Joe Stanley, who chairs Soho Masses Pastoral Council
Published: 18 January, 2013
by JOE STANLEY
IT’S been an interesting fortnight – on January 2 the Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols announced that the Soho Masses which, for the past six years have been the Roman Catholic Church in London’s official outreach to the LGBT Catholic community, were moving from a church in Warwick Street near Piccadilly.
They were asked to integrate into the parish of the Jesuit church in Farm Street; and the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, the group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Catholics who, elected by the congregation, organise the Masses, would no longer do that, but were asked to focus on pastoral care instead.
Ho hum, so far, so good – who could have imagined the torrent of bilge that this banal announcement would produce, both in the gay and the Catholic press?
The gay press, infuriated by the Archbishop’s recent criticism of the government’s process in deciding to legislate for equal marriage, presented it as yet another homophobic attack on the LGBT community.
The prurient end of the Catholic press, which titillates readers with salacious and entirely imaginary stories about a gay dating agency after Mass (anybody want to shack up with a lesbian granny?) decided to spin it as a Machiavellian move by the Archbishop. Conveniently forgetting that there already is a Cardinal alive and well in London, their conspiracy theory was that by “abolishing” the Masses, Archbishop Nichols would ingratiate himself with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Inquisition), and Archbishop Antonio Mennini, the Wimbledon-based Apostolic Nuncio (Papal ambassador) and ensure his own Cardinal’s hat.
Even the usually sensible Tablet opined that there was a danger of this – perhaps the most inclusive church-service in Europe – becoming a ghetto.
Strikingly, both sides were equally patronising, the gay press treating us as pawns of an evil organisation who collude in our own oppression, the prurient Catholic press as a mix of screaming queen and sexed-up, theologically illiterate, mental defective. Even more striking was that the gay press saw it had got it wrong, rang up to check the facts and published corrections, while the Catholic editors persisted in presenting wild imaginings. Proof yet again that it’s harder to be Catholic than L,G,B or T these days.
Most striking of all was the deluge of messages of support from straight and gay Catholics all over the world, many of them priests and nuns, as well as from other Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists and even anarchists.
The whole world is watching Westminster Diocese’s radically Christian attempt to meet the spiritual hunger of London’s LGBT Catholic community and by golly it approves.
So, here’s my take on the Soho Masses and what is happening to us. We started in 1999 when a small “grass-roots” group of LGBT Catholics met on the weekend of the Admiral Duncan pub bombing to celebrate Mass. It is the universal communal prayer of the Church, the act where we, as the very diverse body of Christ, come together to commune in a mindful way with each other and God. A lot of its power comes because it exists in the four major dimensions of space-time, having been celebrated for two millennia – the real reason why so many Catholics find it hard to leave the Church. For all its universality, however, individual instances of Mass vary and adapt to time and place. The group who organised that 1999 Mass aimed to celebrate it in a way that met the spiritual hunger, and confronted the challenges, which LGBT Catholics experience – mostly because Mass elsewhere just did not, and most parish clergy were unable to deal with their “issues”.
Typical issues can range from the obvious: coming to terms with Church teaching that the gift of our sexuality is for procreation – to the less obvious, such as baptism for the children of lesbian couples (surprisingly difficult!) or support for Ugandan refugees fleeing death for being gay in their homeland. In my own case, when my partner, Ramón, nephew of a Spanish duke with three (!) Papal titles, died of AIDS in 1991, the Church simply failed us, even though he hadn’t become infected through sex. The only Catholic who offered him comfort was a wonderful old Dominican nun, while the greatest support came from a lesbian agnostic, now a Quaker, and very ill herself. I had to wait 12 years to find the Soho Masses before I could openly and honesty mourn in the Church that has been my family’s spiritual home for 16 centuries.
This “grass-roots” Mass clearly met a need. The congregation last week was 180, from about 10 in 1999. After only seven years, which is lightning speed by Catholic standards, the institutional Church recognised that, and in 2006, invited us to celebrate Mass in Warwick Street. We asked to meet only twice a month, so as to encourage our community members to celebrate with their local parish communities on other Sundays.
And out of these Masses grew a whole range of pastoral and social activities aimed at our communities – and three members of the congregation have become so reconciled to the Church that they have decided to become monks or nuns.
Our plan is to build on these 14 years of prayer, sacrifice, support, dedication and love.
We shall focus, as the Archbishop has asked, on the pastoral activities that flow from celebrating Mass together as a community. Though fearful, we’re looking forward to the amazing challenge of integrating, as we have always tried to, into the life of a “normal” parish. Above all we aim, as a community, to continue to be completely honest before God, as we have done at Warwick Street; only this time we are entrusting our spiritual care to the institutional Church, and asking our fellow-Catholics to recognise our place in their parish as acknowledged brothers and sisters. Big risks I know, but, as I said – we know the world is watching, and approves!
If any of this matters to you, join us on March 3 at 6.15pm at the church at 114 Mount Street.
• Joe Stanley chairs Soho Masses Pastoral Council.