In his telling of the Emmaus story, Michael B. Kelly describes how it is perfectly understandable that gay Catholics may feel a desire, or even an obligation, to leave the established church (just as the disciples in Luke’s story left Jerusalem, in their own sense of despondency and disaffiliation). Having done so though, it’s possible that they will nevertheless encounter the risen Christ outside the formal church. When they do, he says, they have an obligation to return to the Church, just as the two disciples rushed back to Jerusalem, to share with others the good news of how even though we have felt rejected and excluded by the Church, we have met the risen Christ outside it.
As my contribution to the discussion on the Emmaus theme at Quest conference 2014, “Preparing for a Great Sea – Change”, I shared one way in which this cycle has played out in my own life.
Earlier in my life, I had indeed drifted away from the Church and all religious practice, before returning some twenty years ago – but that is not the story that I focussed on, in this context. Instead, I spoke only about the last ten years or so. The first year after my arrival in the UK in 2003, was a time of immense personal difficulty, in both practical and emotional terms. When a year later, I met up with the “Soho Masses” group then meeting at St Anne’s Soho, I was deeply grateful for the supportive community, friendship and strong liturgies used in their services. I became a regular attender, and then increasingly involved in the organizing of these Masses, both at St Anne’s, and later at Warwick Street. In contrast, I found it constantly difficult, in spite of conscious efforts, to find the same degree of welcome and community in any of my local parishes. I had not “left the Church” in any literal sense, but in practice, I was increasingly moving away emotionally, from the formal, public church. With the Soho Masses, on the other hand, I not only found a genuinely strong faith community – increasingly, I was finding ways to reconcile my faith with my sexuality. The Catechism commands us fully to integrate our sexuality into our human personality, but dismally fails to explain how this is possible for gay men and lesbians, within the bounds of teaching which also describes our orientation as “intrinsically disordered” and effectively forbids us any form of sexual love or expression. With the help of the Soho Masses community and its impressive resources, I learnt to do so. In effect, there is a real sense in which I met the risen Lord by regular participation in these “gay Masses”, social chat after Mass, and other events, in a way that I simply was not experiencing in a conventional local parish. Gradually, I started attending local Masses less and less frequently, satisfied with Mass just twice a month together with that LGBT Catholic community. After I left my flat in outer London to move in with my partner in Haslemere, a small market town in the far south of Surrey, I had for a time no contact at all with the local parish. By analogy with the story in Luke, I had left Jerusalem, had met the Lord in Emmaus, and for a time, was content.
That began to change a few years later, when I was introduced to a specific Mass congregation, that joined a small community of nuns for Sunday Mass in their convent chapel. I had been told that this congregation, nuns and others alike, were particularly welcoming and friendly to all newcomers, and so it was. The first time I visited and joined them for coffee after Mass, I was approached and welcomed, with all the usual questions.
* Had I been living in Haslemere long? Was I married? Did I have children?
- Yes, but I had not previously been at Mass, because I had been going up to London for Mass in Soho;
- no, but I was living with a partner, and HE went to the local Anglican church;
- yes, I had two daughters and four grandchildren.
* But why was I going all the way to Soho for Mass?
- Because it was specifically designed for and by lesbian and gay Catholics, which I found immensely helpful.
These responses must surely have surprised and confused the people of this very conservative part of Surrey, most of which had never heard of the existence of a “gay Mass”, but they took it in their stride – and those who were aware of the Masses, including some of the nuns, told me what a good and valuable thing they thought these to be, in spite of the regular complaints to be seen in some of the Catholic press and conservative blogs. And so, confident of the full acceptance by that congregation, I began to attend regularly, alternating between Soho twice a month, and the convent chapel for the intervening Sundays,
Then came the hurt a few years ago, of the bishops’ sustained campaign against gay marriage – and many of the congregation made a point of asking me about my reaction, and expressed sympathy. Many said they could not personally approve of actual gay marriage, they did believe that the Church should accept the value of civil partnerships – and should back off the high profile public campaign against equality, because of the damage it was doing As media interest grew, I became known publicly as a gay Catholic supporter of marriage equality, and for a time was invited onto assorted radio and television programs to put my point of view. For any parishioners who still did not know anything about my situation, that changed once they say me on the television screens speaking up for gay Catholics – or heard about it from fellow parishioners. From those who did already know me, I received regular congratulations, encouragement and support.
In addition to my now regular participation in Sunday Mass at the convent, I was now becoming involved also in some other activities of the wider parish, including faith – sharing small discussion groups at Lent and Easter, and some adult formation discussion series. Emboldened by the obvious acceptance I had become used at the convent chapel, I was completely frank and open in my contributions to these, freely speaking my mind as an openly gay Catholic on a wide range of other subjects, including issues like contraception, the position of women in the church, and the problems of the authoritarian, clerical culture and structure of Catholic ecclesiology. On every occasion, I found complete strangers coming to thank me for my outspokenness – and older friends telling me how much they enjoyed hearing me speak, and how much they looked forward to my contributions. By now, in the context of Luke’s story, I was well on my way back from Emmaus to Jerusalem / Rome.
The next major hurt from the public Church, which in practice accelerated my progress back to Rome/ Jerusalem, was the shock announcement by (then) Archbishop Nichols that the Soho Masses in Warwick Street would end, and the congregation move instead to a welcoming base in the parish at Farm Street. Once again, I found the sisters and some parishioners actively concerned about my welfare (and that of other LGBT Catholics), asking me about my opinions on the move, and concern for the obvious pain the decision (and the manner thereof) were causing for the LGBT Catholics who had been getting so much value from those Masses.
Whatever the value might be of the continuing Masses under the new arrangements, for me personally, there was now less point in travelling the substantial distance up to London for what was now a fairly conventional parish Mass, followed by some discussion over tea with other LGBT Catholics, when I already had a good Mass, excellent homilies and a supportive local congregation (and better coffee) so much closer to home. Instead of alternating between Mass in London and in Haslemere, I began to go up to London only about once a month, and committed to regular weekly attendance locally, where I am now just about as fully involved as I could be, as a regular reader, singing in the choir, leading Lent and Advent faith sharing groups, and where possible, participating also in full parish events. My journey back to Emmaus / Rome was continuing apace.
At the same time, over the past year or so, I’ve expanded my activities beyond just the local parish. I’ve spoken up for gay Catholics at diocesan level, meeting (jointly with Ruby) with my local bishop, Kieran Conry of Arundel & Brighton, and in our diocesan Acta group. Earlier this month, I did so again, in a national conference in London, on welcoming back disaffiliated and disaffected Catholics. Later this year, I plan to go quite literally to Rome, to join in a couple of conferences prior to the synod, once again having my say on behalf of LGBT Catholics. Now here’s the really fun part: fellow parishioners from my deeply conservative corner of rural Surrey have arranged a fundraiser, to help me cover the costs.
So here’s the thing: when I began my journey back from Emmaus to Rome, determined that I was not going to attend Church in any kind of closet, but would insist on being completely open and out about both my orientation and my work as a gay Catholic activist, I had no idea where that would take me, but it’s been a gas, a hell of a ride, which I treasure.
I’ve come to dearly love my local parish, as they have made it plain they love me, and my local Sunday Mass has become a highlight of my week, which I would not miss for anything.