It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 gay and lesbian members of the Catholic Church. Both Martin and Maria have struggled over the years to open up a space for lesbian and gay people in the Church. Here Martin and Maria talk about the highs and lows of being gay and lesbian in the Catholic Church and why its inherently inclusive teachings are attracting more Christians to join.
Martin Prendergast and Maria Exall are members of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Roman Catholic Caucus and the Cutting Edge Consortium.
Martin Prendergast has been a repeat victim of homophobic attacks. In 1986 he was stabbed in the back with a pen knife while running away from a group of youths aged 12 to 18. “It just missed my kidney,” said Martin, who ran after being surrounded by a group of youths. Then when he moved house with his partner, notices appeared on the railings opposite declaring “kill a queer.” A couple of years ago, he was attacked in the doorway of his house. “I was karate kicked, resulting in a broken jaw, four broken ribs and damage to my eye,” said Martin. The police obtained DNA on the assailant which matched with other attacks on gay men. However, he has yet to be brought to justice.
The threat of violence is something that gay and lesbian people have to live with on a daily basis, Maria Exall has not suffered any physical attack but endured name calling in the street from time to time. She recalled how gay and lesbian people can become targets, once it is known that they are living in an area. Research shows an under reporting of homophobic crime, though the police do take such attacks very seriously now. “There have been increases in homophobic violence, especially from groups of young people,” said Martin, who has noticed the role that girls often play in bullying. “It is a sign of something else going on, a disenfranchisement resulting in aggression against anyone thought to be different.”
Martin recalled that there is homophobic bullying going on in schools, sometimes with the collusion of staff. Though, Martin recalls some excellent work he has seen going on in Catholic schools to promote inclusiveness amongst staff and pupils.A trade union official, Maria says it has taken 20 years of work to get homophobic bullying recognised and taken seriously in the movement.
In terms of the Church, Martin and Maria see the question of how gay and lesbian people are treated as an issue of social justice. They are frustrated that in many settings it is often reduced to discussions about personal sexual practices. Sexual orientation has only recently come up for discussion in the Church, largely due to Pope Paul VI who first raised the question. “Our own bishops in 1979 put out pastoral care guidelines saying that homosexual orientation was morally neutral and it was a question of how people lived it out,” said Martin. This is the teaching that says it is ok to be homosexual in the eyes of the Church but not to enter into sexual relations with a person of the same sex.
Martin decries those in the Church who seek to portray homosexuality as some sort of secular disease. The question for Martin and Maria is working out ethics with integrity and they believe that the rich tradition of the Catholic Church in relation to diversity issues make it a place where these things can best be rationalised. Martin believes the Church is working things through. He recalls that it was not so long ago that it was believed that black people or women did not have souls. This has obviously all changed now and attitudes to homosexuality will also move accordingly.
A subject that it is often difficult to comprehend is the opposition of some in the Church to the idea of civil partnerships. These can be fitted within the tradition, giving legal rights to this form of relationship, yet some seem to see the civil partnership as a threat to marriage. “The Church is not against civil partnerships but same sex marriages,” says Martin. Both Martin and Maria live in civil partnerships with their respective partners Julian Filochowski and Angela Eagle MP. Both have felt supported by friends, family and the parishes where they live. “You go on a journey with the congregation and your own family,” said Maria, who is keen not to see members of the Catholic hierarchy lining up with some of the more homophobic parties in countries like Poland. “Some of the worst homophobia in the Church comes from repressed homosexual men who are in the hierarchy,” said Martin, who believes the real attraction of the Catholic Church is its inclusive nature. He recalls how within the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM) people have been drawn to join the Catholic Church because they have been struck by its teachings. “People are responding to the bigger message that the Catholic Church offers about integral human development. It is about being part of community and does not all come down to sexuality,” said Martin, who believes the hierarchy in England and Wales have been enlightened over the years with the way in which they have dealt with the issues.
Martin recalled how when giving the homily at the recent mass to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop Vincent Nichols focused on his teachings on sexual orientation as one of the three main areas to highlight. It was 10 years ago that the Lesbian and Gay community started up a monthly mass that was held at St Anne’s Anglican Church in Soho. The numbers grew from an initial 30 to 40 and the masses became twice monthly. Then three years ago the masses moved to the Church of the Assumption in Warwick Street, Piccadilly. “Now 100 to 120 people come on a regular basis with new people every time,” said Martin, who estimates that 250 to 300 different people are among regular attenders. “Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor was keen it did not become a ghetto. It has become a model of what an inclusive Catholic community can be like. People of different ethnic minorities, lay backgrounds and sexualities all come along,” said Martin, who believes the Vatican are looking at the model as one that could be potentially used in other parts of the world where there is a more aggressive attitude toward the lesbian and gay community.
The organisers of the masses have received plaudits from many people, with one senior priest in Westminster telling Martin that he would have walked away from the Church years ago if he’d been subjected to the type of abuse the lesbian and gay community had. “The mature way though is to engage, not just walk away,” said Martin. There are other developments involving lesbian and gay members of the Church, not least of which is as part of the Cutting Edge Consortium. This has been established to counter homophobia in society and support equality. Joining the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in this organisation are such strange bedfellows as the British Humanist Society, the National Secular Society, Progressive British Muslims, Liberal Judaism and the Trades Union Congress. “It is interfaith and non-faith, bringing together people who can begin to listen and talk,” said Martin.
Both Martin and Maria are keen that people from non-faith backgrounds come to see the inclusive and tolerant nature of the Catholic Church. It is all too easy from those outside the Church to pick on some of the more reactionery comments and accuse all people of faith of being homophobic. The need to build bridges is vital and the sight of lesbian and gay people being more at ease in the Church should be a cause for celebration. It is a sign of confidence in what the Church believes and its ability to operate in a genuinely diverse way across humanity.
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