On 18 May 1897, the writer Oscar Wilde was released from prison after serving two years for ‘gross indecency’; imprisoned for being in a same sex relationship. One of his first acts upon gaining his freedom was to write to the Jesuits at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, asking for a six month retreat. Perhaps because they feared scandal, or because they were sceptical of his commitment, the Jesuits refused his request, instead telling him to ask again after a period of discernment. Wilde left for France shortly afterwards, and never returned to London. The story of LGBT Catholics doesn’t end there, however; London has been the scene of many more encounters between the Church and LGBT people; notably in recent times the journey of the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster (formerly Soho Masses) community.
The spring of 1999 was a time of mourning for the LGBT community; on the evening of Friday April 30th 1999, a neo-nazi had detonated a bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, killing three people, including a pregnant woman, and injuring 79. The law which had been used to convict Oscar Wilde had been repealed in 1967, but homophobia was still common throughout society, and although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had condemned violence against "homosexual persons’ in their 1986 document “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons”, many LGBT people did not feel welcome in Catholic churches. In this atmosphere of fear and distrust, the Helpers of the Holy Souls opened the doors of their convent in Camden Town to the LGBT Catholic community, and the first Mass welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and friends, was held there on Sunday 2nd May 1999.
Last Saturday (27th April 2019), the LGBT+ Catholics Westminster commemorated both of these anniversaries with a prayerful walk, beginning at the Oscar Wilde memorial and finishing at Farm Street church, which is now our home parish. Along the way we heard readings from scripture and from Catholic authors who had struggled with their sexuality, such as the priest Henri Nouwen and the poet Dunstan Thomas. We prayed for the victims of hate crime, the activists who have worked tirelessly for LGBT inclusion in the Church, and for the Pope and the Church as a whole. The stops on the route included the Admiral Duncan pub, the church of Notre Dame de France, where the first public conference on Catholics and Homosexuality was held in 1976, and two churches which have hosted our community over the years: St Anne’s Anglican Church, on Dean Street, and the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street.
The Convent of the Helpers of the Holy Souls was sold in 2001, and the LGBT Catholic community moved to St Anne’s in the heart of Soho. Over time, the size of the community began to outgrow the space available, while at the same time the diocese of Westminster was looking for a way to offer outreach and support to LGBT Catholics, and in 2007 the community was invited by the diocese to attend Mass at Warwick Street twice a month. The community flourished, many members travelling long distances to attend the Masses. For many people, including myself, this was the first time we were able to openly identify ourselves as Catholic in an LGBT community that often seemed to view Catholics with suspicion, and openly identify ourselves as LGBT in a Church that often seemed to view LGBT people as a problem that needed to be solved, rather than embraced as part of God’s creation.
The news of the move to Farm Street in 2013 was met with some trepidation by the Soho Masses community: would we be accepted or shunned? Would we be swallowed up by a larger parish and lose the sense of identity and community we had worked so hard to build? However, as we discovered, both the clergy and parishioners at Farm Street take pride in the welcome they extend to all, and their response to the LGBT Catholic community was no exception. As well as worshipping together regularly as a community, LGBT+ Catholics Westminster are integrated into the life of the wider parish; serving at the Masses with music, reading and ministering, and contributing to the parish’s social and charitable activities. Our inclusion as part of the Westminster Diocese chaplaincy to LGBT people has also allowed us to start reaching out to others who may need support, with events for young people still struggling to reconcile their faith and sexual or gender identity, or for Catholic parents of LGBT people. Coming out is always challenging, and the journey of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster has been no exception, but each step we have taken has give us new opportunities to witness that LGBT people have a home in the Catholic church.
Benjamin Smith is chairman of LGBT+ Catholics Westminster