At LGBT Mass, the bishop wears a rainbow stole.
Other than a few fauxhawks, better music, and the bishop wearing a rainbow-colored stole (the scarf thing that goes over their robes), gay Catholic mass in the UK is pretty much indistinguishable from normal Catholic mass. Being a gay Catholic may seem kind of contradictory to you—like being a Log Cabin Republican, a Muslim EDL members, or Skrillex’s new future garage track—but just because you like hooking up with guys doesn’t mean you can’t also like the Holy Spirit.
The “Soho Masses” at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption have provided a safe place for hundreds of LGBT Catholics to worship for six years, a service provided to the community ever since neo-Nazi David Copeland nail-bombed the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street in 1999. That was until last week, when Archbishop Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, put an official end to the masses. After his recent fight against the introduction of gay marriage, it seemed to only add insult to injury, but it’s a story that has been widely misinterpreted by the media.
This Sunday, I went to one of their last masses before the dissolution, and the bishop assured his flock that they needn't worry. “We may have been given an ‘Ite, Missa est,’” he said from behind the lectern, “but we can translate that, not as ‘The mass has ended,’ but as ‘Go forth, go forth and find God in your lives, however some people may describe those lives.’”
Benjamin Smith, 26, transgender Catholic.
To the ire of many Catholics who are determined to keep their religion firmly tethered to the Stone Age, the Soho masses have also allowed the first transgender Catholics to do readings at Mass. For Benjamin it isn’t a problem to be trans and be Catholic. “It’s impossible to have a truly honest relationship with God if you can’t be honest with yourself,” he told me.
Archbishop Nichols officially condemned the LGBT masses, but most members of the Soho parish share the view that he’s being “bullied” into cracking down on gays by his bosses at The Vatican. It’s privately acknowledged that he’s in support of the LGBT masses and plans to meet them in person to encourage their continuation at The Church of the Immaculate Conception on Farm Street, Mayfair.
Joe Stanley, the chairman of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council (pictured above), gave a passionate speech about it during mass. He’s charismatic, and the pews went wild for his rallying call:
“God, why did you not give Archbishops, as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, good PR skills?” he asked the congregation. “A lot of us this week have been very shocked by the sudden announcement that we’ve been abolished. We’ve heard it from the press; we’ve heard it from the media, that we are ‘abolished.’ It’s not true. I can stand in this church here today and say, very proudly, I’m here, I’m queer, and I’m Catholic. We're just moving from gay Soho to posh Mayfair.”
Adrian, 32, left, and Marvin, 33; gay Catholics.
After mass, I met up with Joe to find out what was really going on behind the media storm.
“The real point to bear in mind is that the way this has been presented in the media is wrong,” Joe told me. “The masses are not ending in that there’s going to be no more provision for the LGBT Catholic community. It’s mainly the Catholics who are against us who have taken this is as ‘The Archbishop is finally cracking down on us' way, when in reality he’s coming to our first mass at the new church, which is clearly a sign of approval.
“As I’ve become older, it’s become clear to me that being gay is a gift and a challenge from God. To be gay is to be on the outside, and actually to understand more about what’s going on in people’s minds. The combination of the two is something I’m really grateful for,” he said.
Despite his eloquence, diplomacy and well-groomed mustache, not everyone agreed with Joe. The post-mass meeting got pretty heated and emotional, and there were more than a few dissenters calling for an aggressive reaction to the Archbishops’s ruling. Many had to conceal their identity from us to protect their standing in the Church, but one minister’s passionate speech
“We’ve all been hijacked,” he shouted. “There is really no ‘invitation,’ it’s a direction. The Archbishop has been abused into this by The Vatican, and we should not collude with the institutional church.”
Regular mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption is a lot smaller than LGBT Mass, and a lot more boring.
He had a point, too. The Our Lady of the Assumption Church was the only safe-haven for gay Catholics—a place where the priests, the deacons, and even the octogenarian Italian grandmothers supported the queer congregation. By uprooting their community, the Archbishop dealt a harsh blow to one of the most successful LGBT Catholic parishes in the world.
John Tuite, 67, left, and Father Milby, 74, who attend and conduct regular mass, were still sad to see the gays go.
Even at the regular morning mass held at the Church of Our Lady, there wasn’t a single traditional Catholic family who wasn’t sad to see the LGBT community forced out. A straight Catholic named Sandra whose family had been at the Church of Our Lady for generations told me she sometimes goes to the LGBT mass. “It’s really well attended,” she said. “It has a very nice atmosphere, and it has also clearly encouraged people who might not otherwise come to the church.”
Sandra, 48, left, and Carmanella, 3.
The decision to end LGBT masses comes from an older, more Italian and more homophobic Vatican. But Catholics, at least in England, are slowly changing and it would be wrong to see this decision as another step backwards. When I saw the tears and heard the fiery speeches that go on at Soho mass meetings, I realized that the LGBT Catholic community is not only alive and kicking, but they have something real to fight for. I’ll never understand why you’d want to join an institution that tells you what to do with your dick, but all power to them nonetheless.
Photos by Jake Lewis.