Cardinal Vincent Nichols has urged that the successful model of the Farm Street Masses specifically welcoming LGBTI Catholics be “rolled out” across his Westminster archdiocese, and indeed across “the nation” (in Catholic Church terms, that rather oddly means “England and Wales”. Scotland has a completely independent bishops’ conference, and Northern Ireland falls under the Primate of All Ireland).
I’ve seen some enthusiastic comment elsewhere on the net, and in private correspondence, but I’m not getting too excited, just yet. That’s not because I don’t like the principle: of course I do. Right from the start, my response to the move of the old Soho Masses congregation from Warwick Street to Farm Street was that it would be of great benefit to some of us, but would fall short for others. To be really valuable, it needed to be replicated across many more parishes than just the one rather special case in very special circumstances. I wrote that at the time on my blog, I argued it inside the community and on the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, I wrote it in a letter to (then) Archbishop Nichols, and I said it to him directly, when I met him face to face, after the first Mass in our new home in Mayfair. Of course it’s a good idea. More than that, it’s essential for effective LGBT ministry in the country, the bare minimum that is required.
The problem is that, “rolling out” the model will not be that simple. It certainly won’t happen, just because the Cardinal will like it to, even with the help of his newly appointed special minister to promote the cause. We need to bear very firmly in mind that the success of Farm Street did not come about because Nichols introduced them – he did not. What he did, was to transfer part of an existing, exceptionally strong congregation, from one location to another. That congregation had been built up over many years, starting from a small group meeting just once a month for a house Mass, before increasing to twice a month, and a move to Dean Street. That growth came initially without any help whatsoever from the archdiocese: the move to Soho was to a supportive Anglican parish, because no Catholic parish was then ready to welcome us. After settling down in Warwick Street, the continued success and strong growth in the faith life of the community came as a result of our own efforts, with some very hard work by an extensive team. The later move to the Jesuit parish in Mayfair was, in effect, and attempt by Church authorities to co-opt an existing highly successful lay – led community, and draw it closer into its own fold.
There were certainly notable benefits.Those of us that made the move, were absorbed into the wider parish community, with undoubtedly positive results. Those that were unable to make the transition, for whatever reason, were left out in the cold. Replicating the model will just not be possible, because there is simply no other existing LGBT Catholic congregation to be conveniently transferred. Any similar venture elsewhere, will need to be built up, from scratch.
This is not to say it is impossible. It can be done, and it must be done. The challenge is, working out just how. We know that there are very many LGBT Catholics spread across the diocese who could benefit, and would very much like to participate, but they are indeed, widely dispersed. Unlike the USA, British gay men and lesbians, even in London, are not particularly located in concentrated “gaybourhoods”. Finding the people to make this work, and bringing them together in a particular parish, will not be easy. We also know that there are many supportive priests who would like to co-operate. What we don’t yet know, is whether those priests and their locations, would be appropriate for any embryonic support group to get going. To fully understand the “model” now operating at Farm Street, recall the full history.
To truly “replicate” the pattern would be to begin again at the beginning, with a small group meeting for an exclusively lgbt Mass, building up a community, skills and confidence, before finally making a move into an existing parish, just as the old Soho Mass / Farm Street community did. But I’m pretty certain that is not what Cardinal Nichols is envisaging.
At the time that the St Anne’s congregation moved to Warwick Street, there was a second, much smaller group meeting at a church in the King’s Cross area, who were also absorbed into the new congregation, but somewhat overshadowed by them subsequently. Perhaps they could be revived, ideally on different dates and a more convenient time, to the twice – weekly Masses at Farm Street.
Or perhaps there are existing parishes with a degree of supportive but low – key, unheralded ministry already in place, that simply need to be strengthened. Perhaps there are supportive priests with no existing LGBT parishioners that they are aware of, who would like to develop such a supportive ministry, and let it grow organically: one of the most successful parish – based ministries in the USA, was in just such a parish where there were no known LGBT people, but had a particularly strong Justice and Peace group, who saw inclusion as intrinsic to their mission. They began an LGBT support group with no LGBT members. But word spread, and the parish began to attract people from the local community who had previously simply not attended any Church, and later others from further afield. The group went from strength to strength, and in the process the parish as a whole grew and prospered.
There are many possible routes to multiplying the number of successful such examples across the diocese, will require hard thinking, work and co-operation between the existing Westminster Diocesan LGBT Pastoral Council, Quest, the Young Adults Group, and sympathetic clergy. I will be doing what I can myself to explore and promote the possibilities, and bring the assorted groups together for some creative thinking leading to specific initiatives.