Britain's only gay Mass

Newsnight's Peter Marshall meets some of the congregation

As Britain prepares for a visit from the Pope, there is opposition from some gay people who believe the Roman Catholic church is intolerant of their sexuality. But in one London church homosexuals are attending a "gay Mass" with the blessing of senior clergy.

Paul Brown had not been to church since his mother's funeral in 2002. Now he is back in the pews, courtesy of a Mass for lesbian and gay Catholics which is the only one of its kind in the UK.

"I searched for a Mass with a positive message about things you should do, not someone telling me all the things I shouldn't do," he says.

Paul, who sports a black leather biker's jacket, is one of a number who have transformed the church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in London's West End.

They sing hymns at the top of their voices. Many are aged under 30. Some have dyed hair. Suddenly, Catholicism seems be all the rage in this part of central London .

If you think this is a bit strange - well, it is. Catholic Church teaching on homosexuality is tough. Lesbian and gay Catholics are called to live chaste lives.

The only sexual expression allowed by Rome is marriage in which all sexual acts are open to the transmission of new life, hence the ban on artificial contraception.

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Renate Rothwell in the church kitchen

My life without the Soho Mass would be bleaker, lonelier and less joyful.”

End Quote Renate Rothwell

So how has a "gay Mass" come about? (It is, in theory, open to all-comers, but this is what it has come to be called.)

"People had been used to meeting at the nearby Anglican Church of St Anne's and there was a feeling that it was time to find a way of finding Catholic premises," says Monsignor Seamus O'Boyle, the parish priest.

A series of draft documents were passed between top-level Cardinals in Westminster and the Vatican, to agree some basic ground rules.

The Church hierarchy wanted assurances that the services would not become a platform for challenging Catholic teaching. So one of the "underlying principles" of staging the service is: "Information about the Mass 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."

'Homosexual lifestyle'

Organisers behind the Soho Masses Pastoral Council, the team that organises the services, are happy to accept these conditions.

THE POPE'S BRITISH DIVISIONS

Hear the full programme on BBC Radio 4, Thursday 9 Sept at 0900 BST, repeated at 2130 BST.

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"This is not a place which offers a platform for voicing criticisms of church doctrine," says the council's chairperson Joe Stanley.

"The emphasis is on pastoral care. Sometimes people come here and have tears in their eyes, because for the first time, two really important parts of their lives have come together: their Catholicism and their sexual identity."

Renate Rothwell is another stalwart. "My life without the Soho Mass would be bleaker, lonelier and less joyful," she says.

This mass is the only one of its kind in the UK, so far.

Asked by the BBC if there was any reason why similar masses should not be introduced up and down the country, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, said: "I think that's a judgement for a bishop and it's a judgement in response to a pastoral need."

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Archbishop Vincent Nichols

Anybody who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for communion really ought to hold their tongue.”

End Quote Archbishop Vincent Nichols

In other words, if other gay Catholics ask for the same in Manchester or Brighton, it might be considered.

But not all are happy in the Catholic family. Twice a month a small group of traditionalists line the pavement opposite the church.

They pray the rosary on their knees, sing hymns and have petitioned the Archdiocese of Westminster to scrap the Mass.

They are backed by former Catholic Herald editor, William Oddie, who has accused church leaders of supporting those who engage in what he calls "the homosexual lifestyle".

"The fiction which justifies the archdiocese in its support for the Soho Masses is that they are celebrated for the benefit of gays who accept the teachings of the Church and therefore refrain from any form of sexual activity," he has written on his blog.

Immigration

But Archbishop Vincent Nichols says he continues to support the Mass.

Watch Peter Marshall's film in which he visits the Soho Mass on Newsnight on Thursday 9 September 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website

"It is a parish mass to which everybody is invited, but it has a particular appeal to people of a same sex orientation - not to distinguish them from the rest of the congregation, but to say you can be at home here.

"And I think that's the right thing to do because it offers slowly, and it is slow, a chance for those who as it were feel they live under a great pressure of an identity to perhaps shake that a bit looser and to say no, first of all I'm a Catholic and as a Catholic I want to come to Mass."

And in a hard hitting riposte to critics of the mass, the Archbishop says "anybody who is trying to cast a judgement on the people who come forward for communion really ought to learn to hold their tongue".

In 1982 at the time of the last papal visit, such a mass would have been the stuff of fantasy. But the Catholic Church in Britain has undergone widespread transformation since the visit of John Paul II.

Whether it is immigration from Eastern Europe, the rising tide of secularism, the public image of priests and the hierarchy over the abuse crisis and the advent of married Anglicans into the ranks of the clergy: this is a faith community in the melting pot.

Some see this as an opportunity while others resist change. On the eve of Pope Benedict's visit, that is what makes the four and a half million UK Catholics so fascinating.

Below is a selection of your comments.

Anything that brings people closer to their Creator is a good thing.

Margaret, Dublin

Jesus taught us that the greatest of the Commandments was to love God, and to love our neighbour. Pope Benedict XVI confirmed this teaching in his first encyclical letter "Deus Caritas Est" (God is Love). The Catholic Church teaches us to hate sin, but to love sinners. We are all sinners, and it is not up to us to sit in judgement on our fellow human beings. "Judge not, and you shall not be judged". Subject to the conditions mentioned in your article, about such Masses not being used as platforms to challenge the Church's traditional teaching on homosexuality, I think that the regular celebration of Mass for the gay community is a very positive development. I applaud the London hierarchy for their vision and courage in authorising such celebrations, and in actively supporting them as expressions of loving pastoral care for our gay brothers and sisters.

Dominic Ion, Wirral, Merseyside

How refreshing to see the Catholic Church taking a practical, caring and thoroughly modern approach for once, and extending a hand to a section of the community who probably need spiritual support more than most. Both the Church and Bishop Vincent are to be warmly congratulated.

Warren McIntosh, London

I'm a Christian who is not a Catholic, however I agree with the Catholic teaching with regards to homosexuality... and I think the Mass is a good thing to do. We are ALL sinners, and we need to be able to come to God just as we are. After that, God's transforming work can begin in our lives - but it's a slow process.

Ross, UK

There is nothing 'gay' about the mass. It is a normal Catholic mass which happens to take place in an area popular with gay people and reaches out to all people in the community. Nothing new about that.

Tanya, London

As someone who spent over 20 years practising Catholicism before moving towards atheism, it comes as a welcome surprise that senior leaders of the Catholic Church can recognise new and positive ways to apply their own teachings. I am always amazed just how much hatred can be expressed in the name of religion.

Brian, London

How refreshing? Not really. Just another example of the catholic church - like other religions - realising it's got to modernise itself in order to snare the gullible and needy of the current generation.

Tom Russell, Coventry

Here is a group of people who wish to worship in their own way according to their own values and beliefs. How refreshing to hear Archbishop Nicolls pointing out that to enter into Communion is a personal decision and a matter for the individual and not for someone else to judge. I find it sad that the protestors outside the church are isolating themselves from the Sacrifice of the Mass which is being celebrated there. Go into the church and join in - if you do not agree with the other people present then surely the Christian thing to do is to pray for them not simply condemn them. Life is not black and white and neither is Faith. It is the one truely personal thing for each and every one of us. I think ths saddest part of this story is that those opposed to this Mass are making assumptions about the lives of the participants. The Church's teaching is that homosexual acts are wrong. These people seem to assume that every gay person is engaging in sexual acts. I do not look around when at Mass and wonder which couples have used contraception, surely it is time to raise our thoughts from the base level and get back to a simple celebration of life and God's Creation.

Chris, Bristol

I've been wrestling with my conscience lately, as I am a Catholic but also believe entirely in the idea that the Catholic church should allow gay marriage etc.

Naomi, Dundee

I'm a straight Catholic with gay friends who tell me about bad experiences of churches and pastors who have excluded and shunned them. Being gay isn't a choice - being Christian is. I'm delighted to see the hierarchy finally starting to see sense and try to serve the communities that have been so marginalised in the past. Next time in London i know where i'll go for mass

James, St. Bees, Cumbria

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