All ARE welcome!

Lecture of Martin J. Pendergast at the Euro Pride 2011 in Rome:

All ARE welcome! Including LGBT people in the Catholic Church

In 1957, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster together with the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury responded to the Wolfenden Report which proposed decriminalising homosexuality in England and Wales. The Archbishops, in rare ecumenical convergence for the time, said that issues of personal morality and legality should not be confused and so offered their support for decriminalisation, which finally occurred in 1967.

In many ways this marked the first publicly liberal stance of the Roman Catholic hierarchy of England & Wales in response to homosexuality. Following the publicationof Persona Humana, the CDF’s declaration on Sexual Ethics, the Bishops’ Social Welfare Committee published An Introduction to the Pastoral Care of Homosexual People in 1979.

This sought to contextualise and soften what many Catholics, including clergy, had perceived as harsh language applied to lesbian and gay people. Many of us were consulted in the process leading to its publication.

The Pastoral Guidelines contained some important principles and advice to priests on how to respond pastorally. For example: In determining whether or not to administer Absolution or give Communion to a homosexual, a pastor must be guided by the general principles of fundamental theology that only a certain moral obligation may be imposed. An invincible doubt, whether of law or fact , permits one to follow a true and solidly "probable opinion" in favour of a more liberal interpretation.

It also stated that, Homosexuals have the same need for the Sacraments as the heterosexual. They also have the same right to receive the Sacraments.

Although there exist in the UK LGBT Catholic groups, independent of the hierarchy, even after the CDF’s Letter to Bishops in 1986, there was still no formal diocesan ministry to LGBT Catholics anywhere in the UK. There was no public opportunity for LGBT Catholics to come together to celebrate liturgy, except in the privacy those of groups.In April 1999, the Roman Catholic Caucus of the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement, responding to this statement, began organising monthly Masses in a Catholic convent in London and with the knowledge of the Auxiliary Bishop responsible for Pastoral Matters in Westminster Diocese. These Masses were open to anyone who wished to attend and not just members of any LGBT group.

Unable to find a Central London Catholic church to use when the convent closed in 2003, the community moved temporarily to use St. Anne’s Anglican parish church in Soho, in the heart of the LGBT community, all the while maintaining a rota of Catholic priest celebrants.

The community soon grew in numbers, and many people asked if the Masses could be celebrated more regularly, so extending to 1st and 3rd Sundays. In 2005 we were beginning to outgrow the capacity of the small St. Anne’s Church with our regular congregation reaching around 70 people.

During our time at St. Anne’s, conservative Catholics had mounted a campaign, trying to force the now-retired Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor to stop the priests celebrating the Masses. This he declined to do, hoping perhaps that we would eventually die out and his peace would be returned to him. The community continued to grow, and in July 2005 the Soho Masses Pastoral Council (SMPC) was elected from the community to take responsibility for organising Masses for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) Catholics, their parents, families and friends.

The Cardinal realised that we were far from disappearing and so, in 2006, asked one of his parish priests who was a member of our presiding rota, if we would be willing to discuss a move to a Soho Catholic church. The Cardinal felt that if the Masses were embraced within a parish and diocesan framework, this would both express more clearly their link with him as the local bishop, and counter some of the complains of so-called traditionalist Catholics who were still complaining. The SMPC welcomed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s initiative to ensure that pastoral support for these communities would be integrated into the overall pastoral provision of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

A Consultation Process led to an agreement that from 4 March 2007, Masses celebrated at 17.00 pm, on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of each month at the Church of the Assumption, Warwick Street, would particularly welcome LGBT Catholics, their parents and families, as well as being open to any of the People of God. We rejoice that we are recognised as having a rightful place at the table of Christ’s banquet, where the bread is broken and the wine is poured out, not just for some, but for all.

We welcomed the integrity of the Diocesan representatives in seeking to develop a framework within which the Diocese can work more constructively, honestly, and collaboratively with LGBT Catholics and others. Our discussions were marked by mutual respect, honesty, and trust. We adopted tried and tested principles of dialogue, notably the ecumenical practice of employing language used by communities about themselves. The validity of using lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered vocabulary and experience was recognised. The conversations resulted in a stronger sense of ecclesial communion and a developing understanding of pastoral realities affecting the communities involved. At no point was there any suggestion that LGBT Catholics should sacrifice their integrity, recognising the rights to conscience and the good faith of all involved.

The myth that this worshipping community is exclusive to a specific sexual orientation rather than being an inclusive expression of the Church, gathering all sorts and conditions of people, was demolished. In spite of often outrageous allegations made by our detractors, these are not ‘gay Masses’. The liturgies set high standards and are a model of what a truly inclusive welcoming Catholic community can look like in practice.

Rather than defining LGBT Catholics, their parents and families, as persons with problems to be solved, the process recognised the contributions and gifts they bring to the building up of the Body of Christ, the rich catholicity of the People of God. It may focus more on the grief and anxieties of human existence than on the joy and hope of a Church trying to live with integrity in contemporary society. Being proudly lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, and proudly Catholic is at the heart of this community of faith.

This provides new opportunities for our pastoral, spiritual, and faith development. At the same time we hope to contribute to broader pastoral ministry in the context of an historic West End parish, and the life of the Archdiocese. The outcome of our consultations offers the wider Church in England and Wales and beyond, the potential to develop more effective models of pastoral ministry within our LGBT communities, so strengthening ecclesial communion rather than creating disharmony.

We particularly honour the ministry of the ordained members of our community who have empowered us through their breaking of the Word and our celebration of the Eucharist together. Their presence among us has been a consistent sign of reconciliation and of our wider communion with local Churches and with the various dioceses, here and throughout the world, from which members of our community continue to come. This rich gift of presbyteral ministry has enabled us to grow in a true sense of collaborative ministry of mutual care.

Our growth in faith, the vibrancy of our community and worship, our commitment to all in the pursuit of justice, whatever their needs, was nurtured by the hospitality we received from St. Anne’s Anglican Parish Church from 2001-2006 . We treasure and continue a rich ecumenical relationship with other local Soho churches, which began in the context of the Soho bombing in 1997. Out of such tragic loss of life, new life, hope, and joyful community has emerged.  

Our transition from St. Anne’s, Dean Street, to the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption & St Gregory, Warwick Street, was not a closure, nor even a beginning, but rather a further step in the journey of God’s pilgrim, rainbow people, a gift to be shared not only between our two local communities but also with the wider ecclesial communities to which we belong. Although the place of our Eucharistic celebrations might have changed, our common life together, united in baptism, will continue through other ways of prayer and worship, study, and common action for justice within and across our communities.

The Soho Masses Pastoral Council is elected from amongst those who regularly take part in the Soho Masses community. A lively Younger Adults Group is now well established, as is a similar Women’s Group. The number of transgendered Catholics attending has also increased. Day retreats and programmes of reflection and discussion are a regular feature of the Soho Masses community. The generosity of the community is noticeable in special fund-raising assisting the pastoral care of those living with HIV, as well as regular commitment to other charities, including the Catholic Agency For Overseas Development, local Hospices, homeless projects, etc.

People from the Soho Masses community have also been key in developing the Soho LGBT Community Forum, bringing together local police, health, and City of Westminster agencies, as well as other churches and voluntary groups.

We have been heartened by the expressions of support offered by the present Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols. In spite of continued misunderstandings of and misinterpretations by conservative Catholics about the principles undergirding this pastoral provision, the Archdiocese of Westminster has been stalwart in its defence of this unique pastoral provision.

Around the time of the September 2010 Papal Visit to the UK, the Archbishop was continually questioned by journalists about the Masses. Asked if the Church would accept same-sex unions he replied, I don’t know. Who knows what’s down the road?.  

On another occasion he said,“When it comes to understanding what human sexuality is for, there is a lot that we have to explore.. Because I think what is at one level in the broad perspective clear, is that there is an intrinsic link between procreation and human sexuality. Now how do we start from that principle, not lose it, and have an open, ongoing conversation with those who say, well, that’s not my experience? How do we bring together some principles that if you like are written into the broad book of nature, and individual experiences? That’s the area that we have to be sensitive and open to, and genuinely wanting to explore.”  

 When asked about protests against the Masses, he said in a radio interview that, Those who take it upon themselves to decide who can or cannot receive Communion, I suggest that they hold their tongues.

I couldn’t agree more!