News out yesterday is that the regular twice monthly masses with a particular outreach to gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, popularly but incorrectly known as the Soho “gay Masses”, will be moving out of their present home in Warwick Street, and relocating to a new home at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, the well-known Jesuit parish in Farm Street. For many members of the congregation, the news will be received with deep sadness, and inversely, the few but vocal opponents of these Masses will be jubilant, seeing it as a sign of their supposed victory. Both responses could be short-sighted and misplaced.
In this and other monarchies, news of the death of a reigning king or queen is typically received with the standard response, “The queen is dead. Long live the king/queen”. I suggest that for the Soho Masses congregation, that could be a more appropriate response, than simply one of grief. Our congregation is emphatically not being “shut down”, as the opponents will claim, but simply being relocated. With that relocation will come significant opportunities for further growth and expansion – just as occurred with our earlier moves, from Camden to St Anne’s, and later from St Anne’s to Warwick Street. As one who was involved in the original discussions over that earlier move from Dean St to our present home, I want to reflect here on just what it is that we lost in that move – and what we gained. From that, we could more easily reflect on what we might be losing, and gaining, in the next phase of our evolution.
The key, I think, lies in that little word “congregation”. What we lost was undoubtedly a degree of independence, of being somehow swallowed up by the Catholic establishment. Since the move, I often heard a sense of nostalgia, at having lost that sense of being somehow “on the edge”. But the biggest asset we had was never that independence, or our premises, but simply ourselves, as a strong and vigorous congregation. During the often frank conversations between ourselves about the value and potential risks of the proposed move to Warwick Street, it was observed that as long as we retained our congregation, we would continue to flourish So it proved, and flourish we have.
In retrospect, we can see that at St Anne’s, we were already pushing against our limits. We were in effect meeting for not much more than just two Masses a month, the space was comfortable but could not have accommodated any increase in numbers, and the congregation consisted overwhelmingly of older, White men. Since the move, the transformation has been astonishing. Numbers have doubled, and the degree of active participation has simultaneously increased. We are now far more diverse in age, ethnicity and gender balance, and offer far, far more than just two Masses a month, with a steadily expanding range of support groups and activities, social and spiritual, outside of the Masses themselves. The SMPC has been considering some possible ways of extending these still further. We have identified a need, for instance, to provide for an RCIA program (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), and an obvious need for structures for people to discuss and share their experience of faith and sexuality in a more structured, private setting than informally over refreshments after Mass.
But once again, we are pushing at the limits of what is possible in our present home. In purely physical terms, the basement space where we serve refreshments is becoming increasingly unsuitable: crowded, not easily accessible and with poor toilet facilities. It is at present extremely well patronized even so, filling a vitally important part of the overall experience, but could scarcely cope with any further increase in numbers. Accommodating the need for additional activities as discussed above, would also be difficult (even if just about manageable). With a move to Farm Street, which has extensive physical and spiritual resources already in place, these difficulties will largely disappear. The parish has extensive meeting rooms, a far superior hall for after Mass refreshments and conversation, and existing structures for faith sharing and spiritual growth, which could be easily extended to meet our needs.
It is true that there will, inevitably, be a loss of independence: but therein could also be a new benefit. The downside of independence, is the danger of hiding in a gay ghetto. I am increasingly convinced that one of the major challenges facing the LGBT Catholic community, is that of achieving visibility in the wider Church, and engaging openly and honestly with others. I have myself become heavily active in my local parish in a small, deeply conservative (and Conservative) country town – and have found this experience of open and honest engagement richly rewarding. By merging our activities into an existing, strong parish, we will have the opportunity to meet with and engage other Catholics, exposing them to our particular difficulties – and listening also to theirs.
The real issue here is not simply one of a “gay Mass”, but of the wider issue of effective Catholic LGBT ministry. For many years, the Soho Masses as we know them have provided a richly valuable to those people able and willing to make the journey to get to them – but does nothing for those who by reason of location or inclination, are not. One of the obvious problems with the existing model as we have it at Warwick Street, is that it is not one that can be simply transplanted to other areas, of the diocese or pf the country. If we can make a success of developing a new model at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, we should find that although the “Soho Masses” may end – Catholic LGBT ministry will be strengthened, and expanded.
When we moved from St Anne’s to Warwick Street, we did not “end” the Soho Masses, but entered a new phase – one which proved, despite some reservations and misgivings, a source of growth for the congregation. As we move from Warwick Street to Farm Street, this too will not “end” the Soho Masses (except in name), but will simply mark a new phase, and probably a further period of growth for our present congregation.
R.I.P. Soho Masses: Long Live Soho Masses LGBT Catholic ministry!
This article appeared originally on Queering the Church. Many thanks to Terence Weldon for permission to reproduce it.