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Time to start believing? Archbishop to open formal dialogue with gay Catholics

Charlotte Philby attends a new Mass for the LGBT community – and finds two sides singing from the same hymn sheet

Charlotte Philby
Sunday 03 March 2013 23:20 GMT
The Church Of The Immaculate Conception in Mayfair
The Church Of The Immaculate Conception in Mayfair (Susannah Ireland)

On one side sat the existing congregation of the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair, which notoriously refused entry to Oscar Wilde 116 years ago, following his release from jail on charges of sodomy and gross indecency.

On the other, members of the Catholic church's Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender [LGBT] community, who had been diverted to the Farm Street church for their first "inclusive" Mass after the closure of their own "gay Mass" church in Soho last month.

The final Soho Mass attracted more than 200 believers. After a slow start yesterday evening, the Mayfair church was also full by the start of the service. The priest welcomed the LGBT newcomers and said the theme of the Mass would be reconciliation.

But while there was some mingling between the two halves of the congregation, the differences in age and gender (gay men formed the majority of the LGBT crowd) were noticeable.

Ciaran Vaughn who has attended Soho Masses several times said: "At first I was a bit perturbed, a bit disappointed – I wondered what was the real reason behind the move. Was it pressure from Rome? But this is a beautiful church and the Jesuits are lovely so I'm pleased to be here."

One woman who attends Farm Street regularly said she was happy to welcome the LGBT arrivals – even if she was sceptical about their desire to be separate. "I don't see why they have to have their own church – everyone is the same in the eyes of God," she said.

"Why do we need all these segregations? Jesus Christ was a fisher of people not a fisher of homosexuals or heterosexuals. He would be horrified."

Last month, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, stopped the special fortnightly mass for LGBT Catholics at Soho's Warwick Street church, which had become a lifeline for an already-marginalised community within the religious order.

Soho's progressive church, which had some 150 regular attendees, was then given over to the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the body set up in 2011 by the Pope to welcome Anglican converts who were unhappy with the Church of England's position on female clergy.

Despite a sense of betrayal in the LGBT Catholic community, some churchgoers, including Soho Masses Pastoral Council member Mark Dowd, were hopeful about what an integrated service would mean:

"I'm excited because a lot of Catholics still don't know any gay men or lesbians... This is a chance to make our face known and become formally part of the community," he said yesterday. "In a perfect world none of us would describe or define ourselves by our sexual orientation... there wouldn't be a need for a special designated space. But it's not a perfect world."

In a remarkable gesture of goodwill, the Archbishop of Westminster made a private address to the united congregation after yesterday's service – the first time a senior figure in the Roman Catholic church has formally engaged with the LGBT community.

"We will want to ask questions on the thought process behind the change and where he sees it going," said Mr Dowd ahead of Archbishop Nichols' speech, from which the press were excluded.

"There are those critics of Vincent Nichols who would say that he is not on the progressive side of the argument, but to sit down and actually acknowledge the existence of our community has to be something."

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