Thursday, February 15, 2007

Church of the (Soho) Masses

As readers here in the States surely remember, an extensive set of guidelines on pastoral ministry to "persons with a homosexual inclination" (draft summary/final text) was one of the marquee items voted on by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops at its Fall Plenary last November in Baltimore.

Five years in the making, the text was caught in a fire-fight as it approached a final vote, with the original 28-page draft put through heavy editing and several of its key points of development either finessed or excised before the body of bishops passed it by a sizable margin. As is often the case with any much-vetted, lengthy statement, in its final form the document caused a notable amount of puzzlement in the media and even among the various sides in the church's heated debate over outreach to gay and lesbian Catholics.

Across the Pond, a recent localized approach, albeit on a prominent stage, appears to have been more successful. In what's been termed a "groundbreaking" resolution on the issue earlier this month, the archdiocese of Westminster released a statement on ministry to homosexual Catholics as it simultaneously brokered an agreement with an independent group that sponsored gay-friendly Catholic liturgies in an Anglican parish to merge its weekly celebration with an officially sanctioned Mass.

Noting the "desire for pastoral care" expressed by "a number" of London's gay community, the archdiocesan statement drew heavily from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 1986 document on the "Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons" to remind that the church "refuses to consider the person as a ‘heterosexual’ or a ‘homosexual’ and insists that every person has a fundamental identity: the creature of God and, by grace, his child and heir to eternal life." However, the final text conceded that "other individuals or groups may identify themselves in other ways, such as ‘gay’, or ‘lesbian.’"

"The Church’s pastoral outreach recognises that baptised persons with a homosexual inclination continue to look to the Church for a place where they might live in authentic human integrity and holiness of life," the statement said. "Being welcomed and participating in their local faith community is the foundation of spiritual support that the Church offers to them. Full and active participation is encouraged."

The two-page document is the product of intensive discussions between the top diocese of England and Wales and representatives of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, which has held the renegade Eucharists since 1999. Last week's edition of The Tablet reported "speculation" that the text and agreement were hammered out under the close watch of the CDF, which was said to be "actively involved" in advising Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor on permissible options of approach in light of church teaching.

The Soho community will now be integrated into a twice-monthly Mass in a Catholic parish in the West End whose list of celebrants will be subject to the approval of the local dean. The celebration "will be sensitive to the reality that the celebration of Mass is not to be used for campaigning for any change to, or ambiguity about, the Church’s teaching," the diocese said, emphasizing that the Mass "would be part of a normal pastoral outreach, open to everyone."

In its statement responding to the move, the Soho Masses council said that it "values" the interest and involvement shown by Westminster officials. The group praised the "integrity" of the church representatives and that their years of dialogue "have been marked by mutual respect, honesty, and trust."

While "the conversations have resulted in a stronger sense of ecclesial communion and a developing understanding of pastoral realities affecting the communities involved," the council said it regretted Murphy-O'Connor's lack of personal involvement in the exchanges leading up to the agreement and that the church's "continued use of narrowly defined, pseudo-clinical terminology" on questions of homosexuality "mistakenly reinforces the myth that this worshipping community is exclusive to a specific sexual orientation rather than being an inclusive expression of the Church, gathering all sorts and conditions of people."

As church conservatives were said to be "enraged" over the final framework of the plans, a BBC report on the agreement included audio from one of the Soho Eucharists at which petitions were offered for couples who have recently contracted civil partnerships.

Whilst maintaining that he doesn't view the deal as a "concession," Auxiliary Bishop Bernard Longley of Westminster told the broadcaster that "it's never been the practice of the Catholic church, as it were, to 'means-test' people before admitting them to the celebration of the Eucharist."

"It would be a mistake to jump to conclusions or to generalize," Longley said, "about anybody's particular lifestyle, or their state of grace."

To be held at Our Lady of the Assumption on Warwick Street, a former chapel of the Bavarian embassy to the Court of St James, the newly-merged liturgy is scheduled to begin on 4 March.