Thursday, 2 September 2010

Boycott Mass - or wear a rainbow ribbon?

I've borrowed a photograph of a rainbow over Bristol from Mary Colwell's blog, Reflections of a Curlew. Read on to find out why.

Jennifer Sleeman, an Irish grandmother, has called on Catholic women to boycott Mass on 26th September and to stay at home and pray for change instead. (She suggests that men who are sympathetic to the cause should also join the boycott). The call is receiving widespread publicity and support from around the world. Click here for Rose Marie Berger's blog which gives links to a number of others.

I must admit, I have mixed feelings about this and I wonder what other people think. I'm deeply sympathetic but also unconvinced. Let me try to explain why.

There is a deep and growing sense of frustration among many of us - not just women (and of course, not all women), about what's happening in the Church today. The refusal to allow women any meaningful recognition or role within church institutions, the creeping authoritarianism which leaves ever smaller spaces for informed, loyal and conscientious debate, the imposition of the  new translation of the liturgy in a way which violates the most fundamental Vatican II principles of collegiality and subsidiarity, and of course the handling of the sex abuse crisis, are all symptoms of a deep malaise which needs more than policy statements, punitive actions and good intentions. It calls for the most profound process of examination of conscience, repentance and transformation at all levels of the Church's institutional and sacramental life. If the world's women boycotted Mass on 26th September that would be a form of protest which would be hard to ignore, for we continue to make up the majority of faithful Mass goers, and without the active support of lay and religious women in all walks of Catholic life (except of course the hierarchy), one wonders what would be left of the vitality and dynamism of the Church. If even a small minority of Catholics responded to Sleeman's call, that would be a most eloquent absence.

But sympathetic though I am to the proposal, I find myself concerned about the further politicisation of the Mass and its use as a means to an end. Many in the hierarchy and among conservative Catholics already try to use the Mass to defend ideological positions which have little to do with the dynamic and mystical love of Christ unfolding among us in time and space, and most particularly in the sacraments. There is a whole range of ways in which the Mass has become a way of policing Catholic life, rather than a way of celebrating the unfathomable mystery of God which reaches into all our human darkness, hunger and failure with an unconditional love, an unquenchable hope and a transforming grace. Don't we risk contributing towards this if we too begin to use the Mass as a way of imposing our own agendas on the life of the Church?

What I most love about the Church - and what feels most under threat today - is its abundant and irreducible plurality. The capacity of Catholicism to survive has always been largely thanks to its ability to accommodate  a vast spectrum of human cultures, identities and beliefs within an organic form of sacramental life which pulses through history and is as vigorous and diverse today as it ever has been. With the tunnel vision of the contemporary Church and the closing down of its creative and imaginative horizons, the sacramental roots of Catholic life risk being destroyed, at a time when Catholic diversity is flourishing as never before.

The Church is a new creation, not in the sense of being divorced from or other than what God's creation has always been, but in the sense of a renewal of our human capacity to taste and see that the Lord is good. When our human vision is renewed, everything in the cosmos is renewed by the awakening of consciousness to the grace of creation and by our ability to stand in awe before its infinite diversity. Today, I'm sitting in my London flat looking out through a swirling shimmer of sunlit leaves, and as I focus my gaze I see that the air is alive with tiny flying creatures, and a fat contented pigeon struts proudly across the grass. I know that if I sit here a little longer a squirrel will shimmy down the ivy clad tree trunk, a blackbird will come singing outside the window, and a small, mangy fox will make her daily appearance. I love Annie Dillard's paean to the eternal within the material:
It is a fault of infinity to be too small to find. It is a fault of eternity to be crowded out by time. Before our eyes we see an unbroken sheath of colors. We live over a bulk of things. We walk amid a congeries of colored things that part before our steps to reveal more colored things. Above us hurtle more things, which fill the universe. There is no crack. Unbreakable seas lie flush on their beds. Under the Greenland icecap lies not so much as a bubble. Mountains and hills, lakes, deserts, forests, and plans fully occupy their continents. Where, then, is the gap through which eternity streams? (Annie Dillard, The Book of Luke)
The Mass is like that too, isn't it? Its revelatory wonder is not in its capacity to transcend who and what we are, but in the capacity of eternity to stream through the solid density of life in all its diversity. Black, white, yellow and brown, male and female, children, teenagers, the fertile young and the fragile old and the middle-aged in-betweens, 'liberals' and 'conservatives' and the middle-of-the-road in-betweens, married, single, widowed and divorced, gay and straight, lay and religious, priests and people, healthy and sick, rich and poor - no wonder James Joyce's cryptic allusion to 'here comes everybody' is often taken to refer to the Catholic Church. This is what the Church is - a community whose human diversity and creativity is an expression of the diversity and creativity of God's world. Maybe it's no coincidence that our destruction of biodiversity is finding an echo in the destruction of the biodiversity of the Church. Pope Benedict XVI links the earth's ecology to our human ecology, but if that's true, surely we should see our diversity as a mark of strength and sustainability and not as a symptom of 'relativism' which must be stamped out at all costs?

What does all this have to do with boycotting the Mass? Well, if that boycott really works, what a depleted Church it would be on 26th September - a Church lacking in so much of its sustaining life. But it would also mean that the Mass would not be what it should be - not a means to an end, not a political act, not an ideological statement, but a human community at play before our creator and redeemer with all the intensity of children at play. Play is an end in itself. It's what happens when we shake off our commitments and agendas and anxieties and politics, simply to revel in being. And in that letting go, we discover again the creative love which in every milli-second renews and sustains the creation of which we are a part.

Of course, for many of us the Mass isn't like that most of the time, which is why I'm sympathetic to the boycott. The use of exclusive language, the failure of imagination which makes so many homilies as tedious as they are insipid, the feeling of always being on the margins, sometimes being tolerated but never really being welcomed and wanted, is common to many, many Catholics who still try, week after week, to keep faith. This is more than simply the apathy and indifference which makes us all (or me at least) rather half-hearted in our participation sometimes. It's a dreary dampening down of something vital, week after week, year after year, which depletes the quiet passion of mystery and wonder which has through the centuries made the Mass a source of inspiration for some of the greatest art, architecture, poetry and music ever produced.That's why I hesitate to participate in yet a further narrowing down of its expressive possibilities, and I ask if we might find a way to participate differently, rather than to exclude ourselves voluntarily?

So, I have a suggestion. If you're sympathetic to the causes which the boycott wants to promote, but don't want to boycott Mass as a way of expressing that sympathy, why not pin a rainbow-coloured bunch of ribbons to your clothes that day? It would be a way of celebrating God's rainbow-coloured Church, a way of protesting against the spreading conformity and of showing to everyone around us that we're glad they are there, not because they think like us or look like us or agree with us, but because we are humans made in the image of God in whose diversity and difference all of creation is reflected and renewed, and we lament and protest the attempt to deny or close down that spacious sense of belonging by power masquerading as authority and fear masquerading as care.

Some of us long for the day when our human diversity is as present on the altar as it is among the people, and we may fear that a darkness is descending which makes that ever less likely. But let's not go gentle into that good night. Let's be the rainbow people of God, who wear a sign of hope that all shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well (Julian of Norwich).

This posting isn't intended to deter anyone who has already decided to boycott Mass. It's rather intended to suggest an alternative for those who share my reservations but want to express support for the causes which the boycott seeks to promote.


  1. Hi Tina,
    First, congrats on a well written post and thank you for this !!
    Although I wholeheartedly support the need for change in the ways of my church re ordination of women, gay rights, the silencing of any form of dissent especially priests and bishops and some theologians etc etc I do not think a boycott is a viable or effective way action. I am pretty much in agreement with all the views you have stated with clarity and clear love for our church but I do share the agonising frustration of so many of us who desire change. As for the rainbow I have never really liked it as an icon, although your description of it makes sense. However, for a lot of people I know they would immediately associate it with extreme hard core fanatical feminism and so I think the message would not get through and would be lost in stereotypical assumptions. What I wish for is a proper debate on Television with the very best speakers we could mobilise who would demolish the arcane and redundant arguments our church trots out time and time again for all the issues that need change. I am also not that impressed with some of the commentators who have been on the radio as they come across as strident females with a chip on their shoulder and of course that is exactly the image that the conservative elements want to propagate. Hope this makes some sense !!

  2. @Philomena EwingThanks for this Philomena. I didn't know the rainbow had that association - what a pity! Can we reclaim it as a sign of hope? (We could start by suggesting people read the biblical account of the flood). The term 'rainbow coloured people' comes from Nadine Gordimer's novel, July's People.

    You're right about the media, although I think the BBC tries very hard to get a balance most of the time. Not easy when there are so many different factions claiming to speak for the Church.

  3. I wouldn't boycott Mass as it would seem like cutting off my nose to spite my face, and who would notice anyway? However I like the rainbow suggestion, although this symbol is used by gay people, for instance when denoting a bar where they get together. It's frustrating not to have a large forum for debate for Catholics who want to see a different Church. Thanks for what you do, Tina.


Comments and contributions are welcome so long as they respect the rules of courtesy and respect, which is not to inhibit robust disagreement.