Saturday 11 September 2010

Soho Masses (and Me) on National Television.

The UK's rule-book Catholics who so visibly oppose London's gay Masses have been vocal in their fervent hope and prayer that Pope Benedict's impending visit will bring order to a wayward flock, and bring "unity" (by which they appear to mean whipping everybody else into conformity with their own, very narrow, understanding of Catholicism.) They will be disappointed. Already it is abundantly clear that our Masses will not be stopped, and may well come out of the Papal visit stronger than ever.

The visit itself has led to a constant stream of news and analysis in the British media, including daily short inserts in the BBC's "Newsnight" programme. A range of longer programmes have also been broadcast, or are scheduled for the weeks ahead. Some of these programmes have specifically featured teaching on homosexuality, and our Soho Masses. Taken together, they amount to vastly more extensive public exposure, and qualitatively more sympathetic publicity, than we have ever seen before.

Yesterday morning, the openly gay broadcaster Mark Down was on BBC4 Radio, with programme called "Pope Benedict's British Divisions", which examined the changes in the local church since the previous papal visit, by Pope John Paul II. This covered many aspects of the church - but our Masses (where Dowd is a regular participant) were an important part.   Last evening, the Newsnight short feature also had prominence for the Masses, including footage of a range of members of the congregation who had been interviewed before Mass - myself included. I had been wondering how best to introduce you to those extracts of these two programmes which are specifically relevant to our Masses (leaving the bigger picture of the Church as a whole to a separate post), but the BBC has made it easy for me. At the BBC magazine website, there is a superb written summary of Mark Dowd's radio programme, together with video footage of the interviews with Soho Mass participants from the Newsnight feature. Have a look,  at "Britain's Only Gay Mass".

As Britain prepares for a visit from the Pope, there is opposition from some gay people who believe the Roman Catholic church is intolerant of their sexuality. But in one London church homosexuals are attending a "gay Mass" with the blessing of senior clergy.

Paul Brown had not been to church since his mother's funeral in 2002. Now he is back in the pews, courtesy of a Mass for lesbian and gay Catholics which is the only one of its kind in the UK. "I searched for a Mass with a positive message about things you should do, not someone telling me all the things I shouldn't do," he says. Paul, who sports a black leather biker's jacket, is one of a number who have transformed the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in London's West End. They sing hymns at the top of their voices. Many are aged under 30. Some have dyed hair. Suddenly, Catholicism seems be all the rage in this part of central London

I'm the disreputable looking one making a point about the Church and sexual ethics in general, responding to the observation that homosexual activity is contrary to church teaching. What I said was,

The simple fact is that across the world, Catholics disagree with, and do not comply with Church teaching - no, Vatican teaching - on a whole range of sexual ethics matters

As my friend and colleague on the Pastoral Council, Renate Rothwell, says in her quotation,

My life without the Soho Mass would be bleaker, lonelier and less joyful.

Another friend, former priest Tom Munn, asked what he thought the Pope thinks of the Mass (or if it mattered to him), replied

My faith is more important to me than what the Pope thinks.

This is a sentiment I would support, but in fact is irrelevant to our situation. My own response to the same question (on the cutting room floor) was that I am quite sure that the pope does support the Masses (if he has specific knowledge of them), or would support the principle if he does not. We certainly know that the Masses were arranged in consultation with high level Vatican officials, who continue to monitor them closely. We also know that the present head of the CDF, Cardinal Levada, was one of the earliest appointments made by Benedict on assuming the papacy - and as head of the San Francisco diocese, Cardinal Levada had previously been supportive of the Masses at Most Holy Redeemer, San Francisco. As Mark Dowd makes clear in his radio programme, Cardinal Levada certainly has full knowledge of our Masses. It is inconceivable that he would condone a pastoral initiative in conflict with the intentions of Benedict, or that Benedict would have appointed him if he were hostile to the principle of a gay Mass, such as that in the Castro. It is also significant that under the previous papacy of John Paul II, the organizers of our Masses, who were then unable to find a home in any Catholic church, were constantly unable to set up any form of meeting or even simple correspondence with the then Cardinal Archbishop or his representatives. Yet just eighteen months into Benedict's papacy, we were approached by the diocese with a request to move into a Catholic church - and were amazed by the sense of urgency with which they were treating the matter. So I am convinced that we have implied support from Benedict himself, and direct support from his deputies.

What should be of real concern to the rule-book protesters agitating to have the Masses stopped, is this statement by Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster diocese, who is both the local ordinary and the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales:

"anybody who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for communion really ought to learn to hold their tongue".

This quotation should be read in conjunction with an earlier statement from Nichols that in the Catholic tradition, a genuine search for truth is more important than mere blind loyalty. ("Real Catholicism": Blind Loyalty, or a Search for Truth?") It is a clear warning to our band of protesters that their opposition is misplaces and will not be allowed to derail the Masses, echoing the verdict that they were earlier given directly by a senior Vatican official (A “Culture of Life” and Ferment in the UK Church).

Instead, the head of the English church has made it clear that these Masses serve a real pastoral need - and could well be extended, in time, to other English diocese where the need exists  (Brighton, say, which has a strong gay population and where the local ordinary has a reputation as relatively liberal?).

I like Archbishop Nichols, and this papal visit,  more and more.

(The full programmes from Radio 4 and Newsnight, with more extensive coverage of the Masses and also of the wider church, are available on the BBC's i-player service, but only for a limited period after broadcast. For the curious, this  is me:



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  1. I ask this in all sincerity. Why do you wish to segregate yourselves from other Catholics? Does anything different occur at this Soho Mass?

  2. Yes, Celine, there is something very important that is different - a sense of welcome and community, which gay men and lesbians do not find in all Catholic parishes, and often do not expect to find in any.

    I know from my own experience in previous parishes that this is not always the case: many parishes are indeed fully welcoming to all, and a substantial number of those attending the Soho Masses in fact do so in addition to active weekly participation in their own local parishes.

    However, there are other parishes which if not actively hostile, are so oriented to family that it is difficult for us to feel we belong, especially if we are single, or attending Mass without a partner. (This can also be the experience of unmarried heterosexual people.)

    Then there are some parishes where we do meet overt hostility, from clergy or from parishioners.

    Many gay men and lesbians have left the Church, either specifically over the flawed institutional teaching on homosexuality, or for other reasons. Many of the Soho congregation have found that these Masses offer a way back into a welcoming church.

    After experiencing this welcome, many then develop the confidence to reconnect also with local parishes, where they often become fully active parishioners.

    There are other gay men and lesbians who have never been Catholics, but who through their introduction to the faith through the Soho community, have been introduced to a full RCIA programme, and subsequent Catholic baptism.