Living the truth in love: The problem with “Courage” and “Lived Experience”

World News Report has a fascinating interview with Fr Check, representing “Courage” ministry, which works with gay and lesbian Catholics attempting to live “within the teaching of the Church”.

There are numerous problems with this intention, not least of which, is that for gay and lesbian Catholics,  living “within all the teaching of the Church” is simply impossible , it is so riddled with internal contradictions and ambiguities. Like it or not, gay and lesbians in the Church are in fact forced to become “cafeteria Catholics”. Courage sees the situation simplistically, focussing entirely on genital sex, completely ignoring

a) that sexual rules are a relatively minor part of Church teaching;

b) the core doctrine of the primacy of conscience;

c) the important principle of the sensus fidelii – which implies that just possibly,Vatican teaching on sex might be plain wrong.

More interesting in the Word News Report, is the claim by the Courage spokesman that “lived experience” supports their view. In that, he is quite simply, dead wrong.

Father Check: The first piece of advice I would give would be to listen to the voice of those people for whom this is a lived reality and who have placed their trust in Christ and in the Church. Their perspective is the one that, in my mind, has not yet been heard. It forwas not heard by the extraordinary synod, to my knowledge.

via  Catholic World Report 


The problem with this analysis, is that the author’s understanding of “lived experience”, is severely limited by his contact only with those who subscribe to the severely disordered teaching on the subject. The simple reality of “lived experience” of real – life gay and lesbian Catholics, as abundantly demonstrated by both empirical research and anecdotal evidence, is the exact reverse. Formal church doctrine and attempts to live in conformity with it, leads to alienation from the Church, psychological trauma, and is in direct conflict with a core tenet in Genesis 2: “It is not good for man to live alone. I will make him a companion”. (Not a “wife”, note, but “a companion”). My own “lived experience” was that attempting to live within the precepts of the Catechism led to a disastrous, completely inappropriate marriage – and both my wife and I simply left the Church. It was not until I was ready to live entirely honestly and with integrity as an openly gay man, that my male partner, ironically, led me back into the Church.

The Church also teaches that it is important to pay attention to the findings of science, which show clearly, in both natural and social science, that a same – sex orientation is both entirely natural, and non – pathological. Even adherence to Aquinas’ Natural Law, based on evidence and reason, should lead to the same conclusion.

Expanding LGBT Ministry Across Westminster – and Beyond!

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.

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Book Review: “Covenant and Calling”.

I really would have liked to be able to recommend this book, but sadly, I simply cannot. In fact, When I was offered a review copy for Quest, I accepted gladly, looking forward to what seemed to be a worthwhile endeavour. Song’s aims are laudable, he’s a reputable academic in a good university with good credentials in both religion and queer studies (including queer theology). The reading list he provides as an appendix is good, with reliable texts by a balanced range of authors, and the book comes with warm endorsements from people I respect. Unfortunately, on first reading I was so repulsed that I could not even finish it, resulting in constant nagging from the Quest Bulletin editor, waiting for the promised review. On eventually picking it up again, my view had softened a little (I did at least complete a full, careful reading), but my core objections remain.

Covenant and calling

Song’s intention is to steer a calm, thoughtful middle course between the two hostile positions in the polemical struggles over gay marriage, and to come up with a proposal that will be acceptable to all but the extremists on both sides. The solution he comes up with has some merit, and is worth serious consideration: to restrict “marriage” to its traditional use with opposite – sex couples “for the purpose of procreation”, but to accept that same – sex couples also deserve recognition, albeit under a different name. This has been tried before, for example as “civil partnerships / civil unions” in secular law, but has been found wanting. Separate can never be equal, is the objection, and opposite – sex couples who cannot or do not want to procreate, are not excluded from marriage.

What makes this suggestion novel and not inherently discriminatory, is that unusually, he wants to restrict marriage, reserving it exclusively for those couples who do intend to have children. The important distinction, he argues, should not be based on the sex of the partners, but on their willingness and ability to bear children. It’s not a solution that I find particularly viable, but it is certainly one worth serious discussion.

What I found disappointing was not his proposal, but his reasoning, which is completely unconvincing. I was constantly left with the impression that he had reached a conclusion, and then looked for arguments to back it up. For instance, his central proposition is that in Christian tradition, marriage has “always” been between one man and one woman, for the purposes of procreation, depending heavily on Aquinas, who was clear that this is one of three goods of marriage. Yet he also acknowledges that there is nothing in the New Testament to suggest that marriage is about babies. It’s a little strange, to say the least, that procreation is central to the Christian tradition, when there is no evidence at all that it mattered one iota to the key figure in that tradition, after whom it is named.

Far more serious, is the total absence of any consideration of the real history of marriage. The “Christian tradition” as he describes it, dates back to Augustine. That’s a major part of the full Christian history – but what he overlooks, is the distinction between theological theory, and actual marriage in practice. It was not until late in the first millenium, five centuries after Augustine, that the Church placed any importance on marriage in church – except for priests. For long after that, marriage was still not to have babies, but to protect the legal status and inheritance rights of those that resulted. The result was, that for ordinary people with no property to bequeath to their children, most simply did not bother with marriage, at all. That was reserved for the rich and powerful.

It is also disturbing that while claiming that tradition that doesn’t really exist, he ignores the fact that tradition and practice can change. An absolute prohibition on divorce for example, was a firm part of that tradition, with much stronger scriptural support, but his own Anglican church has been able to accommodate a change there. For same – sex couples, the traditional objection to same – sex relationships was not simply to marriage, but that they should not exist at all. Yet, he is able to accept a change in that tradition too, acknowledging that for people with a natural homosexual orientation, a committed, faithful sexual partnership with another may well be a valid calling, equal in value to either marriage or celibacy. If long – standing Christian tradition is able to adapt on those counts, why not on his core argument (resting on unsound foundations) that Christian tradition has “always” been between one man and one woman, for life – for the purposes of procreation?

Most damningly, for someone proposing what he thinks is a novel solution of “covenanted partnership”, there is not even a single word about a similar practice that was a fixture of Christian rites for many centuries in the early church. John Boswell has produced extensive evidence for the existence of formal liturgical rites in the Eastern church for blessing same – sex couples, and Alan Bray has found similar evidence in the Western church, where they were known as “sworn brothers” – or even, “wedded brothers”. Scholars disagree about the exact significance of these partnerships, and there are undoubtedly significant differences between this practice and the solution proposed by Spong. It is however, remarkable that he does not even attempt to acknowledge their existence, let alone discuss their relevance (or otherwise).

Among gay and lesbian Catholics, there is significant divergence of opinion concerning church response to same – sex couples. Even among those who support full legal equality in marriage, there are some gay Catholics who do not want their own unions called marriage, and certainly not in church. There are strong arguments from those quarters, for a revival of this tradition of blessing same – sex couples, without conferring the word “marriage”. On the other side of the debate, there are others who hold to the traditional teaching demanding celibacy for gay people, who also see value in reviving this tradition, on the basis that these unions were not necessarily sexual, but made provision for mutual companionship and support.

This is a discussion deserving serious attention. It is tragic that a writer proposing a “solution” along similar lines, has simply ignored the historical evidence, blithely accepting and basing his argument instead on the falsehood that Christian marriage has “always” between one man and one woman.

“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” – The Problem.

All Inclusive Ministries (“AIM”) is a “welcoming, safe, and affirming Catholic community.a Based at Our Lady of Lourdes’ Parish in Toronto, Canada. At their blog, José Antonio Sánchez has written a piece on “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”  which pretty much sums up the way I feel about it.

  • Even when well – intentioned, that’s not the way it’s heard by those for whom it’s intended;
  • There’s little point in selectively quoting biblical verses. We’ve probably studied them, in depth and in context, far more closely than our critics have done, and with good reason: we really need to understand them, fully.
  • Asking us to “follow Jesus” rings hollow, coming from those who appear to have missed the overriding message of the Gospels, of unconditional love and radical inclusion for all, and especially those most marginalized.


However, the call to follow Jesus is inherently sound. The problem for those critics, is that doing so is unlikely to lead us to where they expect. When I first considered returning to the Church twenty something years ago,and discussed my many reservations with a one – time student friend who had since become a Jesuit and parish priest, his advice was simple: Don’t make assumptions. Faith is a matter of experience,  not of the intellect. Take God on trust, and see what happens. 

I took that advice. My subsequent faith journey, including several years close engagement with Ignatian spirituality, spiritual direction and a most extraordinarily intense 6 day Ignatian directed retreat, has left me with an absolute conviction that it’s our critics that have got it simply wrong. There are great dangers in irresponsible sexual behaviour, but those apply equally to LGBT and heterosexual, cisgendered people. The Catholic Church and some others may draw discriminatory distinctions in guidelines for for sexual behaviour, but God doesn’t.

As Sanchez notes in the opening of his post,

There’s a common misconception that as Christians we are responsible for the state of a person’s eternal soul, including those of LGBT individuals. We think that it’s our responsibility to outreach, evangelize, judge, convince, and convert them. We believe that their success or failure is directly correlated to our efforts in their lives.

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting what’s best for others, or with guiding them to what we believe Jesus wants for their lives, we have to recognize that their spiritual well-being is ultimately not under our control. We play a role, but it is ultimately between them and God, and nourishing that relationship between God and LGBT individuals should be our priority.

Jose Sanchez, AIM blog

(my emphasis)

Thanks for the support: I needed that

A huge “THANKS” to all those who have contributed in any way to my “So Fund Me” appeal last week, either directly with donations, or by sharing, or in messages of support. I was deeply moved by the swift response, and the generosity showed. In just a few days, I’m already over half way to my target.

I want to stress that those thanks go to ALL my supporters and donors, whether in the form of actual donations large or small, or otherwise. The money is obviously important (that’s the whole point), but equally valuable to me is the simple encouragement and affirmation that it brings. I was touched and uplifted by these, exemplified by some of messages that came with the donations, such as this one:

We’re lucky to have you writing and advocating for us”.

I was on a real emotional high after that – which, it turned out, I really needed yesterday, after a health update at St Luke’s cancer centre. Continue reading Thanks for the support: I needed that

Some Queer Saints and Martyrs for August

One characteristic feature of the Catholic Church, is the traditional respect paid to the saints and martyrs of the Church. The practice originated simply with honouring as role models the early martyrs. Much later, the practice developed of addressing our prayers through selected saints in heaven as intermediaries. As LGBT Christians, it is appropriate for us also to reflect on those people among the vast multitudes of saints and martyrs, and how they may present useful role models for ourselves in our modern lives.

We must be aware though, that it is often dangerous to designate saints as “gay” or “lesbian”, as those terms are of limited value when applied to people of very different historical conditions, and is misleading when applied to priests and others who have taken vows of celibacy. “Queer” is a more appropriate term which includes all sexual and gender minorities, but is also used here in an ever broader sense. Edith Stein is included here for instance, not because of anything in particular regarding either her sexuality or gender expression, but because after she converted from Judaism to Catholicism, she endured widespread rejection and hostility from the Jewish community that had previously been so important to her.That experience of rejection will resonate with many modern gay, lesbian and trans Christians.

Some female deacons from the early Church are also included, as a reminder that it is not only gay men and lesbians that suffer discrimination in the Catholic Church. All women do too, but this was not always so. The early Church certainly ordained many women deacons, and it is claimed, even some female priests. The possibility of ordaining women deacons is once again becoming widely discussed, so it is appropriate to remember the early examples.

  • Aug 3 rd
    • St Lydia , woman deacon (
  • Aug 5th
    • St Nonna , woman deacon (
  • Aug 13 th


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