The leader of Britain’s Catholics in England and Wales has ordered a church in central London to stop providing special masses for openly gay congregants.
The so-called “Soho Masses” were set up six years ago by a group of openly gay Catholics and sympathetic priests to cater for those struggling to live within a church that takes an absolutist line against same sex relationships.
But Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, has ordered a halt to the masses and – in an equally symbolic move – has handed the church where the services were held to the Ordinariate – the body set up by Rome to cater for Anglo-Catholics who have defected from the Church of England.
The decision is a significant win for the traditionalist wings of the Catholic Church who have vigorously lobbied both the Archbishop and Rome to cancel what they saw as a deviation from official church teachings.
But supporters of the masses say it will be a crushing blow for gay Catholics who already struggle to feel accepted by their church.
Father Bernard Lynch, an openly gay priest who helped found Soho Masses but has not been involved in the group for a number of years, told The Independent: “It’s devastating and I believe it will be devastating on the soul life of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Catholics. The masses were known and talked about in the US, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Europe as a beacon of light in a very dark church when it comes to LGBT people.”
Archbishop Nichols’ order comes at a time when the Catholic Church itself is redoubling its efforts to oppose same sex marriage legislation following moves in Britain and France to allow gay men and women to marry.
Shortly before Christmas the Pope used two landmark speeches to rail against equal marriage whilst Archbishop Nichols hit out at the government’s gay marriage plans in a BBC interview on Christmas Day.
In a statement released today, Archbishop Nichols insisted that pastoral care for gay Catholics would continue at the Jesuit Farm Street Church in Mayfair each Sunday evening. But he announced that the Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Warwick Street must stop holding its Soho Masses.
The cancellation of the masses will be a cause of dismay for gay Catholics who often complain that they struggle to feel welcome in a church that takes a firm line against any form of same sex attraction.
The origins of the Soho Masses go back to the turn of the century when sympathetic priests began to hold services for openly gay men and women in an Anglican church. Because the services were not taking place in a Catholic church they caused little controversy. However in 2006 the priests eventually got permission from Vincent Nichols’ predecessor, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Conner to conduct masses on Warwick Street.
Although many liberal Catholics in Britain supported the masses, they caused outrage in Rome where the new Pope Benedcit XVI was determined to enforce Catholic orthodoxy.
Father Lynch said the order to halt the masses in London mimicked a similar move by the Vatican in New York in the late 1980s. In the midst of the Aids pandemic, St Francis Xavier’s Church in Greenwich Village had begun to hold masses for the local gay community but was eventually shut down by Rome.
The Irish born priest added, however, that Archbishop Nichols was “extraordinarily brave and courageous” to keep the masses going in face of such staunch opposition from opponents.
In recent years traditionalists had increased their campaign against the Soho Masses, even secretly recording a prayer session and releasing the video online. Following the video Vincent Nichols referred the masses to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, the Vatican body which oversees adherence to official church teachings.
One Catholic commentator told The Independent: “The cancellation of the Soho Masses and the handing over of the church to the Ordinariate is a deeply symbolic move. Clearly the Archbishop was under pressure from traditionalists and he needed to find a new home for the Ordinariate. He’s managed to square those circles.”
Damian Thompson, a traditionalist Catholic commentator who has opposed Soho Masses, said he welcomed the moves.
“The “gay Masses” were an embarrassment, a relic of old-style gay rights campaigning that scandalised large numbers of Catholics,” he wrote in a blog on the Daily Telegraph website. “To give this lovely 18th-century church to the Ordinariate is a huge boost for ex-Anglicans who are setting up their own structure, worshipping as Catholics in a style informed by Anglican spirituality.”