Quest Conference 2012: Some Thoughts

Last weekend, I attended my first conference, where I was privileged to deliver one of the two addresses. During the course of the weekend, several people asked me for my thoughts on my first experience of conference. Although I am a member, and have been a supporter for some years, this was the first year that I was able to attend. In addition, my awkward geographic location, with a foot in both London and Brighton regions, but distant from both, means that I have not been able to get involved in local activities as much as I would have liked. The result is that during discussion on Quest itself and the decisions it faces, I felt something of an outsider. It is in that spirit that I offer here those thoughts – as a dispassionate, (relatively) outside observer, coloured by the insights I gained from researching, writing and delivering my presentation – “Blessed Are the Queer in Faith – for They Shall Inherit the Earth”.

Belsey Bridge Conference Centre
Presentation

I thoroughly enjoyed preparing and delivering my presentation, and would like to thank all those who were there for the warm and appreciative response. A number of people asked whether the content, or the slides, or book details, could be made available in some way. The answer is most certainly, “Yes”. The only real question, is in just what form. I do not yet have a formal text version of the talk I delivered, but am currently preparing one. When it is ready, I will most certainly publish both the slides and text in some form on my blog and here on the Quest website (possibly condensed), and also in complete form elsewhere. I’m still working out the details and best procedure – but it will happen, over the next week or so.

Personal

I would also like to thank all those who took the trouble to introduce themselves, and tell me how much they enjoy my blog, “Queering the Church”. Blogging is a lonely undertaking, so I always value hearing directly from readers, and even more, the chance to see some faces. Towards the end of the weekend, Ihar asked if I would be willing to write for the website. Never one to turn down an opportunity for self-promotion, of course I accepted – which is how you come to be reading this, now.

Prior to the conference, I had been going through a difficult couple of months, reassessing and attempting to find some new direction in the things I am doing. I found that getting away for a few days, the formal conference proceedings, and the extensive personal discussions with so many of you, gave me just the lift I needed. I have come home substantially revitalized, energized, and with a much clearer sense of direction and priorities than I had last week. Thanks to all who contributed – and that means everyone who was there. Whether you spoke to me or not, you contributed just by your presence.

Support and Welcome

This energizing process that I experienced, of course, is precisely what organizations like Quest, and particularly its conferences and other meetings, are designed to achieve. During the brainstorming on “What IS Quest” at the start of the workshop session, it was notable that many of the single words offered to describe Quest were variations on the theme of support and welcome – clearly the most important positive attribute we have. Another phrase I often heard in later discussions was “safe space”, and that is undoubtedly true.  Although I was a newcomer to conference, I had previously met a number of you, either at Soho Masses, or at the Calpe men’s retreat last year – but most of you were strangers to me. Yet, I was completely comfortable speaking frankly and openly about many aspects of my life that I would have hesitated to disclose elsewhere. I know that applies equally to many others – probably to all of you. The welcome and support are obviously crucial to the value of Quest, and must not be undermined.

However, as the workshop clearly illustrated, there are also challenges. Another cluster of words that appeared prominently, but with negative connotations, were those that saw us as a primarily WMM (White, middle – class, male) and aging group – with numbers steadily declining. There are many reasons for this, but I suggest that part of it is that precisely as a result of earlier success (our own, together with other LGBT support and activist organizations), younger people have less need for quite the same degree or kind of support. This was confirmed at a discussion at the Soho Masses one evening, after a talk by James Alison. Several of our younger members stressed that they simply don’t feel the same anxieties over being gay and Catholic that older people had been talking about. Instead, their interests were more traditionally Catholic – how to develop their spiritual lives, and how to go out into the world, and evangelize, or engage in charitable work?

This raises in my mind the question, if “support” is important – what is that support for? If it is purely personal, to help us to reconcile faith and sexuality in our own lives, then that is limited. The need in the broader population is clearly less than it was. As I tried to show in my presentation, the remarkable changes over the past 60 years now make it much, much easier to be gay in church than it once was.

However, there is still a long way to go, much remains to be done. My hope is that the support we find in Quest, and at Soho Masses, and elsewhere, will increasingly be directed to provide us with the strength to go out into the broader church, helping to find straight allies. For some of us, this will mean no more than simple regular attendance and participation in parish life, for some it may involve coming out openly in church, engaging actively with priests and bishops, or by other means.  Those are personal decisions – but I hope that somehow, that outward directedness will develop.

Committee v. members

There is an important distinction to be drawn between Quest as a committee, and Quest as a body of members. In any organization, there is a tendency for people to leave all the work to the committee – but there is an immense amount that can be done by members. As Peter correctly pointed out from the floor, in an internet age, we could and should have a much stronger on-line presence, with discussion forums, Facebook posts and tweets. For example, he asked, “Why is there not a Quest hashtag?” It’s a good point – but in fact there now is. Yesterday, I tweeted

“Great weekend at #Quest annual conference for #gaycatholics#lesbians. More later, at http://queeringthechurch.com.”

The point is, there’s no need at all to wait for these things to be created – the net is intensely democratic, and anybody can do it.

I don’t in fact often use my account directly, but I do ensure that every post I place at Queering the Church is tweeted. If we created a Twitter account (not just a hash tag), this Quest website could be set up to do the same thing.

We also already have provision for a discussion forum – right  here. Every post that is placed has provision for comments. If we as members were just more proactive in placing those responses, we could have a series of discussion threads right here – and if anybody wanted to place some thoughts on a fresh topic not already on – site, it would be a simple matter for Ihar to find a way to publish it.

The same thing applies to Facebook, Google+ and the rest: if we belong to social networks, and are no longer closeted – write about the fact that you have just attended a Quest conference (or meeting, or worship, or anything else) – or post links to useful articles on the website. There’s absolutely nothing that says we should wait for the committee to do everything.

There are many other ways in which each of us, no matter what our starting point, could take either our first steps, or our next steps, in  directing outwards the strength and support we gain from Quest, by helping to expand ministry to LGBT Catholics. To reflect on how you personally might want or be able to do so, please consider joining the one-day “Next Steps” workshop which will be arranged in London next January (and, I hope, in other cities later).

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