STRUGGLE as I might, I cannot but feel that the winter months are dull and at worst downright depressing. I can quite believe that sunshine or the lack of it is crucially important to our general well-being. In rural areas people seem to be much better at adjusting to the rhythm of the days and the seasons, while in the cities we are out of touch with winter's natural call to 'hibernation.
In remotest Donegal, which I have loved for many years and have visited in every month of the year, people seem distinctly more introverted during the shortest days of the year. The pubs are quiet with huddles of men playing cards, and people go to bed much earlier and rise later.
But the life of the Church seems to go just as quickly whatever the time of the year. As an institution we seem to be subject to just the sort of cultural pressures that Michael Ignatieff has been commenting on so perceptively in his TV series and his Independent article on the three-minute culture.
He argues that market pressures to see, to buy, and to make money mean that the wealthy (who used to be referred to as the "leisure" class) are now rushing from breakfast meeting to business dinner. It is the poor who have time on their hands — but no money to speed its passing.
And even if the institutional Church is not driven by an obsession with the bottom line, we seem to be subject to the same cultural pressures. With expanding opportunities for lay ministry, both professional and volunteer, burnout and workaholism seem to affect clergy and lay people alike. We race from meeting to meeting — ironically, even more so during Lent -and task seems to pile upon task. It would be nice to think that the Church might model a more reflective, not to say prayerful, approach to life.
But I fear the Filofax mentality has overtaken us all.
I TOOK my Filofax to Heythrop last week for a meeting of the ad hoc women's group. It was, coincidentally, almost two years to the day since the first meeting of this group was held. I find these meetings exceptionally helpful, stimulating and fun. They enable women involved in a wide variety of areas of church work to come together a couple of times a year for mutual support and sharing of news. At another level, the group has been extraordinarily effective as a means of getting the profile raised on women's issues in general.
At this last meeting, lanthe Pratt was able quite rightly to proudly present the discussion pack on "Women, Language and the Church". This resource material on sexist language has attracted orders from all over the English-speaking world and will be reprinted soon. The pack was produced by the Association for Inclusive Language following the first ad hoc meeting.
It is a well known fact that the number of practising Catholic women in this country stands at something over one million. The vast majority of them do not belong to the traditional Catholic women's organisations. But it is of continuing concern to us to find means by which the concerns of women might be voiced and represented in the institutional Church — and, indeed, to see how the Church might play a useful role in supporting women's issues in society at large. It now seems likely that the anticipated restructuring of the National Board of Catholic Women will indeed improve its ability to reflect and respond to the concerns of most Catholic women.
THE Heythrop ad hoc group has always been firmly task-oriented and one meeting has only led to another because there has been a job to do. Another concern of ours, following a meeting with some Anglican women, was to lobby for a women's desk on the new ecumenical instrument that will include the Roman Catholic Church, and which will emerge phoenix like from the ashes of the BCC. Since 1973, W1CC (the Women's Interchurch Consultative Committee) has been asking for a women's unit within the BCC.
The story of that dialogue is now referred to as the "saga of the women's desk". And frustration over the issue looks set to continue. Lo and behold, the recent report on the structure of the proposed ecumenical instrument, the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland, calls for yet "further discussion" on the representation of women and young people in the new organisation.
The report does, however, in its very final paragraphs, recognise that women are poorly represented at meetings and conferences and that a budget and staff person should be allocated to serve their needs. It has been commonplace, during the history of the women's movement, for men to exclaim with exasperation and some humour: "But what do women want?!".
The recent document on the role of the laity stresses the validity of the call for justice for women, and it lays responsibility for the advancement of women's concerns firmly on the shoulders of women ourselves. Quite right
too — but what women want is not to be invisible at any level of decision and policy-making. We want dialogue and representation so that we can indeed take
responsibility for our own advancement.
ANOTHER issue which emerged and seems to require action is the need for some sort of association for lay people — most of whom are women, it seems — who are working in professional salaried positions for the institutional church, whether at parish or diocesan level. Salaries are low, while the levels of commitment and burnout are high. While the clergy are increasingly discovering the value of their own support networks like Ministry to Priests, there seems to be a need for similar support among lay people.
Earlier in January, I was happy to have the chance to do some of that reflecting I hanker for when I attended a meeting in Crewe on "The Future of Parish Life".
There was a remarkable degree of consensus among those present, I thought, that the future of the local church depends on the building of a
vision of the parish as a
community of communities, involving small groups centered on the word of God, a stress on mission as we approach the decade for evangelisation, and a better formed laity who can work in partnership with the clergy.
My own feeling is that all of this is very well, but will get us nowhere unless and until the Church begins to take contemporary culture very seriously, valuing and affirming it where it can. We cannot be a Holy Huddle, braced against the evils of the outside world. This thought has been returning to me ever since I went to the David Hockney exhibition at the Tate not long before Christmas.
One of his paintings shows an apartment sort of opened out three-dimensionally like a doll's house. In the bedroom he has painted a television set from different angles, so that you see it differently depending on which direction you would be coming from through the apartment (actually all the furniture is painted this way, but it was the TV set which struck me particularly). It has just seemed to me, again and again, that we as a Church must take the world represented by the television set, or indeed, the culture that concerns Michael Ingnatieff, very seriously — or we cannot expect it to take us seriously.
Eels and chips
SO my month has been full of this balance between reflection and action, plus all the very ordinary things involved with being a working mother. My son started primary school at St Anselm's Tooting Bee this term. I was totally choked and cried all day.
This reaction took me completely by surprise, since I have worked fulltime since he was 18 months old and he is not exactly attached to the apron strings. The traumas of the first day have been replaced by a sort of permanent bemusement as we try to extract information from him about what actually happens.
The answers to questions are greeted by such weird and wonderful replies that only increase the confusion.
Do you do reading and writing? "Oh no," comes the confident reply, "I watch television. The teacher asks us whether we would like to leans, play or watch TV, so I watch TV."
What did you have for lunch today? "Eels. We had to catch them, cut their heads off, and then we ate them with chips and corn and peas." Great, I've always been in favour of a balanced diet.
The writer is responsible for adult religious formation in Southwark archdiocese