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bishops will meet at Archbishop's House, Westminster. These are the men in charge of the 19 dio(*ses of England and Wales and their assistants, the titular I, ishop s. Together they make up the National Conference pf Bishops, whose chairman is Cardinal Heenan.
For them the Low Week Meeting is an annual ritual. Before the Vatican Council they met twice a year, the second time in October. Now, with an increased work load they have added a third meeting. Their gatherings are always held at Westminster with the exceptions of a Liverpool venue in 1966 and various meetings in Rome during the Council.
These policy making gatherings. whose decisions affect every Catholic in the country, are held in the impressive. chandelierhung Throne Room in Cardinal Heenan's residence. The bishops sit behind desks in a large square. their chairman as he focal point.
Few people besides the bishops know what is actually discussed at these gatherings. In recent years, however, it has been possible to make a reasonably accurate guess at what subjects would come under the spotlight because of the continuing nature of the work of the Conference.
This year. for example. it was predicted in advance in the Catholic Herald that the age of confession would be on the agenda. But, as in most other countries, the meeting of bishops is strictly in camera. It is true that a Press conference is held immediately after the meeting, but the bishop presiding at this is restricted in what he is allowed to say and in the questions he may answer.
The members of the Conference of Bishops are an unusual mixture of age, temperament and theological loyalty. Four of them were born in the last century: Bishops Wall of Brentwood, Rudderham of Clifton, Petit of Menevia. and Ellis of Nottingham.
The oldest member of the conference is Bishop Wall at 74. followed closely by Bishop Petit. Bishop Wall has let it be known that he intends to offer the Pope his resignation during the next year.
For the youngest bishop, come 30 years down the scale to Bishop Worlock of Portsmouth, who is 48. followed closely by Bishop Hornyak. Apostolic Exarchate for Ukranians in England and Wales.
The intellectual heavyweight of the conference is undoubtedly Bishop Butler, Auxiliary of Westminster and formerly Abbot of Downside. He is an internationally acclaimed scholar who jets around the world — most recently to Moscow — for gatherings of the world's top brains.
He is a polite, retiring man. The most naive questioner at a parish meeting is treated with the same respect as the high-powered intellectual at a theological congress.
Temperamentally t h e members of the conference cover a wide vista. Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham is a no-nonsense northerner who is trusted for this very facet of his personality ; Archbishop Cowderoy is shy and kind: Bishop Wheeler of Leeds, cool, charming and articulate.
Their dioceses do not always reflect the kind of men these bishops are. Bishop Rudderham is a conservative who last January banned pulpitswopping in the Clifton diocese during the Unity Octave. But Clifton has a good record in ecumenism and there are more than a few progressive strongholds in the diocese.
Bishop Wall's preference is for the Latin Mass, and for a long time he was reluctant to celebrate in English. Yet some of the best experiments in the country are being instigated by the liturgicallyminded priests of the Brentwood diocese.
The country's most progressive seminary — Wonersh — is the joint responsibility of two kindly conservatives, Archbishop Cowderoy of Southwark and Bishop Cashman of Arundel and Brighton.
The longest-consecrated member of the conference is Bishop Ellis of Nottingham, who has been a bishop for 24 years, all of them in his present diocese. The senior auxiliary is Bishop Pearson, assistant to the Bishop of Lancaster, who was consecrated in 1949. He has been known over the years as a progressive and it has always been understood that this militated against his promotion.
Most English bishops have sincerely tried to follow through the reforms of the Vatican Council'. Some have taken naturally to the new atmosphere, most notably Bishops Wheeler of Leeds, Grant of Northampton, Harris, Auxiliary of Liverpool and Worlock of Portsmouth.
Many of the older bishops have not found the going so easy. and consequently they have tended to retire from the fray, more or less leaving their dioceses to run themselves.
One problem that the more open atmosphere since the Vatican Council has failed to solve is the general remoteness of the bishops. For priests it is relatively easy to buttonhole their bishop, but lay people still have a big problem.
Some bishops will come to the telephone at any time of the day or night. but others give the impression that it would be slightly easier to call up and talk to Pope Paul.
It has always seemed a little unreal to me to compare our bishops with those of other countries. For one thing, relationships between clerics and laity varies so much from country to country. and for another no two situations are ever the same.
In England we have very conservative bishops. middle-of-the-roaders and mildly progressives. On the whole the very conservatives tend to get cancelled out by the heavier weight of the other camps, which results in an overall policy of keeping up with the times but no more.
Possibly it is easiest for the priests and laity in middle age to identify with progress at this speed. It is certainly harder for some of the younger priests who see only one or two bishops as sympathetic to their aspirations.
But there is one occasion when England's Catholics get together with their bishops. After the Low Week Meeting the bishops hold a reception at Archbishop's House. Top clerics meet top laymen, or some top laymen, anyway. Together they can imbibe the heady atmosphere of ecclesiastical authority and orange juice. Cardinal Heenan has proclaimed the occasion a dry one, with the money saved going to charity.