The controversial Catholic gay and lesbian rights group The Rainbow Sash is set for a launch in Sydney this month. Marcus O'Donnell takes a look at their philosophy and impact.
When an angry woman came up to Maureen Webster after the first Rainbow Sash action at Melbourne�s St Patrick�s Cathedral she was fuming that her Mass had been upset. �Whatever sympathy I had for gays is gone now,� she said.
�It�s not about sympathy, it�s about justice,� Webster shot back without a moment�s hesitation.
Webster, a Catholic mother of six, is not even a lesbian but was there to support her brother Michael Kelly, the man who has since become the media face of the Rainbow Sash Movement (RSM).
Kelly believes that his sister�s simple rejoinder goes to the heart of what his group is about.
�There�s a passage in the Old Testament where Yahweh says �Today I offer you life or death. Choose!� There�s a choice here between justice or oppression and there�s pain involved here in waking up to what�s really going on,� Kelly says.
The ex-seminarian turned gay activist speaks in a slow, measured manner but there is a passion in his voice that can�t be disguised.
�Our actions are saying here is the oppression � right here. Here is our call for justice � right here. Choose!�
The sash movement began in 1997 when expatriate Australian Nick Holloway decided to wear the rainbow-coloured sash as a symbol of his sexuality to Mass at London�s Westminster Cathedral. When he returned home to Melbourne he performed a similar ritual and was joined by a brave openly gay priest. On both occasions he was refused communion.
What began as an individual�s attempt to challenge his church has now become an international movement with actions planned this year for Melbourne, Sydney and five American cities.
On May 19, the church�s Pentecost Sunday (a celebration of the Holy Spirit), gay men, lesbians and their supporters will take their place in the cathedrals of these seven cities. In groups of twos and threes they will scatter themselves through the congregation and as the assembled worshippers rise to sing the opening hymn the RSM members will also rise placing the rainbow-coloured sash across their shoulders.
They will sing, pray, and act as any other Catholics might, they will listen silently to the perhaps torridly homophobic sermon of the priest or bishop. Then when the time comes to receive the bread and wine of the eucharist they will go to the altar and extend their hands reverently. If refused they will simply say to the priest or bishop �Peace be with you�.
Then they will proceed back to their seat and remain standing, sash visible.
This is the electric moment.
�We�ve seen people in the church on the day stand up with us spontaneously because they have been so shocked by what they have just seen in terms of the refusal and it has galvanised them to action,� Kelly tells me. �They realised suddenly that the oppression is genuine, that it is actual, that it does happen and here it is happening in front of their eyes. And they can�t sit down and watch it, they�ve got to stand up.�
Kelly is at pains to point out that their presence in the church is dignified, meditative and ritualised and is completely in keeping with the notion of prayerful worship. However not everyone agrees.
Daily Telegraph columnist Michael Duffy is only the latest of a long line of commentators who have suggested that the sash is unnecessarily disrespectful to other Catholics.
�Many homosexuals dislike the Catholic Church but they would naturally � and rightly � be offended if Catholic activists took to invading their events and disrupting them. Maybe they should take a moment to reflect on how similar behaviour being proposed by some of their number will be received by the public,� Duffy wrote last month.
Similar criticisms also come from some unexpected quarters.
Father Claude, a Catholic priest who has worked with the gay community, questions whether confrontation is the way to bring change in the church.
�My concern is that people who might be present, who might be sympathetic might be turned off because this is happening in a sacred space and some people might well think that is not the place to do it,� Fr Claude told the Star.
Kelly is not dismissive of this criticism but maintains that for every person who is critical, RSM receives five messages of support.
Relying again on a family member he relates a story about his 75-year-old mother who has participated in sash actions with her son.
�Another elderly woman came up to her after Mass and said to her �I want you to know that we are not all like Archbishop Pell. When I saw you refused I went up to the archbishop and said, in that case I won�t have communion either�,� recounts Kelly.
�We are about standing up for ourselves with strength and pride and dignity. If that upsets some people then so be it. If thus claiming, prayerfully and reverently, very, very symbolically but very clearly our space in the eucharist, if that upsets people then we�re prepared to live with that,� says Kelly.
�That�s a good disruption,� he adds.
For Kelly the process of change is not without contradiction or pain. He has been heartened by those in the church who have recognised that the RSM is not just about changing the church�s views on homosexuality. It is part of a broader movement for change.
�In some ways when the status quo just continues there�s a certain kind of comfort, everyone�s accommodated to it, they�re used to it. Softly, softly, slowly, slowly there�s is a waking up to how entrenched the oppression is and that is a very painful experience.�
Sydney gay business man and Aurora Foundation board member George Braybon is keen to participate in this month�s action at St Mary�s Cathedral. Together with Kelly he has been slowly rallying troops.
�I was brought up a Catholic and have always believed in the faith but have been disenchanted with the church so I thought this was a chance to get back in touch with it and also of taking a stand,� Braybon explains.
Like Kelly, Braybon is clear that the sash actions are not about a single issue. He draws attention to the church�s current sex abuse crisis
�It�s really relevant today given what�s happening in the church�[the current sex abuse crisis] underlines that the church is so, so out of date and so two faced about where they stand. So it�s become an even more important issue to highlight that church is so two faced.�
Obviously the vehemently anti gay stance of Archbishop George Pell has been a factor in the development of the sash movement. It was Pell�s fierce opposition to the RSM, while leader of Melbourne�s Catholics, that first catapulted him to national media attention.
His elevation to Sydney�s archbishopric has spurred plans for the Sash�s actions in Sydney.
But surprisingly Fr Claude reports that Pell has made few waves in the Sydney Church since his arrival.
�There was a lot of nervousness when he first came to Sydney but he hasn�t done anything. Nothing has changed.�
Kelly is unconvinced. While he concedes that Pell may currently be publicly quiet on gay issues he does not believe this is necessarily a sign that he has gone soft.
�Courage, one of the organisations that Pell promotes says in their literature that �gay activists are the shock-troops of the culture of death.� So they look on people like us as very, very dangerous - people doing the work of Satan, who have to be stopped,� Kelly asserts.
�Even if George doesn�t take us on too publicly as gay people, in the schools, in the seminaries they are trying to form a whole generation of Catholics that do not accept things that we have come to take for granted, about the goodness and the naturalness of our life. They want to promote the fact that we are defective, we are disordered, that our love making can never ever be approved�These are not people who support public protection for our rights.�
If you want to participate in the rainbow sash protest on Sunday May 19 please contact George Braybon on 0412 002 188 or 9310 29 67 or email Michael Kelly, email@example.com