Epiphany: Soho Masses Community Celebrate the Feast of Coming Out
On Sunday, January 6th, the Church celebrated the great Feast of the Epiphany – the feast where Jesus is shown to the world, revealed.
At the Church of the Assumption, Warwick Street, the Soho Masses community celebrated too, for the first time since Archbishop Nichols’ announcement of our move next month to Farm Street – and heard his letter to the congregation read.
From the liturgy, the homily, and the discussions which followed the Mass, I offer here some personal reflections.
The idea that this is the time of Jesus being revealed to the world, can be seen as his time of coming out. For our community, it’s extraordinarily significant that this coincides with the reading of the letter about our move. Many gay men know very well the liberating power of the coming out process – but the process is not complete, until we are able to come out fully and publicly in the world at large, and not only in a limited circle of friends. Our congregation has to a degree been “out” (and attracted our share of abuse for it), but we have remained even so, in a form of gay ghetto, with a congregation that while not exclusively LGBT, is overwhelmingly so. It is highly appropriate this feast of Jesus’ coming out to the world, is also the day that we as a congregation, begin the last phase of our own process of coming out, preparing to move on and into a wider parish community. In the words of our chairman last night, “We’re here, we’re queer, we’re Catholic”. And – we’re also not going away, just moving on, to a new phase of growth and development.
A standard carol at this time is “We three kings” – but this is deceptive. It’s incorrect to describe them as kings (or even as three). More accurately, they were magi – “wise men” (or, says Nancy Wilson, possibly transmen) from the East, bringing gifts. As people of the East, they were outsiders to the Jewish community. Significantly, they were not present at the birth. Like them, for too long we as LGBT Catholics have also not been visibly present at church celebrations. Like outsiders, foreigners, we have in effect been excluded. But by the Epiphany, these outsiders have not just joined the community celebrating the incarnation – they become its central focus. From exclusion, the outsiders have become insiders, fully included. And so, it was right that we too should be celebrating, on this great feast, our move from exclusion, to full inclusion in church (at least in one parish. More, I hope and expect, will follow).
Another popular carol for this feast, which we sang together last night, was “In the Bleak Midwinter”, which reflects on the question, what gifts can I bring? Many writers have observed that sexual and gender minorities do possess special spiritual gifts which can benefit the wider community – in some societies, such people play a special role as spiritual guides and leaders. As individuals, we have our own personal gifts, just as everybody else has. One of the gifts that has been given to each of us, is that of our sexuality, which we need to use responsibly, and with respect for its importance – and in doing so, offer it back to the Lord, as one of our gifts to God. As a particular congregation in Soho, we have demonstrated a great vibrancy and strength. One of our members observed in discussion, that many a parish priest would give his eye teeth, to have a congregation as vibrant, enthusiastic, committed and strong, as ours. As we prepare for our move, we are offering to the Farm Street parish the greatest of all possible gifts – ourselves.
I’m old enough to remember the old Latin ending to the Mass, “Ite, Missa est (response “Deo Gratias”), which was usually translated as The Mass is ended” (response “Thanks be to God”). As a child, I never could quite understand why we were expected to be so grateful that the Mass was ended – even though I knew we undoubtedly were. A better translation, making more sense, is “Go, you are sent forth” (into the world, to spread the good news.
And so, we are. From Warwick Street, we are now being sent forth into the wider world, to spread the good news of the Gospel – and part of that, is the good news of full inclusion in God’s church, for all.
Discussion after Mass was extensive and thoughtful. My impression was that there is a general consensus that we want to move on, and this could indeed by an opportunity for growth and further development – but with varying degrees of optimism. Some, like our chairman, have moved from deep shock and horror, to real excitement. Others see it at best as a need to make lemons into lemonade, but are willing to make the effort required to do so. Some are more sceptical, and warn of very real dangers to be confronted, dangers of being simply co-opted by the institutional church, as we move into the belly of the beast.
From all sides, their were deep concerns, even anger, over the process that was followed, and the total lack of transparency or consultation – which is sadly, so typical of the way in which the church operates. There were strong pleas and cautions that whatever happens next, we must not make the same mistake. As we prepare to move, those involved in those preparations and decisions should be fully open and transparent, themselves. One important observation in this respect, was that this must not be simply a one -way process, from SMPC to congregation, or even two -way (and from congregation to SMPC), but should allow for discussion also amongst ourselves. Providing such a communication structure will be difficult, but the internet can help. We have for example, an underused facebook page. We should use it much more (and also, I hope, the comment possibilities here at this site).
A second important observation, was concern for the lack of consultation not only with us, but also, we believe, with our counterparts in the Farm Street congregation. It was suggested that we should not embark on this move, without an explicit assurance of welcome from that community – and as a laity led community ourselves, that invitation should come not from the parish clergy or even the Parish Pastoral Council, but form members of that particular congregation, themselves. I have in fact already received precisely such a warm and explicit welcome directed at myself, from one of their people (previously unknown to me):
Thank you very much for by far the best informed and faithfully understood comments I have read on this whole business.
I look forward to welcoming you when you come across to us in March.
All the Very Best,
This morning, I wrote a further reply to Paul, informing him of this concern raised last night, and asked him to discuss this with his colleagues. I wait now for his reply.
Other contributions referred to the things that people had most valued during their experience of the Masses. One which was frequently valued was just simply hearing the words, “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered” – and a strong desire to continue hearing them. Similarly, there is a hope that we will continue to see, visible at the lecter and altar, our people participating actively as readers, and Eucharistic ministers – a desire that I personally share, and will work to bring to fruition.
There were also concerns about the process to be followed in making the move – in planning our final Mass at Warwick Street – and also for physically moving from here to there, possibly as a formal group on the day, with our banner.
One impressive feature of the Mass, was the very strong attendance. Some of this was due to people who do not often attend, getting there to participate on this especially important occasion. But we found during the discussions, that it also included several people, straight and gay who had never attended before, but had come along as a result of the press publicity to experience the Mass for themselves – and had thoroughly enjoyed both the Mass, and the refreshments and discussions afterwards.
There was also a lot of sadness (and some tears) at leaving what has been a much loved venue for almost six years. We heard, too, that this sadness is shared by many members of the rest of the Warwick Street parish (that is, not specifically the LGBT – friendly Mass), who told one of us they had been delighted to show us a welcome in 2007, and would be sorry to see us go.
No doubt, there is more worth sharing that I have forgotten to include. I took no notes, and have reported here, from memory. Perhaps, I’ll have more to add later.
For now, I have only this to add.
The opposition protesters were notable only by their absence. Presumably, they feel they can rest easy now, as their job is done. The notorious Soho Masses are to end.
They are mistaken. Rumours of our death have been grossly exaggerated. If we really were under some sort of sentence of execution, I would have expected the mood of the congregation to be distinctly gloomy. That was definitely not the case.
The world yesterday celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. Together with the global church, we were definitely celebrating - the Feast of Coming Out, and with it, our own coming out, from a supportive and friendly home in our own ghetto, and into a new but still welcoming home in the wider church. Openly and proudly queer, openly and proudly Catholic.
We’re here, and not going away. Not under sentence of execution – but moving on, into a new and stronger, probably expansionary phase of our development.
As the Jesuits and our new Ignatian community at Farm Street would say,
(Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam – to the greater glory of God).
- Archbishop Nichols’ Letter to the Soho Masses Congregation (queeringthechurch.com)
- To Soho Mass Foes: “Be Careful What You Wish For” (queeringthechurch.com)
- The Vatican “Mess” Over Gay Mass (queeringthechurch.com)
- R.I.P. Soho Masses: Long Live Soho Masses! (queeringthechurch.com)
- Soho Masses: Can We Walk and Chew Gum at the Same Time? (questgaycatholic.org.uk)
- We need Gay Masses beyond Soho (queeringthechurch.com)
- Epiphany: Queer eye for the Magi (jesusinlove.blogspot.com)
- What Really Happens at the Soho Masses? (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- A Tribute to the (London) Soho Masses Congregation (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)
- The Tablet: Nichols to meet Soho Mass-goers (queeringthechurch.com)