What the closing of the Soho Masses means

The Archbishop of Westminster’s decision yesterday to end the so-called ‘Soho Masses’ — distinctive liturgies expressly open to gay people, held fortnightly in central London for the past six years — has surprised many, delighted some, and dismayed others.

It could hardly be otherwise: the Masses have been a matter for debate and discussion within the Church for many years — see, e.g., this Catholic Herald article from 2007 — as various archbishops, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, have grappled with the dilemma of ministering to a group which feels separate without endorsing their separateness. To their advocates, they have been a pioneering means of keeping otherwise alienated Catholics within the fold, allowing them to grow in their faith while receiving pastoral support from the Church. To their critics, they have encouraged gay Catholics to keep their distance from the Church, fostering a ghetto in which it is legitimate to dissent from church teaching on sexuality. Both have, at least at times, been true of the Soho Masses.

Before they were introduced by the Diocese in 2006, for many years (since 1999) the group used to meet in an Anglican church in Soho, St Anne’s, where they attended Mass celebrated by specially-invited Catholic priests. Neither the group nor the Masses had the approval of the Diocese; yet it issued press releases and statements as if it were an approved body. That could not be allowed to continue, but rather than suppress them and order priests not to celebrate Mass for them, the Diocese decided instead to offer the group an approved Mass in a Catholic church celebrated by an appointed chaplain. After months of negotiations involving Pendergast, the Diocese, and the Vatican, the Soho Masses began at Our Lady of the Assumption church (pictured) in Warwick St in 2006.warwick-st

According to the agreement, Soho Masses Pastoral Council (SMPC) would not challenge church teaching on sexuality: one of the “underlying principles” of staging the service was that “information about the Mass will be sensitive to the reality that the celebration of Mass is not to be used for campaigning for any change to, or ambiguity about, the Church’s teaching.” The purpose of the Soho Masses was, in the words of a 2 February 2007 diocesan statement, to enable people with same-sex attraction “to enter more fully into the life of the Church … specifically within the existing parish structures”. The Masses were a means of integrating gay Catholics into the wider Church — which is why they were held twice a month, rather than weekly, so that people could attend their parish Mass on the other two Sundays.

This has been the reason for the Soho Masses: “it offers slowly — and it is slow — a chance for those who as it were feel they live under a great pressure of an identity to perhaps shake that a bit looser and to say no, first of all I’m a Catholic and as a Catholic I want to come to Mass,” Archbishop Nichols told the BBC in 2010. In response to critics who staged protests outside the church claiming that those inside were leading a “homosexual lifestyle” he was firm: “anybody who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for Communion really ought to learn to hold their tongue”.

But this unique arrangement, virtually unprecedented, always carried the risk that it could ghettoise, rather than integrate, gay Catholics. A similar dilemma is posed by ethnic chaplaincies. People who arrive in the UK speaking little English and knowing few people find in ethnic chaplaincies a means of support and encouragement — the chance to be with ‘their own’ and among people who speak their language. But an ethnic chaplaincy is not an alternative to a parish, but a pathway into it. Once a person has settled, they should be in their local parish church. If not, an ethnic chaplaincy can inhibit, not further, integration.

The danger is even greater with a “gay-friendly” Mass, because what brings people together is not a culture or language but a sexual orientation; and people defining themselves by their sexual orientation is in itself a cause of alienation. As Archbishop Nichols says in yesterday’s statement: “First among the principles of pastoral care is the innate dignity of every person and the respect in which they must be held. Also of great importance is the teaching of the Church that a person must not be identified by their sexual orientation.” A “gay Mass” sent the opposite message.

Archbishop Nichols is also clear that “the moral teaching of the Church is that the proper use of our sexual faculty is within a marriage, between a man and a woman, open to the procreation and nurturing of new human life”. This means, he adds, “that many types of sexual activity, including same-sex sexual activity, are not consistent with the teaching of the Church. No individual, bishop, priest or lay-person, is in a position to change this teaching of the Church which we hold to be God-given”. This is “the calling to which we must all strive.”

Although the SMPC’s statements did not publicly disagree with church teaching, it did little to promote it, as one secretly-filmed video showed. The SMPC’s head,  Martin Pendergast, is in a well-publicised civil partnership, is critical of the Church’s opposition to gay marriage, and regards Pope Benedict’s warnings about equality laws eclipsing religious freedom in the UK as “an unwarranted intrusion into the United Kingdom’s internal affairs”.

The idea that the Soho Masses could become a place from which to challenge, rather than embrace, church teaching, is reinforced by criticism by Stonewall’s director of public affairs of Archbishop Nichols’s decision. “Given what’s happened over Christmas,” Ruth Hunt (a Catholic) tells the BBC, “where there were vitriolic and mean messages from the pulpit about same-sex marriage, there has never been a more important time to provide a safe space for gay Catholics to pray.” As the “vitriolic and mean messages” were statements of the Church’s reasoned objections to same-sex marriage, “safe” here can only mean one thing: protected from being challenged by church teaching.

Given the Archbishop’s previous support for the Mass, and his decision now (again following discussion with Rome) to end it, the emphasis given in the statement to these two points — the need to avoid a ghetto which encourages people to self-identify as gay, and the need to encourage gay Catholics like other unmarried Catholics to embrace church teaching on sexuality  —  provides the clue to the change in policy after many years. “It is time for a new phase,” Archbishop Nichols writes.

This means, among other things, uncoupling pastoral provision from the Eucharistic celebration. Although the Soho Mass was a parish Mass, it was identified with people of a particular sexual orientation — something that contradicts the universality of the Eucharistic and the Catholic parish model. Pastoral provision will now be offered, says Archbishop Nichols, through meetings (not Mass) on Sunday evenings at Farm St church in Mayfair, which will include “support for growth in virtue and holiness, the encouragement of friendship and wider community contacts, always with the aim of helping people to take a full part in the life of the Church in their local parish community.”

What the end of the Soho Masses means is that a group of gay Catholics who first met in an Anglican church over ten years ago are being called now to be a full part of the Catholic Church — not to take refuge in a separate identity, hunkering down in the hope that church teaching will change.

This, then, is a story not of alienation but of welcome: of calling a group of Catholics who struggle with church teaching to do so alongside everyone else at Mass, while ensuring that their particular pastoral and spiritual needs continue to be met.

***Hear Austen Ivereigh discuss the issue on BBC Radio here. Download the SMPC’s statement in response to Archbishop Nichols here

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