Category Archives: Testimony

My Homoerotic Retreat: Six days that changed my life.

(In offering the story below, I do so with some trepidation.  I know that many readers will be sceptical or cautious, may even find it ridiculous. I myself, given my particular background in faith and religious temperament, would have been made distinctly uncomfortable if any of my friends had asked me to take such a story seriously. Still, I think it is time to share it.  I leave you to decide for yourself:  was this a genuine mystical experience, as my eminently well qualified spiritual directors believed?  Or was I just suffering from some kind of spiritual delusions of grandeur?  Make up your own mind.)

During Advent of 2002, I underwent a 6 day directed retreat which turned out to be the most extraordinary spiritual, even mystical, experience of my life, which in certain key respects fundamentally changed my outlook on faith.

Background & Context

As the experience really was remarkable, sounding like an account that I myself would previously have dismissed as ramblings from the sentimental / superstitious wing of Catholicism, I want to begin by setting out my prior religious / spiritual background, as well as the context in which I began my retreat.  This will provide both context and contrast for what followed.

After drifting away from the church during my twenties as a married man, I later came out as a gay man.  Ironically, it was only after setting up in a committed long gay relationship that I was moved to return to the church.  The parish I then joined was led by Jesuit priests, and in time I began to explore the Ignatian approach to spirituality, by way of increasingly heavy involvement in the CLC – “Christian Life Community”.  In spite of this involvement, I did not see myself as particularly “religious” (a word I detest), nor “spiritual”, with all its connotations of “piety” and mysticism.  I simply knew that I enjoyed profound satisfaction in setting aside time for quiet reflection on my life.  My take on all matters of faith was primarily cerebral. (I was distinctly uncomfortable with the more ostentatious displays of images and relics, of novenas and special prayers “guaranteed” to bring results, or of mystical voices and apparitions.)  I did, however, find value in the Jesuit emphasis on balancing the promptings of head and heart, and on the value of paying attention to experience.  I became of convinced of the truth that Prayer is not just about speaking to God asking for favours, but also of attempting to listen.  I knew that by proper attention to the discernment of spirits within, one could, with care and imperfectly, hear the voice of the Lord speaking directly to us.

The context for this retreat was that after a long period of careful discernment, my partner and I had taken the important decision to leave South Africa, the only country I had ever known, to take up teaching posts in the UK – a country which I had never even visited. This was to be my final Christmas in South Africa, and the decision lay heavy on my mind.  I was also reoccupied with the nature of my gay relationship.  I had repeatedly considered the issue of homosexuality in prayer and under spiritual direction, and was comfortable that there was nothing immoral or reprehensible in our relationship.  Still, I was just a little bothered by the possibility that perhaps after all, I was fooling myself, making excuses and rationalising away some inner doubt.  So I was looking for final reassurance on two key questions in my life:  the decision to emigrate, and my status as a sexually active gay man in the church.




monstrance

Image via Wikipedia

The Retreat Experience

The setting for the retreat, which had been set up by our CLC team, was a Franciscan house and retreat centre on the banks of South Africa’s Vaal River. On arrival the first evening, we had a very simple liturgy, and were allocated to one of the two directors, with first appointments set for the morning.  During the first meeting with my director, I shared some of my preoccupations, and was advised to reflect among other readings, on the Song of Songs, and on the passage of Moses and the burning bush.

I knew of course that the Song of Songs was written as a love poem, wit the lover serving as a metaphor for god, but had never really looked at it closely before.  Approaching it afresh, I was struck by the clear eroticism, and also by how easily it could be read as two male lovers. (I later found that it may well have been written with that plain intent, but did not then know that). This reading, as homoerotic love poetry, was in case the way I read it, and found myself intensely moved and frankly aroused.

Later, I went out of doors under the shade of the riverbank trees, enjoying their cool and protection from the December African sun. I turned now to the story of the burning bush, which I had encountered before as a graphic illustration of how the Lord, in certain circumstances, speaks to us directly.   After reading and reflecting on the text a few times, I set aside my bible, and looked up at a bright blue sky through the dappled shade of the foliage.   Quite specifically and consciously I put a direct request to the Lord:  “Speak to me, Lord”, I said.  I am convinced that for the next 5 days, he did, in the most direct and unsettling terms.

I did not immediately realise what was happening, but later realised that I was gradually being drawn into an increasingly intense relationship with the human person of Jesus Christ, something that had previously always seemed remote and inaccessible from my faith experience.  During the Eucharistic adoration that ended the first day’s formal programme, I became totally absorbed in every second of the experience, fully involved and rapt from start to finish, with never a moment’s loss of concentration, nor any discomfort from my position sitting cross-legged on the floor for the full hour.  I was also completely self-aware of the intensity of the experience, so conscious of the intensity, far exceeding anything I had previously known, that I would not have been surprised to find myself levitating.  At the end of the exposition, I found myself in agony that my precious time of intimacy had ended.  I followed the group who removed the Sacrament to its place in the chapel, and then stayed behind for a couple more hours totally lost in the presence in front of the tabernacle.

So it continued for the rest of the retreat:  every morning I was up early, and into the chapel for an hour before the 8:00 Mass which began the formal programme, at intervals during the day, and for a long period before going to bed. During these times, was quite literally not just in conversation with Jesus Christ as a friend, but with Him as a lover, and with Mary during frequent rosaries as the mother of my boyfriend.

The intensity continued to increase. On the following day, I remembered the well-known image of the “Bride of Christ”, an image that was clearly inappropriate to me as a man.  But thinking in terms of gay marriage, I imagined myself as the “groom of Christ”, which took my moments of intimacy with my “lover” to an entirely new level:  ever more intense, and frankly erotic. By extraordinary synchronicity, the following morning I was in a disused room of the retreat house, where I came across some old magazines that had once been art of the library.  Among these were some copies of a journal of spirituality. Picking one up at random and glancing at the contents, the first title I saw was something like “The Groom of Christ:  a Reflection for Men.”  This turned out to be a variation on the old metaphor, but from a male perspective. Recognising that most men would have difficulty imagining themselves as brides, the writer proposed instead turning the image on its head, imagining Christ as the bride. This seemed to me equally implausible, and I was grateful that as a gay man, I had not needed to make this distortion of gender to benefit from what is a perfectly good and powerful meditation just as it is.

I deliberately pass over the impact of direct reflection on the Passion, which came later, and move immediately to the sequel.

I remember one morning leaving my room with the clear intention of going to visit “my pal, my lover” Jesus in the chapel.  But while my definite intention was to turn left, my body was pulled right.  I knew I was being deliberately pulled aside, and tried to argue.  “I’m going to meet you in the chapel”, I said. The answer was clear:  “But I want you this way.”  There was clearly no point in arguing, so indeed I turned right, not knowing where I was headed.  This turned out to be the monastery’s private graveyard, leading to further deep reflection, in that Advent season, on life and death. But then I was pulled on further, to a large open field.  Around the perimeter were erected a series of almost life sized wooden crosses (about 8 feet high), each with a caption for a station of the cross.

Stations of the Cross

As I approached the first station, I was suddenly filled with powerful, uncontrollable emotion and fell to my knees, sobbing out loud. (This was out in the open, and in full public view not just of the retreat centre, but also of anybody passing in the street alongside.  I paid no attention)  It took quite some time before I could regain enough composure just to get back on my feet and move on – to the next station, where once again, entirely outside my control, the full emotional spectacle was played out once again.  And again, and again, over the full 14 stations.

After an experience so intense, so outside the experience of one previously so reserved in religious matters, as sceptical and cautious about the demonstrative, almost superstitious Latin / Mediterranean brand of Catholicism, where cold I go next?  In fact, the only way was to ease out of it.  I had of course been reporting on my increasingly intense experiences daily to my retreat director, who now advised me to ease off.  A day earlier than normal, she started to lead me through some gentler meditations to ease me gradually back to a point where I could re-enter the real world outside.  So the last two days were largely filled with riverside nature walks, and meditations through art, including a simple painting of a monstrance, as I remembered it so vividly from the Eucharistic adoration.

In my final debriefing with my retreat director, she warned that would I had experienced had been unusually intense, even mystical, and would need to rounded off with my regular spiritual director, a senior Jesuit priest.

The Aftermath

When I did meet up with Fr Mike, I was fully expecting him to agree that the experience should be taken seriously.  I was not prepared though, for quite how seriously he took it.   He too described it as “mystical”, and said that encounters of such intensity were “blessings, rarely bestowed on just a few.”  He thought long and hard, and continued by saying that in his experience, where such encounters were given, it was usually in preparation for exceptionally difficult times ahead, a way of storing up spiritual strength as sustenance for the dry periods to come.  Thinking of my pending emigration, I laughed, and said that I well knew the years ahead would be tough.  “No”, came the response, I mean really tough.

So it proved.  Within weeks of arriving in the UK, my partner of nearly 20 years concluded he had made mistake in coming, and soon returned to South Africa.  I in turn was even more convinced that I needed to be here – that indeed, in Ignatian terms, I had been “sent” on mission, and so I stayed.  So began several years of serious difficulty, including emotional trauma, financial and professional difficulties, uncertainty over my immigration status, and recurrent bouts of depression, some of which remain problems to this day, 6 years later. Throughout all of this, at all the darkest times, I do exactly as Fr Mike anticipated:  I look back on that retreat on the riverbank, once again drawing on spiritual reserves to carry me through.

It would be good to say that I have remained in some kind of exalted, mystical or advanced spiritual plane – but it would also be completely untrue.  Indeed, removed from the firm structure of my closely bonded CLC group, my conscious practice of deliberate prayer and spiritual practice has moved somewhat behind where it used to be back in Johannesburg, and needs to be deliberately revived.

Two things, though, I have taken away from away from the retreat with unshakable conviction. First, given the context of the start to the retreat, with a specific question about sexuality and some clearly homoerotic reflections, I have never since entertained even a moment’s doubt about the validity of a gay sexual life in faith.  Second, after I was given such a strong preparation for the difficulties around my emigration, I am more convinced than ever that the move was chosen for me as mission.  Indeed, I am firmly convinced that the specific reason why I was called here was to live openly as gay and as Catholic, and to help others to do the same.

Why He should have called me in particular, is completely beyond my understanding.  I claim absolutely no special training in these matters, no great wisdom and certainly no holiness.  But He moves as we know in mysterious ways, and sometimes chooses the most unlikely people to do His work.

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Jeremiah’s Return

Over at Gospel for Gays, Jeremiah has written of his own return to the Catholic Church.  After being driven away originally in anger a the Canadian Bishops over their opposition to gay marriage he returned eventually after a discussion with a local pastor. Much of his experience resonates with mine:  the emphasis on the local parish (I and many others have never encountered any hostility in local parishes);  and his belief in dealing with the official church by living in constant conversation with the Holy Spirit. Extracted from “My Return”:

But do you ever really quit the church?  In my case, probably not.  I maintained a life rooted in prayer and scripture; I kept visiting a formal spiritual director, in his last terrible illness; in 2006 I made the first leg of the Camino de Compostela, beginning in the old medieval town of Vezaley in central France.

And little by little, I missed belonging to a deeper community, a community based on shared faith, a community centred on radical love – whatever its failings.  I fail too.

I tried alternatives, especially gay alternatives, but they seemed poor substitutes to me:  well meaning but, frankly, shallow.

So I decided to return.

*

But how?

Was there a place for an openly gay man in this community whose teachings on sexuality were focused on procreation to the exclusion of other possibilities?  That see gayness as an inclination toward an objective evil; that believes gay unions to be wrong, and societally dangerous?

Anglicanism offered a possible alternative for some – but not for me.  I watch with sympathetic sorrow as that kindred communion tears itself apart over the acceptance of gays.

I checked out my former parish, a famously liberal one, a wonderful place where gays and lesbians are “accepted”.  As in “Don’t worry about the mean old Vatican or the bishops:  we accept you, we love you, you’re welcome here.”

That’s very nice – but who is “we”?  I don’t want to be part of a splinter group.  I don’t want to belong to a ghetto.

*

I felt drawn to the serene and contemplative liturgies of a local monastic parish – but I was determined to establish some form of reciprocal relationship from the outset.  So I made an appointment with the pastor to introduce myself.

“I feel drawn to this parish,” I told him.  “I am a gay man.  I respect the teachings of the church, and I understand that Rome must be Rome.  But I also seek respect as a gay man.  Am I welcome here?”

Without hesitation, he said:  “Of course.  You’re right.  Rome must be Rome.  But there is also the doctrine of individual conscience, which is inviolable.”

A light came on for me when he said that.

*

I understood that there will always be conflict between formal church positions and the daily struggles of individual Catholics – and it’s a healthy tension.  The individual conscience is a crucible, where the demands of faith meet the issues of experience, and where each of us work out our salvation.  In fear and trembling – yes; but also with courage and joy.

I understood that living the Faith is not a matter of meekly following a bunch of rules written by somebody else, for fear of making a mistake – but rather, a matter of daring to live in a kind of constant conversation with the Spirit.  Informed by church teachings of course – since they represent the wisdom of the centuries; but informed also by the challenges and needs and gifts that God gives to me each moment.  Informed by who I am, by the unique individual he has created in me.

So I returned – not as a furtive and shamefaced creature, and not as a man gripped by anger at an uncomprehending institution.  I returned merely as myself, feeling very much a member of a pilgrim community.”

A “pilgrim community”.  So should we all strive to be.

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Sharing our Stories

In Redemptive Intimacy, Dick Westley argues persuasively that revelation is constantly being unfolded for us by the Holy Spirit, and that one way that the church can interpret this continuing revelation for our times is by listening carefully to our personal experiences, as revealed by honest and frank sharing in trusting small faith communities.  When I first encountered this idea, it hit me like a bombshell, but it is one I have come to hold dear (and I have since discovered is a completely orthodox notion).

It was very much in that spirit that I launched this site 6 months ago, so I was delighted earlier today to find a comment posted by Jeremiah, with some kind words, but also noting:

“…as Jim Alison teaches, we are NOT manifestations of a ‘disorder’; and therefore, our insights, our experience, our unique and gay approach to the Gospel have great value.

In that gay spirit I’ve just launched a site for shared reflections and experience.”

I have since had a look at Jeremiah’s site, “Gospel for Gays”,  which I found impressive.  It is technically polished, with great starting content.  I was particularly pleased to see how neatly it complements this site, with a strong emphasis on Gospel reflection, which I have long recognised as a glaring weakness on Queering the Church.   (Go ahead, take a look for yourself)

Jeremiah’s second emphasis is on sharing stories, beginning with his own.  I will shortly be adding a version of my own story, and urge you all to do the same.  We need to do more though:  in addition to sharing experiences, we need to add also reflections, beliefs and perspectives.  When I set up QTC, I specifically did not want it to become purely a personal soapbox, but envisaged it developing in time into a shared community resource. I invited my readers at the outset to share stories or other input.  As yet, I have had very limited contributions (thank you, Rob in Woking), but this was probably to be expected for a new venture.

Since then, I have seen the total page views pass the 5000 mark (thank you, all), with something over 500 sufficiently interested to come back for at least a second look, and a good share of those spending several hours on the site, over regular visits.   So I repeat my original invitation:  to any one who would likke to make a contribution, large or small, I undertake to publish.   My only stipulation is that these should be courteous and sincere, and at least coherent. They emphatically do not need to reproduce my own viewpoints – indeed, I would particularly welcome diverging voices.  Among my 500 + repeat readers, surely some of you have something to say?

I am now waiting for your contributions.

(If you’re interested, just add a comment below.  I will get back to you on how we can proceed)




Recommended Books

Ford, Michael: Disclosures

McGinley, Dugan: Acts of Faith, Acts of Love: Gay Catholic Autobiographies as Sacred Texts

Stuart, Elizabeth: Chosen: Gay Catholic Priests Tell Their Stories

Westley, Dick: Redemptive Intimacy: A New Perspective for the Journey to Adult Faith

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My Journey in Faith  

 One of my readers has asked in a comment to meet and interview me about my experiences as a gay Catholic. In preparation for this meeting, I have put together a brief description of the key influences on my journey in faith, which I now share with you all.

Childhood & Education

I was born in a Catholic family in South Africa, and educated entirely in Catholic schools.  In particular, my secondary schooling was in a small school run by priests, in the ears immediately following Vatican II.  For 5 years, religious instruction was a daily part of the school syllabus, delivered by a man with a strong commitment to the VII reforms, and (for the time) an unusual emphasis on Scripture. I remember in particular an extended period of instruction on Biblical ideas on the nature of God, along the lines of “God is…..” , such as “God is Truth”, “God is Life”, “God is Light”, “God is Hope”, “God is Wisdom”, and above all, “God is Love.”   For each of these statements, we laboriously wrote out and memorised endless biblical texts in support of these themes, together with their chapter and verse references.   I regret that I no longer remember any more than a handful of these texts, but they strongly coloured my perceptions of the nature of God. If I have forgotten the details of the texts, I clearly remember and treasure the themes, as listed above.

At university, my religious education was continued less formally by active participation in student Catholic societies.  Against the background of strong student opposition to expanding apartheid repression, I developed a strong commitment to the social Gospel, and was influenced by ideas around liberation theology and what later became known as contextual theology.

Sexual Awareness & Marriage

From a very early age, I was aware that in many ways I was ‘different’ from other boys, sharing several interests more usually found in girls.  Through adolescence, I came to realise that this was based on sexual attraction to boys, and began to wonder seriously if I might really be ‘homosexual’.  By the time I reached university, I clearly recognised my ‘inclinations’ but very conscious of Catholic teaching on sex, attempted to repress them.  I then, with far too little thought or premeditation, at a young age rushed into marriage to an equally young Catholic woman. Adhering to Catholic teaching on contraception, two young daughters followed soon after.  The experience of parenthood while still very young, before either of us was properly ready for it emotionally or financially, soon placed the marriage under increasing stress.




After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt.  In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now:  my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)

Coming Out.

During the gradual breakdown of my marriage, I came increasingly to recognise that I was ‘probably’ primarily homosexual.  Once the marriage had ended, I finally recognised the truth, and came out:  first to myself, and then to others.  I became active in ‘Gasa Rand’ – the local gay activist association – where I met Bruce, who became a major part of my life for nearly 20 years.  During the time leading up to and after coming out, I sought out and read as much as I could find on ‘gay lit’, including fiction, gay history, and gay politics.  In South Africa in the 1980’s available supplies were limited (a function of censorship, significant relative expense, and a small market).  Still, my reading became extensive, if eclectic.

A year after meeting Bruce, we moved in together (sharing our lives for the next 18 years).  At the time we met, he too was not practicing any religion, but had been raised an Anglican. (As a young man, he had thought of becoming a monk) After a few years together, he began to attend church services once again, in an Anglo-Catholic parish.  Later, he became more interested in Catholicism, and began to attend the Latin Mass of the ‘traditional’ Catholics.

This left me increasingly uncomfortable, because it through into the foreground my conflict with the church over sexuality, and because the traditional Catholics offended my strong Vatican II sympathies.  Still, we agreed to differ on religion, while agreeing that in spite of religious teaching, homosexuality itself was not intrinsically immoral, and that our relationship, being committed and monogamous, was as valid as any legal marriage.

Return to the Church

Later, there came a point when I considered returning to the Church.  I learned that a former student friend had become a Jesuit priest, and was then parish priest in the university parish where I had been many years earlier. I went to see him to discuss my reservations.  Among the very important observations he made were that faith was a matter of experience, not of reason or dogma; that I should not prejudge the Lord’s (or the Church’s) response  to my sexuality;  but that he personally did not believe the Lord would expect me in a committed and loving relationship, to live to harsher standards than anyone else.  Above all, he urged me to make a leap in faith, and see how things worked out, which is what I did.

The resulting experience was wholly positive and enriching.

When I told Bruce that I was thinking of returning to church, he immediately responded that he would abandon the traditional Catholics and join me at that same university parish.  My daughter Barbara, who by that time was herself a student and was then living with us to attend uni, also said that she would like to join us, and so we began regular Mass attendance as a family. Over the years, we were both drawn ever deeper into the life of the parish, assisting in many branches of parish life, and even serving together for several years on the Parish Pastoral Council.  Although we very much visible as a couple, in a relationship that was obvious to all, we found no hostility from anyone, and a very warm welcome from many.

As a Jesuit parish, we were also drawn gradually into exploration of Ignatian spirituality, and in time into deeper exploration thereof in the Christian Life Community (“CLC”).  Amongst the key Ignatian ideas that became of great importance to me were:

– the idea that the Holy Spirit is constantly attempting to communicate with us.  By learning to read, or ‘discern’ the movement of the Spirit within our hearts, we can come to hear God speaking to us directly;

– the importance of regular (ideally daily) ‘examen’ of consciousness.  This is a form of prayer, in which we reflect on our experience and the resultant emotions, in order to discern those movements of the Spirit.

-‘Ignatian indifference’:  the idea that the moral value of things or states lies not in themselves, but in what we do with them, and how we apply them to building God’s Kingdom on earth.  (The “Principle & Foundation” speaks of “seeking neither riches nor poverty, neither sickness nor health”)

– the value of communal sharing and reflection with others, to assist in the process of discernment

– ‘Mission’:  the idea that the Lord has a unique task for each of us, with which we are sent into the world to do his will.

A further idea that hit me with powerful force was not specifically Ignatian, although I did first encounter it in the CLC group.  This was the argument promoted in the book ‘Redemptive Intimacy’ by Dick Westley, that revelation is not something that was given in biblical times, and then static, but is continually unfolded by the Holy Spirit, and needs to be constantly reinterpreted for changing times.  (I have since learnt that this idea is widely accepted by theologians, and was restated by Benedict XVI in one of his Christmas addresses). Westley argues that all of us, laity as well as clergy, have a part to play in interpreting this unfolding revelation by communal sharing and reflection on our experiences.  In short, theology is constantly being remade, and we all have a part to play in making it.

Under the impact of Ignatian ideas, I regularly took into prayer, alone, under the guidance of Spiritual Direction, or on silent, directed retreat, the whole question of sexuality and faith.  On every occasion, the resulting conclusion was that I was reaffirmed in my existing conviction that homosexual expression in my relationship was not sinful, but on the contrary was good and life-giving. (I did not then explore issues of sex outside such a relationship).

Emigration

Eventually, we both reached a decision, taken after extensive research, thought and prayerful discernment, to leave South Africa and to emigrate to the UK.  We were then both teachers, and before departure secured posts in English schools.  However, the school year had barely begun when Bruce concluded that he had made a mistake in emigrating, and after a few months returned to Johannesburg.  I reached a different conclusion, and remained behind.

This put me into a very difficult emotional position, having to deal alone with the simultaneous stresses of adjusting to emigration, the sudden break-up of a long relationship, coping with a dramatically new and different school environment with more challenging pupil behaviour, and adjusting as a single person to dramatically different financial calculations to those I had expected.  All this in a country I did not know, where I had no personal friends, and indeed knew nobody other than school colleagues, and (fortunately) my daughter Robynn, who had preceded me to London a year before my own move.

With no existing support system, I deliberately set out to create one.  I sought out my local parish and parish priest (but signally failed to find the sort of community I had previously been accustomed to).  I joined a local gay friendship group, and signed on to Gaydar internet dating.  In time, I met up with the Soho Masses where I found a very strong welcome and sense of community, and where I became a regular participant.

Once again, I was forced to reconsider the question of reconciling faith and sexuality.  I took myself off to a rural monastery for a short private retreat, and steeped myself in prayer.  Once again, I found myself reaffirmed in the belief that my sexuality was not intrinsically immoral, and this time more:  I began to believe that finding other gay Catholics and working together with them for mutual support, was an important part of the ‘mission’ that I needed to undertake, indeed, was part of the reason that God’s plan had brought me here.

Reflecting on my experiences in the (gay) support network I was developing, as well as the few sexual experiences I had found, I saw that some of these at least had been enormously beneficial – good sex can be a powerful antidepressant.  And so, I came to recognise, in the light of experience and discernment, that sex does not necessarily have to be in the context of a relationship to be healthy and valid.  (But also, that not all sex is good).

Soho Masses

I have now been attending these regularly for almost 6 years, even though the journey into Soho from my home in Surrey is time consuming (for every Mass or meeting I set aside 4 hours total travelling time).  I have been gradually drawn ever deeper into the activities, first as a reader, then as a Eucharistic Minister, and then as a member of the Pastoral Council.  I have also joined other lesbian & gay Catholics in London’s annual Gay Pride March through central London.

The rewards are incalculable.

First of these is the Mass itself, which is always uniquely rewarding:  the liturgy is invariably rich, the homilies intelligent and thought provoking, the congregational singing vigorous and the occasional additional music superb.  The welcome, sense of community, and friendships formed are invaluable.

There have been specific, less routine highlights. First, I was privileged to have been serving on the Pastoral Council when the Diocese approached us about a move from the Anglican premises we had been using to a Catholic parish, and so was drawn into those negotiations, and into the process of discernment within our congregation of the most appropriate response.

In an ongoing attempt to wrestle with the tension between the gift of sexuality that the Lord has given me, and the formal teaching of the church, I have been deeply grateful for the extensive reading lists and direct access to selected books for sale, that I have had access to through the Masses.  These have been complemented by some intensely moving workshops, retreats, lectures and days of recollection on ‘matters Catholic and gay.’

At a strictly personal level, it was emotionally gratifying when my new partner (an Anglican) joined me for some of the Masses at our former home at St Anne’s, and when the civil partnership we entered into a few years back was noted in the bidding prayers.

A Paradox.

Arising out of the negotiations concluded with the diocese, there is one important paradox and source of tension.

During the discussions, it was made clear that the diocesan expectation was that the Masses should be strictly ‘pastoral’, and should not be used for ‘campaigning’ against church teaching.  This we were (broadly) happy to accept, although there was never any clarification of just what was meant by the terms. It is my belief that the distinction between them is not nearly as clear cut as the Bishops seem to assume. Also, the public statements from the Cardinal at the time and after clearly stated that there would be an expectation that those living would be living ‘in accordance with Catholic teaching’, that there would be no ‘ambiguity’ in our presentation of church teaching, which should be presented ‘in full’.

This presents an obvious paradox, as many of us, including myself, appear to be living in a manner clearly in conflict with official teaching, and some of us believe that we have a moral obligation to other LGBT Catholics to provide them with sound counter arguments to official teaching, and also to work towards changing this teaching.  (Does this constitute ‘campaigning’ against the teaching, or contributing to the development of new theology?)

Part of this tension, on living in accordance with teaching, I resolve precisely by looking to the teaching ‘in full’:  that is by looking not only at sexual theology in isolation, but also at teaching on conscience, on justice and peace, on how the process of making theology works, at the contextual background and history of how the theology was developed, and on the importance of prayer and personal discernment in the formation of conscience.  Against this wider background, I would argue that I am living not in a state of sanctity or free of sin, but certainly in as much accordance with church teaching as most other Catholics  – and with somewhat more reading and reflection than the average behind my decisions.

The second part, the restriction on using the Masses for ‘campaigning’, I resolve by recognising first, that in a very real sense the pastoral is political: our simple presence makes an important statement.  But further, there remains, I believe, an obligation to work more directly and actively towards countering and changing the standard official teaching.  This I resolve by separating my activities with the Masses, and elsewhere.  Specifically, it is to play my part in this respect that I set up this blog in the first place.

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