The Magic Circle and the Soho masses

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The line between criticism and carping is not always clear. A story may appear to be well written, well sourced, balanced and complete to a casual reader. The same story, however, may appear naive, incomplete or wrongheaded to someone who has knowledge or opinions on the issues.

An article in Wednesday’s Guardian entitled “Gay mass services in Soho abolished by archbishop of Westminster” illustrates this problem. Taken on its own terms, this article is very good. However, to those who have been following the Soho masses controversy in the Catholic Church in England, this story prompts a “yes, but …” reaction, as it is written in the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is a unitary structure with a common doctrine.

While that may be true on paper, that is far from true in practice. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (BCEW) does not and has not shared the same views on social and moral issues as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For those unencumbered with a knowledge of English ecclesiastical intrigue, the Catholic Church may appear a monolith — it isn’t. But is it fair to critique an article in a general interest newspaper for not telling the story to the satisfaction of those in the know?

The lede to this story begins:

The Archbishop of Westminster, head of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, has ordered that special fortnightly “Soho masses” for gay and lesbian churchgoers in central London are not appropriate and are to be axed.

The services, intended to be particularly welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Catholics, had been held at Our Lady of the Assumption church in the West End for six years with the blessing of senior clergy but had attracted criticism from traditionalists.

The story then moves to analysis, noting this will be seen as a victory for “traditionalists” within the church. And the curtailment of the Soho masses comes as the church battles the coalition government over its plans to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

The article gives a clear summary of the announcement made by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, reporting “the archbishop is said to believe that the pastoral care of the lesbian and gay church community should now be uncoupled from the sacrament of Mass, and that the [gay] community should not be singled out to have ‘special’ masses.”

The Catholic Church will continue to offer “pastoral care” to gays and lesbians “on Sunday evenings at Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair.” And in an interesting twist, the church that hosted the Soho masses will be turned over to the use of the “Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the body set up by Rome to cater for those who have defected from the Church of England to the Catholic church.”

The article notes the existence of the Soho masses had angered traditionalists who saw the services as a challenge to the church’s teaching on human sexuality, and then cites extracts from the archbishop’s letter that re-iterates the church’s teaching on these issues. The story closes with quotes from two conservative Catholic critics of the Soho masses, who welcome the news.

For the Guardian, this was a remarkably neutral report — that shaded towards the conservative side. No liberal voices appeared in the story attacking the church for homophobia or insensitivity to counter the two conservative voices. The article was also framed in a neutral tone, not picking sides — reporting the facts of the archbishop’s letter without comment.

Save for the absence of a liberal response, on its face this article passed the test of sound journalism — and as the story was framed about the announcement and not the reaction, the absence of contrary voices was not fatal. It allows the Guardian to come back to the issue with a second day story.

Yet, I was struck by the absence of a paragraph or clause that reported the end of the Soho masses was an about face for the archbishop. The article notes this was a victory for traditionalists, but does not go on to say that hardly any of the hierarchy are traditionalists — and that includes Archbishop Nichols.

The always readable, and quotable, Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph and Catholic Herald coined the phrase the “Magic Circle” to describe the liberal block that controls the hierarchy of the English Catholic Church. The Magic Circle (a wonderful phrase — if Thompson is not the author, he nonetheless has given it cachet) has safely ignored directives from Rome to conform its practices to Catholic teaching. The Catholic Herald reported in February 2012 Archbishop Nichols defended the Soho masses while the Catholic World Report had a 2011 story that noted the archbishop called for critics of the Soho masses to be silenced.

Now the archbishop has silenced the Soho masses. What happened to cause this extraordinary change? Is Archbishop Nichols shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here that the Soho masses convey false teachings on Catholic moral doctrine?

And, the site of the Soho masses will now be turned over the Anglican Ordinariate — again, extraordinary. The influx of conservative Angl0-Catholics into the Ordinariate has been fought by the Magic Circle through delay, obstruction and (I believe) a degree of venality. What has happened to produce the sea change in the CBEW?

While this article gives good treatment in 750 words to the Soho masses announcement, it does not go down deep into the story and answer the question “why”. Now, is this a problem? I would expect the Catholic Herald and other specialty publications to focus on the ecclesiastical and bureaucratic infighting that led to this announcement. But should the Guardian wade into these waters? What say you GetReligion readers? Is my critique justified or am I carping — asking that the Guardian to be something that it is not.

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  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I’m actually surprised that The Guardian was capable of producing something that even looked balanced on this issue. Perhaps we should be happy with that result and not prod for anything further lest something terrible comes out.

    But I would have expected The Guardian to ask that question of “Why?” To me, it’s basic. The hierarchy are going on a particular trajectory and suddenly it’s reversed. “Why” seems to be the only reasonable question to ask.

  • Jerry

    For those unencumbered with a knowledge of English ecclesiastical intrigue, the Catholic Church may appear a monolith — it isn’t. But is it fair to critique an article in a general interest newspaper for not telling the story to the satisfaction of those in the know?

    For anyone familiar with the American scene, specifically including Rome versus the LCWR, knowing there are multiple voices and American ecclesiastical intrigue (I love that phrase), it’s clear the Catholic Church is not a monolith. And it’s clear the Pope wants to make it a monolith as far as specific doctrine and specific practices goes.

    So, to me, it’s fair to critique an analogous situation in the UK in the same way as stories about Catholics in America are reviewed.

  • FW Ken

    … it is written in the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is a unitary structure with a common doctrine.
    While that may be true on paper, that is far from true in practice.

    Sorry, Fr. Conger, but that’s a very Anglican point of view to impose on a Catholic matter. There is a common doctrine, and the presence of people who dissent from it speaks to a pastoral choice Church leadership has made at this time regarding dissent, not to whether doctrine is (as one Episcopal Church Presiding bishop might say) “pluriform”. The pope is under that doctrine as much as some heretic nun in Oklahoma. His role (in union with the College of Bishops) is to settle disputes. Now, Catholic’s scrap about a great deal, but the trick is to understand that while we may have varying liturgical preferences, some things are not up to a vote of the General Convention or Parliament. There is one Catholic doctrine on same-sex genital interaction. The Church teaches one thing on that issue, as she teaches one Faith. Some people accept it, some don’t , but continue to call themselves “Catholics”.

    As to The Guardian article, the big question for me was how large the “gay mass” congregation is: is it successful at drawing people in? Is it true that the congregation is primarily sexually active gay people? The allegation is made; I would have liked to see it confirmed or refuted. I remember when the Mass was started, the archbishop was very clear that it was not to become a focal point of dissent from Catholic doctrine. Has it been that? The article really doesn’t tell why this happening.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    There is a big difference between arguing over a doctrine and arguing over the best way to promote or defend that doctrine. Rarely does the media do a good job of presenting the difference between these situations. Most of the time in the Catholic Church the argument is over how to promote or defend a doctrine without breaking faith with that doctrine while reaching out to people who need to hear the truth about Catholic teaching. In most other mainstream churches (like the Anglican) the argument frequently devolves into battle lines being drawn with one side in favor of traditional doctrines and the other side fighting to completely do away with traditional doctrines with the church breaking into factions teaching and practicing completely different doctrines.

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  • Kerberos

    “Now the archbishop has silenced the Soho masses. ”
    ## Not silenced – transferred to another church in London, as explained in the “Statement from the Archdiocese of Westminster” here:
    http://queeringthechurch.com/2013/01/02/westminster-diocese-expanding-pastoral-care-for-lgbt-catholics/
    See also:
    http://queeringthechurch.com/2013/01/02/r-i-p-soho-masses-long-live-soho-masses/
    & the
    “Response to Archbishop Vincent Nichol’s invitation to the Soho Masses to move to the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Farm Street, London W1K 3AH”, here:
    http://queeringthechurch.com/2013/01/03/soho-masses-statement-by-the-pastoral-council/
    There is a change of church – but no silencing. The Masses will continue elsewhere, while the Soho church is now set aside for the Ordinariate.

  • Bain Wellington

    “The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (BCEW) does not and has not shared the same views on social and moral issues as Pope’s (sic) John Paul II and Benedict XVI.”

    Prove it, George! Facts, facts! Examples! Instances! No sloppy slurs, please.

    The CBCEW (not BCEW, btw) comparatively rarely issues teaching documents (the only way in which one can sensible attribute a “view” to that body), but there have been at least two bearing on “social and moral issues” in recent decades. From 1996 there is the 41 page document “The Common Good And The Catholic Church’s Social Teaching” focussing on the civic and social responsibility of individuals, and from 2004 there is the 52 page document “Cherishing Life” which was intended to “complement ‘The Common Good’, and to underline our concern to place the gift of life at the heart of all moral reflection and action.” (“Cherishing Life”, p.5).

    [editor's note: extensive quotes from the document cited above removed.]

    To help him in this task, I can put his mind at rest on some hot button issues covered in “Cherishing Life” which most certainly do conform to the papal magisterium :- consequentialism and relativism (paras 32f.); the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death (paras.55-64); homosexual activity (para. 111); extra-marital sex (para.113); same sex marriage (para. 114); marital sex, responsible parenthood, and artificial contraception (paras 118-126); in vitro fertilisation and cloning (paras 128-130); divorce (paras 133-136). That should narrow down the field.

    • geoconger

      Please keep comments focused on journalistic questions.

  • Bain Wellington

    According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (article, “Magic Circle”), the phrase “magic circle” was first applied in a political context by Iain Macleod (a prominent Tory politician of the 1950s and 1960s) with reference to the method formerly employed for selecting leaders of the Tory party before the election of Edward Heath as leader. Its use dates from an article in The Spectator on 17 January 1964 relative to the tory leadership contest of October 1963. See a tribute, 40 years on, in The Spectator of 17 January 2004:- http://www.spectator.co.uk/features/11616/the-end-of-the-etonians/

    It no longer illuminates (if it ever did) the process by which bishops are appointed to sees in England and Wales.

  • Julia

    1) “The Archbishop of Westminster, head of Roman Catholics in England and Wales”
    Archbishop Nichols is not the head of Roman Catholics in England and Wales. The Catholic Chuch does not have national churches. He is head of the Bishops Conference, but that doesn’t put him in charge of all Catholics in England and Wales any more than New York Cardinal Timonthy Dolan is in charge of all Catholics in the U.S. Nichols is exercising his authority within his diocese OR as head of the Bishops Conference to which he was elected.

    2) ” will be seen as a victory for “traditionalists” within the church”
    In Catholic parlance, “traditionalists” (also known as “traddies”) are those who despise the new Mass and insist on the 1962 pre-Vatican II Mass. Those who uphold the teachings of the church are better described as orthodox or conservative or faithful, not Traditionalists who are fighting different battles than the ones who oppose gay Masses.

    3) ” The influx of conservative Angl0-Catholics into the Ordinariate has been fought by the Magic Circle through delay, obstruction and (I believe) a degree of venality.”
    George: you have missed the irony in this situation. The archbishop is turning over the church to a different group of people who will be isolated from the rest of the church. The situation is somewhat different in England than in the US. Many English Catholics feel that the new-comers want their own church so they don’t have to mingle with the Irish, Polish and Filipinos who make up a very large part of Catholics in England. There aren’t many English Catholics still remaining from the bad old days when it was illegal to be Catholic and they don’t have separate parishes from the Irish and immigrants to my knowledge. So having to set up separate churches for converting English Anglicans can be taken as an affront by some English and Irish Catholics who have long been disdained in their homeland.
    Methinks that the Archbishop’s switch of who gets to have Masses separate from the rest of the Church MAY have a message in it.

    • geoconger

      Julia, I may not have expressed myself clearly on your third point, but I was seeking to point out the irony of the Ordinariate services replacing the Soho masses at the church in question. Yes, I agree with you that this particular church will see a change from liberal to conservative.

  • Julia

    Additional point on – why this may be happening. Archbishop Nichols has been passed up for a Cardinal’s hat for every consistery since his appointment in 2009. That’s only 3-4 years, but it is traditional to elevate the Archbishop of Westminster and the lack of a red hat has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere. The gay Masses were started by his predecessor and it had been expected that he would put an end to them upon taking office and he didn’t. He was considered the most conservative of the names put forward for Westminister.

    And here is a link to a comment on Thompson’s blog that gives more information about the pastoral provisions which will increase, not decrease. Sorry, I don’t know how to do the tinurl thing.

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/damianthompson/100196337/gay-masses-in-soho-abolished-by-archbishop-nichols-church-where-they-were-held-to-go-to-the-ordinariate/#comment-754555524

  • Julia

    “Yes, I agree with you that this particular church will see a change from liberal to conservative.”
    My point was that this particular church will see a change from one isolated group separate from the run-of-the-mill Catholics to another isolated group with its own services separate from the hoi poloi.
    The LGBT community will now have to go to a regular parish Mass, unlike the Anglican converts .

  • http://queeringthechurch.com Terence Weldon

    Opponents of these Masses should be careful what they wish for.

    Seven years ago, our opponents were actively campaigning against what they thought of as the “sacrilege” of gay Catholics openly celebrating Mass in an Anglican church. Pleading with the Cardinal to have these ended, they got their wish. Soon after, our congregation was moved out of the Anglican church, and into an Anglican one. Our congregation grew and flourished, and the opposition stepped up their campaign and hostility.

    Again, they have campaigned vigorously for a stop to these Masses in Soho. They have got their wish. These Masses are being moved to Farm Street, where I confidently expect they will continue to grow and flourish.
    From my own response to Brown’s article, pointing out some grievous factual errors, at http://queeringthechurch.com/2013/01/06/the-vatican-mess-over-gay-mass/

    • broadhurst

      You should be ashamed of encouraging sexual perversion.


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