I spent last Saturday with a group of 20 LGBT Catholics on a pastoral planning workshop for the ‘Soho Masses’. These Masses are now marking a double anniversary: this week is the 2nd anniversary of their formal recognition by the diocese, and a move into a Catholic church, while April will mark the 10th anniversary of their inception, on a much smaller scale. I thought this would be a good opportunity to tell you a little more about who we are, and why this journey has been important.
For American readers, bear in mind that here in the UK, we are way behind you – the British are well known for their national reserve in all things, which extends also to LGBT activism, and to the church. (An American participant on Saturday noted how marked is the contrast she has seen, with British laity far more subservient, and less assertive in dealings with the hierarchy, than their American counterparts.) So we have a long way to go – but it is still worth noting how far we have come.
10 years ago, a small group of lesbian and gay Catholics met in private domestic premises in North London for what was in effect a house Mass. This became a regular monthly event, with a steady rise in numbers. After a while, the premises became no longer available, forcing a move. This turned out to be beneficial, as we were able to make use of premises in the heart of Soho – London’ s gay mecca- in a modern Anglican church. The nature of the physical space and the location were ideal, and numbers continued to expand. Frequency was also increased, to twice monthly. (Many of the congregation travel in from outlying areas, where they are actively engaged in local parishes of their own.)
Surveys of the congregation showed how highly the participants valued these services, for the simple affirmation that they represent, for the sensitive and intelligent homilies appropriate to our lives, for the impressive liturgies (thank you, Martin), and for the warm welcome and community experienced over tea and biscuits.
Increasing success, however, also brought unwelcome attention from some more conservative opponents, who began agitating for the Cardinal to close down the ‘heretical’ Masses which were being celebrated for ‘sinners’ in an Anglican church. From our side, relationships with the diocese were confused and cautious, with decidedly mixed signals being received, so that we were were never quite sure whether we would in fact be shut down, or if we might achieve some degree of diocesan accommodation or recognition.
When the change came, it was the latter. Late in 2006, we received information that the Cardinal, through his representative, wished to open discussions with a view to offering us a permanent home in an inner London parish. – and made clear that he hoped to see the move concluded rapidly, within weeks. We welcomed these discussions, but refused to be steamrollered. After some months’ careful and frank discussions, we did indeed move into our present home in Soho. This parish has a long and notable history of its own, but as an inner city parish no longer has a significant resident population. There were still regular Sunday and weekday Masses, but these were poorly attended. The agreement reached was that we would be specifically welcomed, ‘within a parish context’, at the regular 5:00 pm Mass on the 1st & 3rd Sundays of each month – identical to our existing timing.
Although we welcomed the formal recognition and acceptance that this implied, we had some important reservations and suspicions, which involved intensive consultation and discussion with the community before we agreed, and celebrated (in grand style) our first Mass in the new home in March 2007.
The effects of the move were clearly mixed. We welcomed the signs of acceptance and diocesan integration that it implied, but were equally cautious of the parallel implications that the diocese was attempting to exert control. Opposition also increased (it is ironic that the group who tried to shut down the Masses because they were held in Anglican premises, simply saw them transferred to a historic Catholic church, where the diocesan vicar-general is now the parish priest.) Our opponents responded in a very traditional Catholic way – by a public prayer vigil outside the church, during our Masses. Have you ever been prayed at? Finding myself on the receiving end of prayer as an offensive weapon was distinctly disconcerting, even to me. Several of the less brazen congregation were sufficiently put off to stop attending. How on earth do these people imagine they are doing God’s work by keeping people AWAY from Sunday Mass?
Still, they persevered (in all weathers), and so did we. From a small group 10 years ago meeting privately once a month for Mass, to a larger group of 40-60 ‘squatters’ in an Anglican parish, we are now up to 70 – 100 at any one Mass, and an estimated total of regular participants probably exceeding 200, some of whom travel great distances to attend. (My own journey of 4 hours travelling for the round trip is not exceptional: others come from still further afield.) We are now strong enough to have seen 20 people give up their Saturday for a lengthy meeting, which showed me convincingly that we are have overcome the difficulties of transition, and are not ready for planned further growth.
From our existing, narrowly focused programme of Mass twice a month, we have identified the need to find ways to offer LGBT retreats, and also some form of regular meetings for discussion of LGBT related faith issues. With regained confidence, our liturgies are likely to become (still more) assertive in affirming our LGBT identity. We have recently formed a young persons special interest group: an older persons group may soon follow. We are also slowly developing an internet based virtual community, to support those who are unable to attend, and for all of us between Masses. We continue to enjoy liturgies which are rich spiritually and musically (we have THREE excellent organists sharing honours.) Our celebrants, taken from a roster of remarkably gifted priests, continue to provide excellent homilies.
There remain challenges. We have still to work out quite how to develop the relationship with the parish for the other Sunday and Weekday Masses. The diocese, after almost pleading with us to move into the Soho church, has been remarkably unforthcoming in publicly demonstrating support in print or on their website. We will soon have a new man heading the diocese, and we have no idea how he will respond to the situation he finds himself with. Will he encourage us, try to control us, or to shut us down? And what of all those people who cannot easily get in to Soho? Is there potential to consolidate, then replicate, the Soho model?
We do not know. What we do know, is that there has been remarkable growth and increasing acceptance over 10 years. In the days before our very 1st Mass, London was rocked by a vicious bomb attack on a London pub, in what was very much a hate crime. Since then, public acceptance and legal protection for the LGBT community have grown beyond recognition. Our position within the church, while still fraught with difficulties, is also clearly stronger than it then was. The quality of the discussions, the enthusiasm and the positive tone on Saturday leave me convinced that the next 10 years will bring still further growth and opportunities.