Saturday 5th July saw a well–attended all–day workshop at London’s Heythrop College to mark the UK re-launch of the “Landings” programme to welcome back into the Church Catholics, who for one reason or another, feel disaffected or alienated from the Church and have either stopped participating in the life of the Church or who do so only sporadically. When I first read about this UK re-launch some months ago, I was enthusiastic, and signed up immediately: I was a beneficiary of the programme a few years ago, when it was a key point in my own journey (not back into the life of the Church, but into full participation in a local parish).
The published promotional material, under the title “Ministries of Welcoming in the Church: A Conference on Healing and Reconciliation” sounded good, with two keynote addresses, and supporting workshops dealing with specific groups of disaffected or alienated people:
- Those separated or divorced
- Those who have been traumatised or abused
- An ecumenical model of reconciliation
- Interfaith reconciliation
But there’s a problem: can you spot the obvious omission? When I did, I was obviously disappointed that there was no mention in the programme of lesbian, gay or trans Catholics, possibly the group most likely of all to feel alienated or disaffected. So, right from the start, I was determined that in attending, I would raise this issue myself, and did so.
The first keynote address was a valuable statistical presentation on the extent of the problem by Dr Stephen Bullivant, of St Mary’s University. What this did not do, because reliable information is simply not available, was to go into the reasons why so many people raised as Catholics stop identifying as such, or if continuing to identify, participate only infrequently in church. At the start of his presentation, introducing and defining his terminology, he mentioned in passing that the group he described as “disaffiliated” (that is, no longer identifying as Catholic) sometimes referred to themselves as “recovering Catholics”. When he invited comment from the floor at the close of his presentation, I drew attention to that, pointing out how frequently this self- description is used by LGBT former Catholics, simply because they feel themselves actually damaged by the Church.
The response was fascinating. Immediately, I sensed that there was almost a movement for applause, stopped only because Dr Bullivant immediately agreed that there is that sense of damage (applicable not only to LGBT people, but also to other groups). In the coffee break that followed, a number of people (including workshop leaders) came up to me, to thank me for that contribution. Thereafter, in many of the later sessions, other people spontaneously raised the issue of gay and lesbian Catholics, in a wide range of contexts. I had simply mentioned the issue once, without saying too much about it – and had no need to say anything further
I also learned why the topic had been omitted from the formal planning. It was originally intended to form part of the programme, but was left out after some of the English bishops objected, on the grounds that it is too controversial, and could be disruptive. Even so, it became clear, in discussion with the organizers, that there is a strong desire to ensure that a way should be found to include LGBT Catholics in the process of healing and reconciliation for disaffected Catholics.
For me, the lesson is clear. The need is there, and recognised – but collectively the bishops are too timid to openly acknowledge it. If they won’t or can’t do it, it’s up to us to create a welcome in church, for ourselves. Ruby Almeida, chair of Quest, attended the workshop with me. Between us, we made some useful contacts. Among others, we achieved agreement in principle from Fr Dominic Robinson SJ, who will be the priest leading the programme for the UK, and Helen Carvalhido-Gilbert, the Landings UK co-ordinator, that we will be welcome to meet with them later to discuss possible routes to LGBT inclusion.
However, we really need LGBT Catholics to do their bit,too. In May 2013, I led a useful workshop on “Next Steps in LGBT Ministry”, designed to help individuals to discern the ways in which they could contribute to developing ministry and welcome, in their own circumstances, and with due regard to their personal skills and limitations. It has always been the intention to repeat that workshop, but we’ve been unable to fix a suitable date and venue – until now. We have secured an excellent venue in the City of London, where we will hold another “Next Steps Workshop” for LGBT Catholics. In addition, we have secured agreement in principle for another venue, more accessible for people in the Midlands and North. We will hold a further workshop in either November this year, or possibly early 2015. More details on these will follow later.