Report by Luke Coppen TiE NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF PRIESTS adopted seven proposals on issues ranging from prisons to pensions at its annual conference in Birmingham last week. The theme of the five-day conference, held at Newman College, was "God's Word — spoken and heard". There were fewer delegates than before, with twelve dioceses unable to send the full compliment of four priests. The NCP's annual statement of accounts showed a loss of over £2,000. Treasurer Fr Bill Boxhall said that the NCP had not received an increase in funds for five years and would be applying to the bishops for a raise in January.
THE NCP endorsed a motion calling on the Vatican to allow priests to make use of rite of general absolution.
The motion urged "the Roman authorities to trust parish priests to make appropriate use" of the rite, which was introduced after the Second Vatican Council, but later withdrawn from general usage. It is now used only in narrowly defined situations, such as the mission field or among seafarers. Almost 90 per cent of delegates voted in favour of the motion, which also called on priests to "make the fullest use of individual confession" in the Jubilee Year.
The motion was proposed by Fr Ross Patterson, a priest of Menevia diocese, who argued that the rite of general absolution was of "immense benefit to people where it is still used".
He said: "We think that whenever parishes want to use it, they should be allowed to, with discretion". Fr David Fireman, of Portsmouth diocese, who seconded the motion, said he believed that Rome had withdrawn the rite of general absolution, because it had "made it too easy for people to be forgiven". He said this was a pity, as "Christ came into the world to take away the sins of the world", but many people were "scared stiff' by individual confession. "If we are to heal people, we've got to take the appropriate steps," he said.
Fr David Morland OSB, a Benedictine from Liverpool, warned that the rite should not be used as "a stepping stone or a replacement" for individual confession.
Fr John Thomas, NCP regional representative for Wales, said that the whole rite of penitence needed to be examined "more acutely" so that it could be used with the greatest effect to "renew the life of Christ in the individual".
Nine per cent of delegates abstained, while 1.5 per cent opposed the motion.
The conference unanimously approved a proposal asking for steps to be taken to create a national pension scheme for clergy. It called for the creation of a working party, composed of bishops and priests, to examine the advantages of a national scheme over the present system of diocesan schemes.
Fr Tony Wilcox of Birmingham Archdiocese, who proposed the motion, said that present pension arrangements for clergy were uneven and in some cases, "very poor". He said that some elderly priests received just 71 per cent of the normal state pension, because contributions had not been paid when they began their ministry.
"Many dioceses are trying to find a new way of putting pension funds into practice," he said. "All of them are seeking to remedy the situation."
He argued that a national scheme would harness diocesan expertise, be "less costly and more efficient" and would still enable dioceses to run their own additional saving schemes.
Fr Rob Esdaile of Arundel and Brighton diocese said a national scheme would put pressure on dioceses with poor provision to improve their arrangements. He cited examples of "poor practice" within his own diocese and asked that priests who leave the active ministry receive full pension rights "in view of their years of service".
Fr Bernard Massey of Clifton said he hoped that a national scheme would not reduce the level of pensions in dioceses with "best practice". He said: "We should put the whole thing up."
Fr John Thomas said that priests should have the option of retiring, with full pension rights as the age of 65. He said that in view of the increased work burden on priests, many are ready to retire at this age and that it was unfair for bishops to insist that they work until the canonical retirement age of 75.
The conference backed a motion calling for the symbolic release of 2,000 prisoners to mark the Holy Year 2000. Over two-thirds of delegates voted to endorse the Amnesty 2000 campaign and to ask Catholic parishes to join the campaign to release a small proportion of Britain's prison population of 62,000. A quarter of delegates abstained and one opposed the motion.
Fr Rob Esdaile, who proposed the motion, criticised what he saw as the Government's hardline approach to offenders. He said there was "a vein of populism" in Jack Straw's rhetoric on justice and said that he was appealing to "a very large constituency who wants to throw away the key".
He said the release of 2,000 prisoners "was a symbol of the kind of society we want". He added that none of the 2,000 would constitute a threat to people or property.
Fr Nicholas Kern, a Shrewsbury Diocese priest, who seconded the motion, explained that the amnesty would be restricted to long-term prisoners at the end of their sentence, fine defaulters, foreign and nonviolent offenders, drug mules, women and children.
Delegates overwhelmingly supported a proposal requiring every parish to have its own marriage and family support team. Presenting the motion, Fr John Flemming of Northampton Diocese, said that £85,000 was spent on the marriage tribunal in his diocese, but "next to nothing" on supporting marriage.
He said: "We spend so much on dead marriages. Why not spend it on keeping them alive?" He said that dioceses with a full-time marriage and family co-ordinator were far more effective than those with part-time workers. He singled out Liverpool and Arundel and Brighton as "two shiningexampies" of good practice.
He said that the proposal sought to support families at parish, rather than simply diocesan, level. He called for parishes to "provide womb to tomb support for marriage and the family" and for Church authorities to release funds for a marriage and family co-ordinator in every parish. Fr Christopher Hughes said he was concerned that the Church did not overlook the needs of single people.
Fr John McElhone of Hexham and Newcastle diocese, who seconded the motion, agreed that single people were also a vital part of the parish priest.
He added that the proposal would put the onus on priests to mobilise lay people in support of family life. He said: "We want to build warm and caring communities. Give us the tools and we'll do the job."
Over 95 per cent of delegates supported the proposal. Three per cent abstained and 1.5 per cent voted against.
The conference called for a national suategy to tackle the declining numbers seeking ordination to the priesthood.
It askedthe NCP's standing committee to form a working party to assess the situation and to "develop principles and strategies' to cope with the problem.
Fr Michael Ashworth SJ of Westrninstr Archdiocese, who proposed lie motion, said that despite imaginative responses of the prunlem in individual diocese, there was no longterm, natienal policy in place.
Fr Leo lyle of Ilexharn and Newcastlt spoke about the success kf his diocese in consolidatug parishes. Ile said that the pncess was overseen by busines managers.
Fr Michael Kirkham of LancasterDiocese said: "In our diocese we have the problem of gcng over and over again asking what we must do."
He saie his diocese was forced reexamine the purpose oldie Church. "What is the Church for?What is our mission fothe wald? What is the placeof scripture and prayer?" le said here would be a contrence in 2001, to discuss thissue.
The prmosal was passe "a unanimoutly.
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The coference endorsed proposals br claw appraisal containedin the document Supportinitfinistry and asked all diocess within England and Waleso adopt it.
Fr John irnith ef Liverpool Archdiocele — which ran a successful piloi appraisal scheme ht yea:— said he hoped Ma appraisal would become 'a part of clergy culture".