and promote (their understanding of) his championing of conscience, some conservatives see this as entirely a misrepresentation of his understanding of conscience, which should rather be read in the context of his parallel championing of church authority and loyalty.

For a long time, I have been wary of writing anything further – although for a time I was trying unsuccessfully to put together something on the “paradox” of Newman. Now, after a flood of information and commentary leading up to the beatification, I stick by my original assertion. Blessed John Henry Newman indeed of great importance for queer Christians, with even more reason than I originally recognized.

Newman’s legacy is paradoxical: he is claimed simultaneously as hero by progressive Catholics for his stout defence of conscience, and by conservatives for his defence of authority. He is touted as a gay saint over his highly publicized deep relationship with Aubrey St John – and “defended” as obviously heterosexual because he was celibate, and so obviously not giving sexual expression to any same- sex attraction.  All of these deserve further consideration, and have received plenty elsewhere.

For now, I want to limit my own observations only to two additional ways in  which Newman’s career is particularly relevant for queer Christians, and especially the LGBT Catholic congregation of the Soho Masses, by prefiguring our own position.

We too live in a paradoxical state, with the official position of the Vatican (and many other leading religious bodies) urging noble ideas of treating us with dignity, compassion and respect – yet in their own actions they frequently do the exact opposite. They urge us to follow and to speak the truth – but when we do, we may find ourselves paying a heavy price. They have attempted to silence people like John McNeill and Jeannine Gramick for their attempts to speak the truth, a Canadian altar server was refused ministry for his, Michael B Kelly and many others have lost their jobs in Catholic schools and colleges, simply for telling the truth of their lives. The CDF reminds us that “the truth will set you free”, but for Catholics in Church employ, too often it simply sets us free of that employment.

Newman spent most of his life as priest under attack from all sides. It was only late in life that he began to receive recognition for his achievements as a theologian, when he was suddenly promoted from parish priest directly to cardinal, and eventually beatification. I believe that we as a queer Christian community are following a similar path, from persecution and exclusion, to ever-increasing inclusion – and even respect for what we can teach the wider church. We see this most clearly in denominations like the mainline Protestant groups that have already accepted the principles of full inclusion and equal treatment for queer Christians and clergy, or who are openly debating these issues – but we are also starting to see some embryonic signs of the same thing in the Catholic Church.

This was most dramatically illustrated for out Soho Masses community by the blaze of media publicity (mostly favourable) we received in the build-up to Newman’s beatification. We have been operating for over eleven years now, and for over three years in a Catholic parish as a formal pastoral initiative of Westminster diocese, and so under the patronage of the head of the Church in England and Wales. We have experienced continuous low level mutterings from some conservative opponents, but otherwise very little publicity, with not even a mention on the diocesan website.

This changed dramatically over the past few weeks. In addition to substantial coverage in BBC television and radio programmes, there were additional British reports in a range of newspapers and magazines. Coverage has since gone global. At last Sunday’s Mass, we had reporters present from Spanish national radio, Croatian radio, Czech Television – and Gaydar radio. (Gaydar is a major UK gay dating website, with an on-line radio service).

“Out of the shadows, into the light”, indeed.

Related articles on John Henry Newman

A “Culture of Life” and Ferment in the UK Church.

In the UK, as in the US, we have a vociferous band of self-appointed guardians of the faith, who regularly wail about departures from Catholic orthodoxy, wherever they perceive it. Most of the time, I prefer to ignore their bleatings. Just recently though, I have been paying more attention, as they are now meeting strong resistance where it counts.

Daphne McLeod leads a group and website called “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” (acronym PEEP, which I think is rather fun). She and her group are responsible for the regular protests outside the London Soho Masses, about which she regularly complains to all she can think of, from the Archbishop of Westminster to the Vatican. (We know that she has sent a barrage of submissions to both – much of it based on distorted information.) Her objections, however, are falling on deaf ears – at all levels.

…..it is rather surprising to find Archbishop Nichols now claiming, when he does reply to letters from concerned Catholics, that they are, by their own description only of a homosexual orientation …. who struggle to be part of the Catholic Church and conform their lives accordingly!

Can he really believe this against so much evidence to the contrary ? Doesn’t he realise that faithful Catholics with this orientation who are really striving to follow Church teaching don’t want to call attention to themselves with special Masses? Some of these noble souls have contacted us to express the distress these Masses with their sacrilegious Communions cause them while they, who really deserve it, get so little pastoral care.

Recently the Holy Father told Bishops in Rome You have the duty to teach, with audacity, the Truth. Hopefully he will tell our bishops to once more start guiding their flocks responsibly by issuing Pastoral Letters and Ad Clerumsinsisting that true and only true Doctrinal and Moral teaching is given in our parishes and schools again.

This hope is unlikely to be realized, as she admitted to Lifesite News

Daphne McLeod, the head of the Catholic campaign group Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, told LifeSiteNews.com that the situation has not improved under Nichols. The Soho Mass group, she said, is “getting worse, more brazen. They’re spreading and have groups now to attract the young people.”

McLeod has organized prayer vigils outside the church where the homosexualist events are held. “I see these nice young people go in there and I’m sure they don’t know how wrong it is. They’re not being taught about it in Catholic schools.”

McLeod’s organization has written to and visited Vatican officials begging that the situation be addressed. “We write to Rome all the time, we went to Rome, with all those dossiers and nothing was done. We spoke to Cardinal [Francis] Arinze [then-head of the Vatican’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Sacraments] and he said, ‘I’m not going to do anything about the Soho Masses.’” (emphasis added).

– Lifesite News

John Smeaton, director of SPUC, (“Society for the Protection of Unborn Children”) wrote an incoherent piece last month in support of the PEEP campaign against Soho Masses, arguing that the bishops could somehow help the unborn by stomping on gay and lesbian worship. The same theme was then picked up by Edmund Adamus, diocesan director of pastoral affairs, who was breathlessly described in the press as one of the country’s “most senior” Catholics, who lamented the UK “culture of death”, which for which he cited as supposed evidence, the advances for equality legislation:

A leading adviser to the Archbishop of Westminster has blamed abortion and gay rights for turning Britain into a “selfish, hedonistic wasteland” which has become “the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death”.

Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster and an adviser to Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said Parliament had turned Britain into a country which is more culturally anti-Catholic than nations where Christians are violently persecuted such as Saudi Arabia, China and Pakistan.

This is theological shorthand which, in fairness, doesn’t mean quite what it appears to do, but it is palpable nonsense all the same, as Paul Vallely made clear in a useful riposte at the Independent. More interesting to me than the argument and its flaws, was the response. Vallely concluded his piece with the prediction:

All this is spectacularly unhelpful on the eve of the papal visit. The Catholic Church has insights to offer the rest of society about the dangers of putting materialist individualism before the common good; about social justice at a time of spending cuts. It has good questions to ask about the relationship between laddish culture and attitudes to women and sexual violence.

But that will not be heard above the indignation generated by Mr Adamus’s incitement to cultural war. He is no doubt about to get a major ticking off.

This was prescient – the anticipated ticking off came swiftly:

The Roman Catholic archbishop of Westminster has distanced himself from an aide who said gay rights and the commercialisation of sex had turned Britain into a “selfish, hedonistic wasteland” and “the geopolitical epicentre of the culture of death”.

The comments from Edmund Adamus, director of pastoral affairs at the diocese of Westminster and an adviser to the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, have angered gay rights and secularists groups and provoked embarrassment among the Catholic hierarchy weeks before the pope visits Britain.

Senior figures, including Lord Patten of Barnes, have been keen to stress that the UK, while secular, is not anti-Catholic and that the pope is not flying into hostile territory.

A spokesman for Nichols said the views expressed by Adamus “did not reflect the archbishop’s opinions”.

I confess to some special interest, and some schadenfreude, here. My understanding is that it is Adamus, exercising his authority as head of pastoral affairs for the diocese, who steadfastly refuses to allow the diocesan website to make any reference to the diocesan initiative which gives pastoral backing to the Soho Masses. Is too much to hope that this rebuke is a sign of further sidelining  to come? (I understand that Adamus was scheduled to appear on BBC Ulster’s Sunday sequence programme this week – but did not appear. Is the first sign of some muzzling?)

With the papal visit now less than a fortnight away, the British media are increasingly obsessed with print and broadcast stories on the Catholic church. The BBC alone will have a radio report by Mark Dowd, an openly gay ex-Dominican and member of our congregation, on Thursday morning this week, and a TV programme on Thursday evening, which will include material on our Masses (for which I was one of the interviewees. It remains to be seen if I make it onto the screen, or end up on the cutting room floor.) Next week Wednesday, there will be a programme by Dowd on “The Trials of Benedict” – which the Scottish primate Cardinal Keith O’Brien has decribed (unseen) as a “hatchet job” on the church.

Unlike Cardinal O’ Brien, I do not want to comment definitively on the content of programmes before they have been aired. However, I suspect that they will demonstrate something very different from the “culture of death” described by Adamus: I hope and believe that they could well show instead a British Catholic Church which is vigorously, ebulliently, alive – and that one side of that life and vigour is a willingness to speak up and engage with the world, instead of simply regurgitating slogans from a nineteenth century Catechism.

I will be waiting with interest the programs to come – and will report on them here.