It’s been an astonishing, roller- coaster year for British lesbian and gay Catholics. With New Year, came the sudden announcement by Archbishop Vincent Nichols that the Soho Masses in Warwick Street would be ending, and its the congregation absorbed (without consultation or negotiation) into the existing congregation of the Jesuit parish of Farm Street. A month later we heard from Pope Benedict that he would be retiring at the end of February, and in March the conclave surprised most observers by selecting Pope Francis – who continues to surprise with the countless ways in which his style and priorities are so different from his predecessors. What does it all mean for LGBT Catholics – and particularly for Quest?
John McNeill has written frequently about a “Kairos moment” for lesbian and gay Catholics in the Church, an “opportune moment” which, guided by the Holy Spirit, is ripe for deep-seated change and transformation. The events of these three months have left me more convinced than ever that he is right. Formal doctrine has not changed, nor is there any sign yet that it will, but there is The strenuous opposition of the Catholic oligarch to equal marriage, has led some bishops to accept the value of civil unions. Others have shifted the emphasis from doctrinal rules on genital acts, to the previously neglected teaching on “respect, compassion and understanding”, and all that that implies. In the UK, the end of the Soho Masses in Warwick Street was met with jubilation by their opponents – but for those making the transition, this could be a great opportunity for further growth and development as we integrate in a local parish – a further step in our collective coming out process. The problem and challenge, is, “What of all the others?”.
At the time of the move, I wrote to Archbishop Nichols, pointing out that for many of the Soho Masses community, Farm Street could not be a local parish. What could be done, I asked, to provide more effective LGBT ministry elsewhere in his diocese, and elsewhere in the country? At the reception after the first Mass in Farm Street, I was able to put the question to him in person (and was encouraged by the response). At the same time, the message from Rome is also encouraging. Already it is clear that for Pope Francis, sensitive and welcoming pastoral provision for all will take priority over doctrinal orthodoxy. However, this is not something that should simply be left to the bishops: we need to take the initiative, ourselves. The Kairos moment is here – but an opportunity is not an achievement. It needs to be seized, work must be done to turn the possibility into fact. How are we to do this?
There is a useful lesson to be learnt from the US, where the abundance of opinion polls allow us to analyse and track the remarkable growth in support for marriage equality – which even conservative pundits now acknowledge is inevitable. One crucial factor has been the large numbers of people who have been coming out, openly acknowledging their sexuality to family, friends or colleagues. Polls show clearly that support for equality is dramatically higher among those people who are aware that they know gay or lesbian people themselves. (The same polls show that Catholics are generally more supportive than others of equal marriage, and do not believe that homosexuality is even a matter of morality).
I am certain that the same is true inside the Church. Many people find that the response of people in their parishes is far more welcoming than the hostility from the Vatican, and it is likely that the shift in tone by some bishops results from greater awareness of the growing visibility of gay Catholics in the pews – and of their willingness to speak up publicly and prominently for obedience to Gospel principles of inclusion, justice and equality, rather than simple compliance with doctrinal rules. The more LGBT Catholics come out in church, the more rapidly we will reach full acceptance and inclusion.
This will not be easy. Many individuals are wary of coming out openly in local parishes (or even attending a parish), without some assurance that they will not be met with hostility and rejection. They may need some form of clear indication of welcome. Parishes, on the other hand, are unlikely to make a welcome explicit unless they become aware (as many are not) that there even exist gay and lesbian Catholics in their communities. Furthermore, there is a need for ministry outside the setting of Catholic parishes, for those not yet willing to enter what they may see as a lion’s den. Some creative thinking is required, to develop viable local programs of expanding ministry for lesbian and gay Catholics.
Last June, I attended a “Next Steps in LGBT Ministry” one – day workshop in London, presented by Frank DeBenardo of New Ways Ministry, USA. I was impressed at the variety and creativity of the ideas that emerged, as participants were taken through a process to identify realistic ways in which they personally, would contribute to expanding such ministry in their own faith communities (however they chose to define them), within the next 12 months. One of my own three commitments was to take the format of the workshop and repeat it as widely and frequently as possible, so that others could have the same benefit. I believe, and Quest national committee has endorsed the idea, that this organisation could benefit from such workshops for local branches (probably in conjunction with other groups). If any such group would like to consider sponsoring one, feel free to get in touch. Write to email@example.com, or phone 01428 651 689.
(See my post on the Quest website for more details on the format and logistics of the workshops).
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 66 (Spring 2013)