One of my readers has asked in a comment to meet and interview me about my experiences as a gay Catholic. In preparation for this meeting, I have put together a brief description of the key influences on my journey in faith, which I now share with you all.
Childhood & Education
I was born in a Catholic family in South Africa, and educated entirely in Catholic schools. In particular, my secondary schooling was in a small school run by priests, in the ears immediately following Vatican II. For 5 years, religious instruction was a daily part of the school syllabus, delivered by a man with a strong commitment to the VII reforms, and (for the time) an unusual emphasis on Scripture. I remember in particular an extended period of instruction on Biblical ideas on the nature of God, along the lines of “God is…..” , such as “God is Truth”, “God is Life”, “God is Light”, “God is Hope”, “God is Wisdom”, and above all, “God is Love.” For each of these statements, we laboriously wrote out and memorised endless biblical texts in support of these themes, together with their chapter and verse references. I regret that I no longer remember any more than a handful of these texts, but they strongly coloured my perceptions of the nature of God. If I have forgotten the details of the texts, I clearly remember and treasure the themes, as listed above.
At university, my religious education was continued less formally by active participation in student Catholic societies. Against the background of strong student opposition to expanding apartheid repression, I developed a strong commitment to the social Gospel, and was influenced by ideas around liberation theology and what later became known as contextual theology.
Sexual Awareness & Marriage
From a very early age, I was aware that in many ways I was ‘different’ from other boys, sharing several interests more usually found in girls. Through adolescence, I came to realise that this was based on sexual attraction to boys, and began to wonder seriously if I might really be ‘homosexual’. By the time I reached university, I clearly recognised my ‘inclinations’ but very conscious of Catholic teaching on sex, attempted to repress them. I then, with far too little thought or premeditation, at a young age rushed into marriage to an equally young Catholic woman. Adhering to Catholic teaching on contraception, two young daughters followed soon after. The experience of parenthood while still very young, before either of us was properly ready for it emotionally or financially, soon placed the marriage under increasing stress.
After marriage, I found I was drifting gradually away from the church, attended Mass less and less regularly, and stopped receiving the sacraments altogether, largely over issues around sexual guilt. In time, I came to see myself as specifically ‘agnostic’. (It is worth spelling this out now: my clear attempts to follow church teaching on sex, from masturbation to premarital sex and contraception, led me into an inappropriate marriage, premature fatherhood, and in time to movement away from the Church, towards avowed agnosticism.)
During the gradual breakdown of my marriage, I came increasingly to recognise that I was ‘probably’ primarily homosexual. Once the marriage had ended, I finally recognised the truth, and came out: first to myself, and then to others. I became active in ‘Gasa Rand’ – the local gay activist association – where I met Bruce, who became a major part of my life for nearly 20 years. During the time leading up to and after coming out, I sought out and read as much as I could find on ‘gay lit’, including fiction, gay history, and gay politics. In South Africa in the 1980’s available supplies were limited (a function of censorship, significant relative expense, and a small market). Still, my reading became extensive, if eclectic.
A year after meeting Bruce, we moved in together (sharing our lives for the next 18 years). At the time we met, he too was not practicing any religion, but had been raised an Anglican. (As a young man, he had thought of becoming a monk) After a few years together, he began to attend church services once again, in an Anglo-Catholic parish. Later, he became more interested in Catholicism, and began to attend the Latin Mass of the ‘traditional’ Catholics.
This left me increasingly uncomfortable, because it through into the foreground my conflict with the church over sexuality, and because the traditional Catholics offended my strong Vatican II sympathies. Still, we agreed to differ on religion, while agreeing that in spite of religious teaching, homosexuality itself was not intrinsically immoral, and that our relationship, being committed and monogamous, was as valid as any legal marriage.
Return to the Church
Later, there came a point when I considered returning to the Church. I learned that a former student friend had become a Jesuit priest, and was then parish priest in the university parish where I had been many years earlier. I went to see him to discuss my reservations. Among the very important observations he made were that faith was a matter of experience, not of reason or dogma; that I should not prejudge the Lord’s (or the Church’s) response to my sexuality; but that he personally did not believe the Lord would expect me in a committed and loving relationship, to live to harsher standards than anyone else. Above all, he urged me to make a leap in faith, and see how things worked out, which is what I did.
The resulting experience was wholly positive and enriching.
When I told Bruce that I was thinking of returning to church, he immediately responded that he would abandon the traditional Catholics and join me at that same university parish. My daughter Barbara, who by that time was herself a student and was then living with us to attend uni, also said that she would like to join us, and so we began regular Mass attendance as a family. Over the years, we were both drawn ever deeper into the life of the parish, assisting in many branches of parish life, and even serving together for several years on the Parish Pastoral Council. Although we very much visible as a couple, in a relationship that was obvious to all, we found no hostility from anyone, and a very warm welcome from many.
As a Jesuit parish, we were also drawn gradually into exploration of Ignatian spirituality, and in time into deeper exploration thereof in the Christian Life Community (“CLC”). Amongst the key Ignatian ideas that became of great importance to me were:
- the idea that the Holy Spirit is constantly attempting to communicate with us. By learning to read, or ‘discern’ the movement of the Spirit within our hearts, we can come to hear God speaking to us directly;
- the importance of regular (ideally daily) ‘examen’ of consciousness. This is a form of prayer, in which we reflect on our experience and the resultant emotions, in order to discern those movements of the Spirit.
-‘Ignatian indifference’: the idea that the moral value of things or states lies not in themselves, but in what we do with them, and how we apply them to building God’s Kingdom on earth. (The “Principle & Foundation” speaks of “seeking neither riches nor poverty, neither sickness nor health”)
- the value of communal sharing and reflection with others, to assist in the process of discernment
- ‘Mission’: the idea that the Lord has a unique task for each of us, with which we are sent into the world to do his will.
A further idea that hit me with powerful force was not specifically Ignatian, although I did first encounter it in the CLC group. This was the argument promoted in the book ‘Redemptive Intimacy’ by Dick Westley, that revelation is not something that was given in biblical times, and then static, but is continually unfolded by the Holy Spirit, and needs to be constantly reinterpreted for changing times. (I have since learnt that this idea is widely accepted by theologians, and was restated by Benedict XVI in one of his Christmas addresses). Westley argues that all of us, laity as well as clergy, have a part to play in interpreting this unfolding revelation by communal sharing and reflection on our experiences. In short, theology is constantly being remade, and we all have a part to play in making it.
Under the impact of Ignatian ideas, I regularly took into prayer, alone, under the guidance of Spiritual Direction, or on silent retreat, the whole question of sexuality and faith. On every occasion, the resulting conclusion was that I was reaffirmed in my existing conviction that homosexual expression in my relationship was not sinful, but on the contrary was good and life-giving. (I did not then explore issues of sex outside such a relationship).
Eventually, we both reached a decision, taken after extensive research, thought and prayerful discernment, to leave South Africa and to emigrate to the UK. We were then both teachers, and before departure secured posts in English schools. However, the school year had barely begun when Bruce concluded that he had made a mistake in emigrating, and after a few months returned to Johannesburg. I reached a different conclusion, and remained behind.
This put me into a very difficult emotional position, having to deal alone with the simultaneous stresses of adjusting to emigration, the sudden break-up of a long relationship, coping with a dramatically new and different school environment with more challenging pupil behaviour, and adjusting as a single person to dramatically different financial calculations to those I had expected. All this in a country I did not know, where I had no personal friends, and indeed knew nobody other than school colleagues, and (fortunately) my daughter Robynn, who had preceded me to London a year before my own move.
With no existing support system, I deliberately set out to create one. I sought out my local parish and parish priest (but signally failed to find the sort of community I had previously been accustomed to). I joined a local gay friendship group, and signed on to Gaydar internet dating. In time, I met up with the Soho Masses where I found a very strong welcome and sense of community, and where I became a regular participant.
Once again, I was forced to reconsider the question of reconciling faith and sexuality. I took myself off to a rural monastery for a short private retreat, and steeped myself in prayer. Once again, I found myself reaffirmed in the belief that my sexuality was not intrinsically immoral, and this time more: I began to believe that finding other gay Catholics and working together with them for mutual support, was an important part of the ‘mission’ that I needed to undertake, indeed, was part of the reason that God’s plan had brought me here.
Reflecting on my experiences in the (gay) support network I was developing, as well as the few sexual experiences I had found, I saw that some of these at least had been enormously beneficial – good sex can be a powerful antidepressant. And so, I came to recognise, in the light of experience and discernment, that sex does not necessarily have to be in the context of a relationship to be healthy and valid. (But also, that not all sex is good).
I have now been attending these regularly for almost 6 years, even though the journey into Soho from my home in Surrey is time consuming (for every Mass or meeting I set aside 4 hours total travelling time). I have been gradually drawn ever deeper into the activities, first as a reader, then as a Eucharistic Minister, and then as a member of the Pastoral Council. I have also joined other lesbian & gay Catholics in London’s annual Gay Pride March through central London.
The rewards are incalculable.
First of these is the Mass itself, which is always uniquely rewarding: the liturgy is invariably rich, the homilies intelligent and thought provoking, the congregational singing vigorous and the occasional additional music superb. The welcome, sense of community, and friendships formed are invaluable.
There have been specific, less routine highlights. First, I was privileged to have been serving on the Pastoral Council when the Diocese approached us about a move from the Anglican premises we had been using to a Catholic parish, and so was drawn into those negotiations, and into the process of discernment within our congregation of the most appropriate response.
In an ongoing attempt to wrestle with the tension between the gift of sexuality that the Lord has given me, and the formal teaching of the church, I have been deeply grateful for the extensive reading lists and direct access to selected books for sale, that I have had access to through the Masses. These have been complemented by some intensely moving workshops, retreats, lectures and days of recollection on ‘matters Catholic and gay.’
At a strictly personal level, it was emotionally gratifying when my new partner (an Anglican) joined me for some of the Masses at our former home at St Anne’s, and when the civil partnership we entered into a few years back was noted in the bidding prayers.
Arising out of the negotiations concluded with the diocese, there is one important paradox and source of tension.
During the discussions, it was made clear that the diocesan expectation was that the Masses should be strictly ‘pastoral’, and should not be used for ‘campaigning’ against church teaching. This we were (broadly) happy to accept, although there was never any clarification of just what was meant by the terms. It is my belief that the distinction between them is not nearly as clear cut as the Bishops seem to assume. Also, the public statements from the Cardinal at the time and after clearly stated that there would be an expectation that those living would be living ‘in accordance with Catholic teaching’, that there would be no ‘ambiguity’ in our presentation of church teaching, which should be presented ‘in full’.
This presents an obvious paradox, as many of us, including myself, appear to be living in a manner clearly in conflict with official teaching, and some of us believe that we have a moral obligation to other LGBT Catholics to provide them with sound counter arguments to official teaching, and also to work towards changing this teaching. (Does this constitute ‘campaigning’ against the teaching, or contributing to the development of new theology?)
Part of this tension, on living in accordance with teaching, I resolve precisely by looking to the teaching ‘in full’: that is by looking not only at sexual theology in isolation, but also at teaching on conscience, on justice and peace, on how the process of making theology works, at the contextual background and history of how the theology was developed, and on the importance of prayer and personal discernment in the formation of conscience. Against this wider background, I would argue that I am living not in a state of sanctity or free of sin, but certainly in as much accordance with church teaching as most other Catholics – and with somewhat more reading and reflection than the average behind my decisions.
The second part, the restriction on using the Masses for ‘campaigning’, I resolve by recognising first, that in a very real sense the pastoral is political: our simple presence makes an important statement. But further, there remains, I believe, an obligation to work more directly and actively towards countering and changing the standard official teaching. This I resolve by separating my activities with the Masses, and elsewhere. Specifically, it is to play my part in this respect that I set up my blog in the first place.