This year’s Annual Conference, held in the comfortable surroundings of Bishop Grosseteste University, Lincoln, was my first experience of any Quest event, and I was not at all disappointed. It was good to enter as a group into the highly topical discussion surrounding James Martin’s book Building a Bridge. In a more general way I was deeply moved by how much the whole experience of the weekend seemed to build up, support, sustain and encourage.
I was delighted by the warmth of welcome extended to all, and especially the newcomers, right from the very first moment of the Chair’s Reception. Ruby assured us that the group was a “friendly bunch” and that proved to be an understatement.
As a newbie, I may have been struck by some things others took for granted as familiar from previous years. The daily routine of morning and evening prayer was beautifully prepared and very nourishing, the well-chosen prayers being complemented by visual and auditory aids to recollection and meditation. A big thank you to Greg too for so beautifully accompanying our singing on the keyboard.
I had been wondering how the advertised trans-Atlantic video link with James Martin SJ was going to work: technology has a habit of working worst when the stakes are highest. As it turned out, there had been a change of plan. Instead of a live link we were treated on Friday evening to a video presentation which Fr James had pre-recorded specifically for our Quest Conference, addressing some of the themes of his book Building a Bridge. He chose to focus on the lane of the bridge leading from the institutional church to the LGBT+ community, leaving us as homework the task of reflecting on the lane leading in the other direction. His talk was then structured around three key words taken from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that gay and lesbian Catholics should be treated with: Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity. He rounded off his presentation reflecting on two biblical stories which show Jesus reaching out to people where they are, without judging them.
The Saturday morning got off to a good start with a quiet early Mass for the feast of St Clare. Fr Brendan pointed out how the readings encouraged us to have trust in God especially in the dark and difficult times. After breakfast, Mark Dowd chaired a lively panel discussion based on the previous evening’s video talk, with the participation of Bishop Peter Doyle, Dr Clare Watkins and James Alison. Bishop Peter spoke very warmly on behalf of the bishops, whilst acknowledging that there was a diversity of perspectives among his colleagues on LGBT+ issues. The fact that he is the first bishop to attend a conference for many years is significant.
I could not attempt to reproduce the whole discussion here, but one or two ideas particularly struck me. As an ecclesiologist, Clare Watkins observed that one must not allow the image of a bridge to suggest that the LGBT+ community is somehow separate from the Church. There is of course overlap even between hierarchy and the LGBT+ community, however coy some people may be about acknowledging the fact! But the image can still be a useful one because barriers have been erected—or should I say, moats have been dug—and efforts of contact and communication are necessary.
The question was also raised as to why the LGBT+ community should have any interest in walking along the side of the bridge leading them towards the hierarchy, after so many years of being neglected and/or insulted. Yet we can look at the issue another way: why shouldn’t we, as LGBT+ people, regard ourselves as being sent by Jesus to evangelise the hierarchy? James Alison’s approach, influenced by René Girard, shows that being in any way marginalised by society brings us closer to Jesus. We can be more authentically rooted in Gospel values than the pharisaic religious leaders who throw around condemnations of sinners, whilst claiming for themselves the moral high ground.
The Gala dinner on Saturday evening was a joyful affair and James Alison treated us to an entertaining but also deeply personal and moving account of his own journey of encounter with, and witness to, Jesus as a gay man becoming a Catholic and then a Dominican.
On the Sunday morning, after the AGM, James Alison presented a refreshing and liberating view of what it means to be a Christian according to the New Testament. The Christian has no law, in the sense of external codified rules. The Christian rather lives by faith and the ‘law’ of the Holy Spirit. Traditional Catholic sexual morality furthermore fails to speak meaningfully to the LGBT+ community because it starts from a default definition of sex in heterosexual terms. As LGBT+ Christians, we need to discover for ourselves, and then share with the rest of the Church, how we may find the fulness of life through our loving relationships.
The weekend concluded with a wonderful Mass which was a great celebration of communion with God and each other. Overall the weekend gave so much inspiration, so much encouragement! I wish that many more had been able to reap the benefits of being there.