The book I wish I had written – Queer and Catholic: A Life Of Contradiction by Mark Dowd

The cover of Queer & Catholic by Mark Dowd showing Mark in hos family's garden dressed smartly for his First Holy CommunionTHIS BLOG began as I turned 42 in 2012, as:

an attempt to be heard, not just for myself, but for other lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians who struggle with their sexual orientation in faith communities that judge them, at best, to be defective heterosexuals, rather than recognising and valuing the gifts and insights that embracing their diversity can bring.[1]

Six years on, this is still my aim, though my original vision – to turn this story into a book – stalled when my story began to unfold in unexpected ways. This reflection is on that journey, and how Mark Dowd’s new autobiography, Queer and Catholic, has inspired me to recommit to it.

I began to find my voice and share my story in 2009 when an author friend approached me to talk about ‘coming out’ – she wanted to get an understanding of this extraordinary process of identity-claiming, to see what it might reveal to those people of faith who struggle to accept diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities.[2]

I contributed to the resulting book by Barbara GlassonThe Exuberant Church: Listening to the Prophetic People of God, but did not stop writing when I submitted my contribution. I started in Spring 2009, and was amazed by the energy I found to write it, managing around 2000 words each time over several writing sessions. Some 17,000 words later, and with preliminary affirmation from Barbara, my partner, and a few well-chosen others, I realised I might have something of substance that others might benefit from reading.

I knew the direction the next part of the story would take, and I thought I knew where it would end – with integrating my sexuality and my spirituality and remaining within the Roman Catholic Church, which had been my spiritual and cultural home since birth. But that is not how it has turned out.[3]

For a while I lost momentum – without a clear purpose, writing my story seemed nothing more than self-indulgence, of no interest to anyone. I now believe this disillusionment was a new phase, taking me to a more authentic place than I could have foreseen. But before I could begin writing again, this new phase took me away from church.

Barbara uses a metaphor in her book for the coming out process, which also conveys the risk, for many of us, of disconnection from our communities:

The coming-out process is a passionate process. It has pent-up energy associated with it, which is released in a sudden or surprising way… The best way I can describe this transformative energy is through the image of a jack-in-the-box, a children’s toy where a clown attached to the end of a spring is pushed down into a solid box. When the lid has sprung open the jack-in-the box, which has been squashed into the dark interior, bursts out and begins dancing frantically on the end of its long spring. It is not hard to see why, in the experience of coming out, when the lid is taken off the box, the people who emerge can become detached and either fall out of or fall out with the place from which they have sprung. Coming-out people, it would appear, are often exodus people.
– Glasson 2011 p.23

Writing my story appears to have had this kind of transformative effect on me: the passion and energy I found to write it, the emotional release of creative expression, the freedom to put my name to parts of the story I shared in Barbara’s book. But in doing so, the story changed course from what I imagined to something radically different.

It began while I was on a silent retreat a year later. I awoke in the early hours of the morning, not through fretful dreams, but because I felt excited and inspired. I had never before heard so many words in silence. One phrase stood out, and spoke to me of what I felt God was asking me to do with my experience: ‘Put a brave faith on.’ So I did!

You will no doubt be familiar with the expression, and perhaps the experience, of ‘putting a brave face on’. I know I was, so much so that for a while the wind changed and it stuck! I was masking fear and distress, or trying to, not being real and honest about those feelings and letting God in.

I felt a deep desire to look at my story again, to have the courage to go deeper, and the humility to recognise God’s presence throughout it. After all, it is not only my journey to openness as a gay man. It is also my faith story; how I became a Catholic by birth, and a believing Christian by the power of God to weave into my story an experience of unconditional love and forgiveness, in spite of my fear of rejection and my belief that I could never be ‘good enough’.

So now you know the origin of the name of my blog and, perhaps, of the book this story may become.

I revised what I had written and reached a deeper sense of purpose and peace. But as the post- retreat glow faded, I remained stuck around the point at which I began to live more openly as a gay man, as if I hadn’t fully integrated that part of the journey, so seemed to lack the passion to commit it to paper as with the earlier text.

Since then life acquired greater momentum, as new chapters unfolded – my ‘springing’ from the Roman Catholic Church in 2011, celebrating the first civil partnership to be registered in a place of worship in the UK in 2012, and apparently losing my new-found vocation as my roles with two young people’s charities came to an abrupt end in 2015. Then in 2015 the Open Table ecumenical worship community for LGBT+ Christians began to multiply and needed a development worker, and my previous experience, as a youth worker and support worker in rehabilitation and homelessness services, led me to become a chaplain with YMCA Liverpool in 2016.

In the busyness of all that change I have found much less time for writing, and reading too. But when I was invited to the launch of Mark Dowd’s autobiography Queer and Catholic: A Life Of Contradiction, I knew it would be worth the trip to Manchester to be there.

Mark Dowd reading extracts of his autobiography at its Manchester launch, October 2017

I first met Mark when he was the Chair of Quest, a UK-based national charity which provides pastoral support for LGBT+ Catholics. It was around ten years ago, at Quest’s annual conference – I was on the committee of the local Quest group and would go on to lead it for three years until 2011. Mark stepped down as Chair of Quest soon after I met him, to concentrate on his media career. He encouraged me to consider taking on a larger role in Quest, but this wasn’t to be, as my springing from the Catholic Church meant I didn’t feel I could authentically lead a group for LGBT+ Catholics.

But this wasn’t my first experience of Mark and his gift for story-telling. About three years after I left the seminary where I was training to be a Roman Catholic priest, Mark made a documentary for Channel 4 called Queer And Catholic, on homosexuality in Catholic Church. Some of it was filmed at the seminary where I had studied. I watched in awe and wonder as Mark sought to answer this question he outlines in his autobiography of the same name:

How can you use the antiquated language of ‘disorder’ about a perfectly naturally occurring minority phenomenon such as same-sex attraction when you rely on such people to represent Jesus in the daily acts of administering the Sacraments? – Dowd 2017 p.143

I was particularly struck by the dissonance between two of the documentary’s closing scenes. The first showed the wedding vows of two men, both committed Catholics who met while volunteering at a church-run soup kitchen and were celebrating their relationship in the Metropolitan Community Church, since such services are not permitted in the Roman Catholic Church. The second was Mark’s interview with Peter Smith, then Bishop of East Anglia, now Archbishop of Southwark, who had been the Rector of the seminary where I studied and was revered by students in particular for the quality of his pastoral care. Mark asked Peter Smith what the Catholic Church made of the commitment between these two men. Peter Smith replied:

One of the terrible consequences of original sin is that we can often delude ourselves and go in the wrong direction. Those two men, however sincere their intentions, basically objectively, according to Church teaching, will probably not achieve what they think they will. – Dowd 2017 p.154

In his autobiography, Mark records how the couple’s lives have unfolded 16 years on (one is working as a chaplain for a charity supporting vulnerable children) and wonders if Peter Smith might now want to revise his comments. As one of the most senior Roman Catholic clergy in England, I doubt that he would, at least publicly.

Another experience of Mark’s story-telling came when I was at the Quest conference in 2016 – though no longer an active member, I have kept in touch as they have excellent speakers. Mark gave the after-dinner speech, in which he told the story he retells in his autobiography in the chapter called When my father helped me bury my father. No spoilers here, but if that title doesn’t whet your appetite enough, a version of this story was also broadcast on the USA’s National Public Radio in 2014 – you can hear it below under the title Four Welders and a Funeral [17 mins 29 seconds]or read the transcript here.

One of the shelf classifications at the Portico Library, Manchester, where Mark Dowd’s book was launched – but does his autobiography fit that category?

The Manchester launch of Mark Dowd’s autobiography Queer and Catholic: A Life Of Contradiction was held at the impressive Georgian Portico Library, opened in the early 19th Century and still retaining many of its original period features. I was particularly struck by the gold painted lettering on the dark wooden shelves classifying the books they contained. One such heading, high up on the shelves below the imposing library clock, reads ‘Polite Literature’. I tweeted at the time that I’m not sure Mark Dowd’s book counts as ‘Polite Literature’! Mark is an accomplished storyteller who doesn’t shy away from intimate details of his struggle to reconcile his sexuality and spirituality. He writes passionately about his sense of identity as a gay man from the north of England, and his sense of calling as a Catholic Christian and a journalist.

His story is particularly poignant in its portrayal of his relationships with his parents, and his older brother who died by suicide. To challenge the stigma around mental distress, Mark shared part of this story in a recent BBC World Service documentary called After Suicide.

Unlike Mark, I have not remained within the Roman Catholic tradition – he began training to be a Dominican friar in Oxford before falling in love with a former friar, which took him out of religious life but not out of the Catholic Church. In the last of the book’s ten entertaining and challenging chapters, called Saved by a Saint, Mark recalls a visit to Argentina to record a feature on the newly elected Pope Francis, during which witnessing the ministry of an inspirational priest led him to grieve for the loss of his priestly vocation. This ‘gift of tears’ led him to a new and deeper call to use his gift for communication to revive a remote radio station in El Salvador, whose people still live in the shadow of civil war and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (now recognised as a saint by the Vatican). Mark’s vocation is to be a modern missionary, perhaps even a prophetic if not a priestly one.

Like Mark, I have tested a religious vocation and worked in the media (though not with the same degree of accomplishment), so much of what he has written resonates deeply with me. Though I don’t know that I’d be so bold in telling my story, reading his has given me the confidence to look afresh at mine in the hope of inspiring others as Mark has done.

Queer and Catholic: A Life Of Contradiction by Mark Dowd (DLT 2017)
Price: £14.99 Hardback 224 pages ISBN 978 0 232 53309 5

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