A gay Catholic mass builds a new core of acceptance in London’s Soho
BY SARAH WHITMIRE
LONDON—As the church bells chime 5 o’clock, the organ prelude begins. Late-comers hurry to take their seats. The congregation is mostly single men, with some couples and even a handful of families—all with the shared goal of unhindered worship.
Our Lady of the Assumption & St. Gregory’s Catholic Church capitalizes on the oxymoronic by offering mass for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community the first and third Sunday of each month. “This is the only LGBT Catholic mass offered on a regular basis,” says Terry Weldon (below), a member of the Soho Masses Pastoral Council. “I’ve now been attending these for almost six years, even though the journey into Soho from my home in Surrey is time consuming.”
Weldon travels four hours round-trip on the train. Others in the congregation of roughly 150 drive two hours each way from Bristol and five hours from Cornwall, according to Google Maps.
“She books her train ticket and then stays in a hotel,” Weldon says of the woman from Cornwall. “She’s not even gay, but her son is and she supports him.”
You won’t see the LGBT mass announced on signs or in the morning bulletin, and you won’t find drag queens inside or rainbow flags flying outside, like those at many Soho businesses. You wouldn’t even know you’d attended anything other than a normal Sunday evening mass. In fact, the late time and central location in London make this mass popular with jet-lagged tourists.
Even in London’s “sex district,” local homosexuals don’t flock to the Catholic establishment. “We often say is that it’s easier to come out as a gay in the Catholic Church than to come out as a Catholic in the gay community,” Weldon says.
Recently, when Weldon was working at a Catholic information booth at a London Gay Pride event, a man began to scream at him. “He said we’re hypocrites for having anything to do with the church,” Weldon says.
Many faiths, including Catholicism, denounce homosexuality. The Vatican states that being gay is acceptable, but that sin comes from acting on one’s feelings. Gay communities worldwide feel as though Catholics have shut the door on them, Weldon says. “They are very critical of the Catholic Church, but we try very hard to make it clear that you can be gay and Catholic.”
Others, however, try hard to make it clear that you can’t be both.
Like clockwork every other Sunday, the opposition arrives at St. Gregory’s. An elderly woman, armed with a folding chair and rosary, sets up outside the church. Minutes later, she’s joined by another elderly woman and then a younger man of about twenty. They kneel and pray intently or speak to passers-by.
“We come up here for a special prayer vigil,” says Caroline Hurst, a Catholic. She speaks in a kind, steadfast voice. “There’s a mass for those practicing homosexuality in there right now, which is fine,” she says, echoing the Vatican’s teachings. “What we’re objecting to is them receiving the Holy Communion reserved for Catholics as the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
Hurst and her compatriots say three rosaries for each Soho mass. She has traveled from her home in Reading, about an hour’s drive away, twice a month for two years.
“We haven’t seen any change,” Hurst says. “Only God can change a heart, but no prayer is ever wasted.”
Ironically, Weldon banks on the same sentiment to change perceptions of homosexuals and faith. He created a blog, Queering the Church, for other gays wrestling with the idea of following Catholicism. “Finding other gay Catholics and working together with them for mutual support was an important part of the ‘mission’ that I needed to undertake,” Weldon writes in his blog. “Indeed, it was part of the reason that God’s plan had brought me here.”
“Many of us, including myself, appear to be living in a manner clearly in conflict with official teaching,” Weldon says to those feeling torn or confused. “Forget about what you read. Focus on the ordinary people in the pews.”
St. Gregory’s is beginning to see signs of mixing among the congregations attending the standard mass and those at the LGBT mass. For Weldon and other gay Catholics, this is the ultimate goal—being able to integrate into a Catholic congregation like any other couple would. “Rather than turning away the local group, we find that we are enriching them,” he says.
But rocking a foundation like that of the Catholic church isn’t a quick process, especially when much of the battle is what Weldon refers to as “political.”
“Ideally, you shouldn’t even be coming to a dedicatedly gay parish, because all should be welcoming,” Weldon says. “Our simple presence makes an important statement. This parish is not an end in itself. It’s a point of entry.”
When the LGBT mass ends, those who came purposefully can take pride in the statement they made. Those who wandered in for the first time leave with the satisfaction of being part of something bigger than themselves. The funny part is that they probably had no idea they were attending an LGBT mass.
For the visual story of Soho, click here for Alex Flamini’s photo essay.