The Westminster archdiocese is about to embark on a new project which could revolutionise the Church's social welfare work in the area. JOHN CAREY reports AS FAR AS social issues are concerned, the Westminster archdiocese is in a mess. Not only .does it lack any clear social policy, it is also a long way from any shared vision of how the Church should stand in relation to social involvement. At the same time, it has no adequate mean of monitoring or co-ordinating the various welfare schemes that do exist.
Those are not my criticisrp. They are contained in a new report* out this week written by Westminster's own development officer. Mrs Alex Cosgrave. The report lays the basis for the total reorganisation of the archdiocese's social welfare work.
The proposals have already gained the support of Cardinal Hume, the five area bishops and the senate of priests; 45 of the 52 recommendations have been accepted for immediate implementation: the bishops will make their minds up on the other seven in September.
The new programme puts the emphasis firmly on generating the most appropriate local response to specific local needs. This is intended to replace the present mixture of centralised diocesan services haphazardly mixed with unco-ordinated local initiatives.
In its stress on decentralisation, the scheme is in line with the division of the diocese into five pastoral areas, Now each area is to establish a "development group" and appoint a full-time worker whose job it will be to respond to invitations from parishes and deaneries to work with them for a period of about six months.
In time it is hoped that each area will be able to choose its own priorities and draw up its own programme for the foliowing year. Meanwhile "special action groups" are to be formed at a diocesan level to tackle specific issues such as race relations and homelessness. These groups will draw together the work of existing diocesan agencies. independent Catholic organisations working in Westminster and other nonCatholic agencies. Once a year representatives from both the pastoral areas and the specialist groups will meet in a general assembly at which the diocesan programme for the next year will be drawn up. It is hoped to hold the first such assembly in the autumn of 1982.
For once, finance does not appear to be a major problem.
Westminster's new financial secretary. Mr Derek Ambrose, says he is confident that the archdiocese can meet the estimated costs of £100,000 per year without any great difficulty.
For the first three years the money will come from trust funds traditionally handed out for various "good causes", either local, national or international. Mr Ambrose says that while the archdiocese's ability to respond to such requests for aid will be restricted, there will still be sonic money to spare over after the project's costs have been met.
Nor, -it seems, will many hurdles be erected by the old enemies of change — priestly conservatism and popular apathy. One of the fundamental principles outlined in the report is that no group, parish or individual should have the programme imposed on them. Participation is by invitation and anyone is free not to join: compulsion is seen as both undesirable in principle and counterproductive in practice.
Paradoxically, in fact. greater problems could arise if the initial response is too enthusiastic; the success of the scheme depends to a great extent on the work of the area workers, and they will be tied up in one place for six months at a time. Too great an initial demand could lead to expectations being raised too high long before any action can be taken. It is over the question of leadership that the greatest difficulties may well arise. The scheme relies heavily on the archdiocese being able to find individuals with a rare combination of skills to fill the posts of the area workers: whoever gets the jobs will need considerable administrative ability, vision and tact — and such people are by no means easy to find.
Another potential source of trouble could centre on the question of authority: the delicacy of the matter is reflected in the section of the report devoted to it, in which great care has been taken to set out the precise relationship between the bishops and the programme as a whole.
As the report notes: "Practical methods for arriving at a common mind between the bishops and the diocesan programme, if' they are to be effective, will require extremely close contact and mutual trust between the bishops and the programme."
Although the proposals for how this should be done arc clear enough, it is not hard to see how conflict could arise over issues such as unemployment or racism, particularly if the policies agreed by the assembly appear to the bishops to be excessivly "political".
Interest in the new programme will extend far beyond the borders of Westminster. In tackling one diocese's problems concerning social affairs, it touches on the most fundamental issues facing the Church at the moment — the relationship between bishops. priests and lay people, the links between different denominations, and the role of the Church as "the servant of the world". Catholics everywhere have a vested interest in seeing that it succeeds.
*Social Welfare Development Project — Report and Recommendations.