When Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of the Roman Catholic Church in Durban denounced same-sex relationships in last week's Mail & Guardian, he was possibly unaware of the gay-friendly Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
Napier said: "As far as the church is concerned sexual activity is for within the confines of marriage: for procreation and the building up of the relationship between the couple. You can't practice in the Catholic Church if you aren't married and are sexually active."
Not only is the Braamfontein church on the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand gay-friendly, it advertises the fact on its website under the headline "ALL are welcome here".
It goes into detail about its ministry to gay and lesbian Christians. "The church is not against homosexuals," said Father Russell Pollitt, the head parish priest, this week. "Through baptism gay people have the right to participate fully in the life of the church. I know many homosexuals who are valuable and active members of the church."
Although Cardinal Napier's recent remarks suggest that religion and homosexuality are not considered easy bedfellows, at Holy Trinity the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) members are an integral part of the congregation.
The church is administered by the Jesuits and is visited daily by people of all classes. Students run a soup kitchen from the parking lot every lunchtime for the impoverished who, together with working professionals seeking solace during their lunch break, enter what is arguably one of the prettiest small churches in Johannesburg. It was built in the 1930s and boasts stained glass windows and a magnificent arched ceiling with an intricate lattice pattern.
A steel turnstile in the fence allows everyone in without censorship or security checks, an unusual sight for inner-city Johannesburg. There is no fear of crime, says Father Russell. "We must have had something like three petty incidents in the seven years I've been here," he said.
Five years ago, Pollitt was approached by a group of people wanting to start an LGBTI support group. The group now meets fortnightly and is about 25 people strong. Many are migrants and refugees living in South Africa. The group's co-ordinator, Dumisani Dube, said he and many others no longer feel unworthy of Catholicism. "I used to feel like it was not right being a homosexual and a Christian. Now I can pray to God and know I am his child whether I am gay or not."
Members of the group share psychological and emotional support.
"[There are] people from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Holland who have come to South Africa because of the progressive Constitution," Dube said. "Some of them haven't come out to their families and when they go home they hide that they are gay. Some have been through violence and abuse and don't go home at all. That is why the group is the family that they need and the church is the pillar."
The group initially faced some hostility from the congregants, but after anti-homophobic messages from the pulpit and the creation of platforms for debate and dialogue, the LGBTI congregants gradually came to be seen as nothing out of the ordinary.
"When I first started in 2009 I received a few calls from people, because my name was on the poster, asking 'What is wrong with you, what are you doing?' but I don't get any of that anymore," said Dube. "The LGBTI group led the Stations of the Cross during Easter and the congregation didn't care," he said.
For Pollitt, the LGBTI support group is just one arm of the church's mission to reach out spiritually to those who feel socially marginalised. "For example, we minister to women who have been through abortions and are struggling to come to terms with that," he said.
But being gay does not fit easily within the broader theology of the Catholic Church. Officially, gay congregants and priests are not to be turned away, says the Archbishop of Pretoria, William Slattery. "We don't define people as homosexuals as such; people are much more than that. Homosexuality is for us something that goes back to the beginning of time and any discrimination must be avoided."
But sex in a homosexual relationship is discouraged. "The issue for the church is when a sexual act takes place outside of marriage and marriage is clearly defined as between a man and a woman," said Pollitt.
But the church is bound to support those who want to worship. "We have people lie and commit fraud, but they still come to the church," said Slattery.
Some find this perplexing. "When you talk to the church, you don't know what they want," said Reverend Paul Mokgethi-Heath, pastor of the Hope and Unity branch of the Metropolitan Community Church in Johannesburg. "When you debate they say: 'We don't hate homosexuals. God says it is an open table, but we don't like the sex part'." The Hope and Unity congregation has a 400-strong LGBTI contingent.
The Christian church in South Africa, no matter the denomination, is not considered wholly embracing of homosexuality. "When it comes to homophobia in South Africa and Africa, the two biggest narratives is that it is un-African and un-Christian," said Gabriel Kahn, youth and education co-ordinator of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action society. "[But] that is changing and you find variations in different churches."
In 2002, Bishop Reginald Cawcutt, who ran a gay support group in Cape Town during the 1990s, was asked by the Vatican to resign. "I think it was because of the fact that I was outspoken about homosexual issues – I was never given any reason for it and the Vatican said I should step down."
But he thinks attitudes are changing."It's like apartheid," he said. "The official stance has changed, but it will take a while for things to change on the ground."