Homily text: Mgr Keith Barltrop at Funeral Mass for Brian Armstrong


Mgr Keith Barltrop gave the following homily at the Funeral Mass of Brian Armstrong on 16 February at Farm Street Church.

On 30 April 1999 a young neo-Nazi, who it turned out had already carried out two race hate crimes in London, and who is now safely under lock and key in Broadmoor until at least 2049, planted a nail bomb in the Admiral Duncan pub not far away from here in Soho, killing three people and wounding 70 others. It was one of those defining events which in many ways changed the relationship between the gay community and wider society, and one of whose effects was the setting up of a support group for LGBT Catholics, which, after various twists and turns, finds itself warmly hosted here at Farm Street parish.

It's no exaggeration to say that Brian Armstrong, whose funeral Mass we celebrate today, was at the very heart of that group for much of its life.

In one of the Bibles I have at home the passage from Romans which was our second reading today is headed up, "The Marks of a True Christian," and it would be hard to think of a better phrase to sum up Brian. Every phrase of that reading, not just the obvious one about hospitality, could be said of him: love that is genuine, showing honour to others, being ardent in spirit to serve the Lord, contributing to the needs of the saints: a term St. Paul frequently uses to describe the Christian community, all of whom are called to be saints even if we haven't quite got there yet.

No-one would claim that the LGBT group which meets here at Farm Street is made up of saints in the conventional sense of the word. Its members bear the scars that are all too often inflicted on gay and transgender people, sometimes sadly by a Church which has only just begun to learn how to understand them and minister to them, but also by a world which, while now granting them legal freedom and social acceptance, is woefully unable to offer them the resources needed for a true sense of self-worth and joyful meaning in who they are.

Brian had his share of those weaknesses and scars, and it is a great comfort to know that he is now in the loving presence of one whose own hands, feet and side still bear the mark of the scars we inflicted on him, but scars that are glorified. It is a great comfort also to reflect on the tremendous outpouring of love and concern that his illness and death brought about in so many members of this group who went to visit him or sent messages of prayerful support to him and his partner Philip. Just as it was a tragic death that brought this group into being in 1999, so Brian's untimely death has greatly strengthened it and given a great example to all who care to see of what a true Christian community, warts and all, can look like.

Less than two months after the Admiral Duncan tragedy, another death occurred in London, that of Cardinal Basil Hume, who had done so much to help LGBT people feel welcome in the Church and to move forward the way the Church speaks about them. As he lay dying, he was asked what he thought awaited him the other side of death, what the judgment of God would be like. He replied: 'I believe I shall whisper into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell.'

When someone comes to die, whether they are famous like Cardinal Hume, or just an ordinary saint like Brian Armstrong, there are many things we could say about them. But there are some things even those closest to them did not quite grasp, and which they did not perhaps understand themselves. It is not just that God understands all these things, but that he sees us in a completely different light to the way we see each other and ourselves; in fact Scripture tells us he will give each of us a new name. Until we learn Brian's new name in heaven, we remain profoundly grateful to God for lending him to us for a few years, and teaching us so much about the marks of a true Christian.


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