A change of tactic
5 January 2013
There can be no disguising the fact that the ending of the so-called Soho Masses for the Catholic gay community represents a dramatic change of policy. The statement announcing what Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster calls a “new phase” in the pastoral care of gay Catholics in London comes only a few months after he reaffirmed the previous policy, initiated by his predecessor Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, at considerable length.
The underlying reason why the Soho Masses were started – that many gay Catholics felt unwelcome at ordinary parish Masses and wanted somewhere that was more sympathetic to their needs – has not entirely disappeared. Archbishop Nichols now wants and expects gay Catholics to be integrated into their local worshipping community, their parish.
The Soho Masses always were an anomaly, even while they became a symbol of a more tolerant Catholic attitude. But Archbishop Nichols has yet more to do to create a better climate of acceptance for gay Catholics in the parishes of the archdiocese and in the wider Church of England and Wales, of whose bishops’ conference he is president. It was the lack of that climate that justified the anomaly. So the problem remains.
It has been made worse by the fractious quarrel in Britain over attitudes to homosexuality, which was stirred up by David Cameron’s ill-judged announcement of his Government’s intention to legislate for what it calls “equal marriage”. Churches in general and the Catholic Church in particular are regularly pilloried in a partisan national media for alleged bigotry, simply because they have restated what they have always believed about marriage and sexuality. If the level of frustration on the part of church leaders has increased, and with it the volume at which they try to make themselves heard, that is because the Government has never allowed them a proper hearing.
Like his predecessor, Archbishop Nichols has robustly ignored the small but vociferous lobby that protested against the Soho Masses, essentially telling them “Judge not, lest ye be judged”. This may well have required successive archbishops to turn a blind eye towards some of those who attended the Masses, who may have been living in gay relationships and who nevertheless may have been going forward for Holy Communion.
But the issue of gay sex and Catholicism has taken on such a high profile, thanks to the gay-marriage debate, that such an approach is no longer deemed tenable. But deemed by whom? By Archbishop Nichols certainly; but there have been indications that significant figures in the Roman Curia not only want the Soho Masses stopped but also want the bishops of England and Wales, led by their president, to take a much firmer line. In this light, Archbishop Nichols’ statement is as significant for what it does not say as for what it does. He refuses to moralise.
Opposition to gay marriage
The Vatican has apparently chosen to fight a series of political battles over gay marriage, by no means only in Britain. It surely cannot win, and it has ignored the consequence that defeat usually weakens the Church’s authority rather than strengthens it. It also seems unaware of two fundamental difficulties: first, that the clerical child-abuse scandal has done such damage to the Church’s reputation that many people will find it hard to take seriously anything it says about sexuality; and secondly, that there is an undeniable history in the Church of rampant prejudice against homosexuals, which has resulted down the centuries in great personal suffering and resentment. Church official teaching on the unnaturalness of homosexual activity has undoubtedly contributed to that.
Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent speech, appeared to want to move the argument away from that too-well-trodden path to a more constructive area. He identified the key issue as the idea, promoted in the past by some feminists, of the interchangeability of the sexes. Such an anthropology contradicts basic Christian teaching, so it is hardly surprising the Pope opposes it.
But the doctrine that gender is a social construct, and that individuals may choose to reassign themselves at will, is hardly new. And it is increasingly clear that it is not supported by the latest scientific evidence. Nor is it behind the impetus for gay marriage, as Pope Benedict supposes. The Vatican’s opposition to gay marriage appears to have more visceral origins than the Pope’s theory suggests, well meant though it is. And it leaves him open to misrepresentation.
How easily a few ill-chosen words can bring discredit on the Church is demonstrated by the Christmas sermon of Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury. He made the fatal mistake of likening the gay marriage proposal to “the inhuman ideologies” of Communism and Nazism, saying Christian civilisation itself was under threat.
Compassion, not condemnation
Such extreme language shows a startling lack of good sense, not to mention historical perspective: gay marriage has killed nobody. It is in this fraught climate that Archbishop Nichols’ more moderate remarks in the course of an interview with a BBC correspondent were widely misreported – as our columnist Christopher Howse describes in The Tablet today on page 16 – as having been uttered in the Christmas sermon he preached in Westminster Cathedral. Gay-rights lobbyists and their fellow travellers in the media are watching the Church’s every step on this issue, and will cry bigotry at the slightest opportunity.
This is a very uncomfortable time to be a gay Catholic. It is no less uncomfortable for those, among whom Archbishop Nichols must be counted, who wish the Church to display not the condemnation of the Pharisees but the compassionate understanding of Jesus Christ.
But that does not of itself demand the acceptance of gay marriage. Homosexuality is not the primary issue there. That was well expressed by the Christmas sermon of Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, as being basically about the well-being of children. “Government policy cannot foresee the full consequences for the children involved or for wider society,” he said, “of being brought up by two mothers without a father’s influence or by two fathers without a mother’s influence … The experience of growing up with our father and mother to teach and guide, to console and love us unconditionally is an invaluable blessing in life.” Seen in this light, the issue of gay equality is irrelevant; and gay marriage a step in the wrong direction.
It is hard not to conclude, however, that the Soho Masses have fallen victim to it. But the loss to the gay Catholic community is a gain for others. The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption in Soho is being reassigned to the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which exists to provide for the spiritual needs of ex-Anglicans. So one group of exiles is being replaced by another. There is unconscious irony in that.
Following upon the recent attack by R.C. Archbishop Vincent Nichols (Rome’s senior representative at Westminster) on the U.K. government’s plan to bring in legislation to allow for Same-Sex Marriages in England and Wales; this latest report – from ‘The Tablet’ – of the Archbishop’s directive to end the recent practice of holding a special Mass for Gay people at the London Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, in Soho, should not be too surprising.
Although the so-called Gay Masses were conducted in the time of his predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor – and allowed to continue until this point in time by Archbishop Nichols – this new directive seems a complete turnaround from the former openness to Catholic Gays that both Archbishops had embraced in their pastoral concern for such people. One cannot help but wonder if a more urgent pressure is being exerted from the Roman headquarters of the Church, in an attempt to discredit the idea of committed, monogamous Gay relationships.
The argument in this Editorial from The Tablet that “Strings may have been pulled in Rome, but he is not their puppet” may or may not be true; but nevertheless the Westminster candidate for a future ‘Red Hat’ must surely be aware of the fact that his future in the Church might be measured by his willingness to toe the line on traditional attitudes of the R.C. hierarchy to the question of homosexuality.
The proffered reason for the change in local policy could be a viable alternative to the eclectic Gay Masses – which would involve the encouragement of local parishes to do more to attract Gays to attend worship services in their local parish churches – without fear of being discriminated against. In order for this to happen, there would need to be a greater focus on the education of both clergy and lay Catholics in modern gender and sexuality issues, with a view to their acceptance of Gays as active participants in the Liturgy. If this is the intention of Archbishop Nichols, then he will need to initiate a new climate of willing acceptance of the LGBT community in the Catholic Church.
One of the more ironical outcomes of this new policy will be the re-directing of mission in the Soho Parish of Our Lady of The Assumption – towards hosting the formerly Anglican members of the Roman Catholic Ordinariate, under the English patronage of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. One cannot but reflect on the similarity of provenance – of being ‘not quite’ within the bounds of truly Roman Catholicism.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand