Next week the National Conference of Priests meets in Bir mingham to discuss the pastoral strategy document 'Time for Building'. In a critical look at the document, FR PAUL HYPHER of Peterborough suggests that its radicalness is based on outdated assumptions and calls for thorough research of the Church's resources.
After ten years of communal demoralisation and depression, the Catholic Church in England and Wales is beginning to find its soul and sense of purpose again. The early teenage black and white selfconfidence and flight into comforting fantasy of the 1950's were destroyed not only by the remorseless reality of the secular world and by the baffling loss to the Church of a whole generation of the young, but also by the Vatican Council for which we, in these countries, were totally unprepared, The English Church was like a youngster who, having done well at a rather indifferent school, fails his first public examination. Blame and anger become the order of the day.
Now is indeed the time for building. We have been through enough sorrow and hurt to be able to live from the strength of rediscovered hope, with our own shortcomings and with the limitations imposed by the legacy of the past. Instead of fear and recrimination we should now be able to objectivise our failures, our guilts and our frustration at lack of leadership in others.
More Importantly, a new generation of Catholics has grown up, for whom the Vatican Council is as much history as the Second World War; so we, who have lived through the last twenty years, must learn to stop savouring our recent agony and inflicting on the young church our nostalgia for things past, or enthusiasm for things changed. Now is now, especially for the young; and the preaching of the eternally true Gospel is our ever-present urgent task.
'[he virtue of 'Time for Building' is that it looks at the present without rancour or disquiet, and finds itself able to broach ideas that until recently would have opened Pandora's box (for example different forms of ministry) with objectivity and calmness. In place of the polarization of the Church around extreme or novel theories, there is emerging a capacity for going to the root of every question in the considered light of faith and experience.
Strictly speaking 'Time for Building' is not a report, although it calls itself one; rather it is a collection of the insights of several very experienced people. The fact that it is not a report is not the fault of the authors; the Church in England and Wales just does not have the resources for research and evaluation to produce one. This in itself highlights a need. In fact the authors themselves see 'Time for Building' rather as a position paper for the National
Pastoral Council which they wish to see summoned.
As such it is of value. Although I suspect that readers and discussion groups will find it a very difficult document to come to grips with. It is a strange combination of the obvious and the visionary, the superficial and the profound. It manages to say everything and nothing, to portray lay experience, but in a peculiar clericalised way. It warms the heart like a sermon on love, but leaves the hearer none the wiser on what he should actually do when granny gets difficult.
Most people surely subscribe to its general principles — more consultation, better information, share responsibility; but I suspect that many will still remain unconvinced. Time for Building is in the wrong style for the English Church, which is the Church of the 'I know but ...', of pragmatic people who distrust theory (even theology) and stay cowed by practical difficulties they have experienced. Our breed needs something more imaginative and less abstract if it is to be moved.
The Church is somewhat beset with consultative reports at the moment. They have been helpful in the process of renewal but I suspect that their usefulness is in decline. Besides, documents in this form perpetuate the situation in which most conscious postVatican H renewal seems to have been middle class. How do we overcome this problem?
Probably the biggest bugbear of the document will prove to be the term 'strategy'. There is an inherent distrust of strategies in the English Church. We suffer from the cult of the amateur. For some reason we assume that incompetence is the only fitting tool for the Holy Spirit, and we feel that those who strive for 'professionalism' lack faith in the Holy Spirit. This is no less silly than the opposite, someone assuming the Holy Spirit requires his competence. Quietism is just as heretical as Pelagianism and just as dangerous; and both are a denial of grace and incarnation. In fact the Church has never been without strategy. It is strategy to decide on a celibate clergy, to put priests in presbyteries, to baptise people
as babies, to have vestments and the symbolic buildings we call churches, it is also strategy to give clergy titles and have a more rather than less authoritarian hierarchical structure, to stress the priest rather than the congregation, the Universal Church rather than the Local Church. The sooner we recognise that all these things could be different, and at some time in the past, have been different, the better.
'Time for Building' is doing us a service by asking us to bring the principles behind our decisions out into the open, so that we can monitor them honestly. But will this be successful if we have not resolved the underlying spiritual conflict? A century of antiacademicism and antiprofessionalism still has the power to bedevil the future.
To resolve the spiritual conflict we must remember is that all pastoral work shares of the nature of sacrament. Because grace as incarnational pastoral work is at one and the same time both profoundly important and profoundly unimportant. It does matter that the pastoral, like liturgy speaks to the whole man, heart, mind and soul, and that it is not perfunctory, insincere or without regard to the basic laws of human nature. God does not reveal himself other than through creation, but equally grace is grace and no created reality is its condign vehicle.
Grace is always surprise, whatever liturgy or work is involved. Anyone who has been the sincere instrument of God's grace in the life of another must know this paradox in his bones. I have gone into this, because I feel these barriers must be faced up to if we are to make sense of pastoral renewal in the English Church.
'Time for Building' rightly asks for a resetting of priorities. This is most essential. Unfortunately 'Time for Building' also repeats one of the fallacies about the English and Welsh church, namely the use of gross statistics in assessing its size: total known Catholics 4 million, Mass-going population less than 2 million. However theologically accurate, these figures are totally unrealistic if we are thinking in terms of a missionary sense of purpose. If we assessed our membership as other Churches do, excluding
children, our active membership would probably be nearer 700,000. This is not pedantry, it is vital for an accurate assessment of our economic and human resources. Our plural and secular society means that most young people will have to go through a 'conversion' experience if they are to remain church-going adults. We would be foolish to not take this into account.
Similarly fallacious statistics have been occurring when we have calculated catchments of children for new schools. Our exaggerated figures are now harming the quailty of our schools.
In a strange way, although 'Time for Building' talks in terms of Mission, it seems to me primarily a Maintenance document. This is not necessarily a failing, Mission and Maintenance go hand in hand; but it should be recognised. It is a golden rule, that structures should be shaped by the task to be achieved. The reform of structures and ministry suggested by 'Time for Building' seem designed to increase a sense of responsible belonging rather than of Mission. When it comes to .Mission and Service of Neighbour the document becomes inarticulate (not surprisingly as real Mission is a new attitude for us) and resorts to generalizations or to laying vague exhortations and responsibilities on the laity. It is extraordinary how the burden slips from 'the Church' to 'individual Christians' in these sections.
A Church which is institutionally self-interested and self-centred, and missionary or serving only in its individual members is no answer to today's crisis of credibility. Whether we like it or not, our fellow men do not experience the Church as existing for the world.
Because of this the reform of structures and priorities and the attitudes that condition them suggested by 'Time for Building' is not far reaching enough. A chapter tacked on the end which looks at Service of Neighbour primarily in terms of the individual's good deeds in reality undermines the importance of the serving Church, as an institution, in the proclamation of the Gospel. The structures, institutions, financing and ministry of the
Church must themselves be seen to be missionary.
Incidentally many people (not 'Time for Building') seem to assume that lay responsibility and participation, lay ministries and married deacons will compensate for the lack of priests. There is a good case for asserting the opposite, namely that given a truly missionary and serving sense of purpose, the ministries will expose the shortage of priests to be even graver than we ever imagined.• 'Time for Building', in its subconscious retrenchment of the institution, also manifests a 'Twilight of the Gods' syndrome — summoning up all sorts of non-existent resources for in-service training, adult formation, the pastoral care of the married and so on, (like Hitler trapped in his bunker moving mythical military divisions against the advancing enemy). It does all this, without defining what it is that has to be taught. This is not cynicism, just the realization that this essential work requires a far more thoroughgoing commitment to long term training and education in advanced skills than the church in this country has ever yet allowed itself. The weakest part of the whole document is that on groups, communities and parishes.
It sketches a vision without ever quite deciding what are the inner dynamic and functioning, the purpose and interrelationships of these entities. We should not forget that in-words like 'group' or 'community' are neutral, and that groups and communities can be good or bad and must be measured against a purpose. The poor old parish, here reduced to a building forrites of passage, can mean anything from a living community to lines on a map. The over-simplification in this section is a pity, for the church must indeed adapt itself to cope with isolation, big city anonymity, mobility, a high rate of mental stress and the fact that people live and work in a plurality of different communities with a plurality of loyalties.
For all that, 'Time for Building' is a brave, open and far-seeing document. It should be taken seriously as an important mile-stone in the ongoing renewal of the Church in England and Wales.
I personally support the call for a National Pastoral Council, and I support the principle that we must start somewhere rather than let discussion go on for ever. But on two conditions: firstly that part of its terms of reference is the development of attitudes and structures for the management of change, and secondly that the Hierarchy must be willing to commit the resources of the Church to several properly established preparatory commissions; without them the National Pastoral Council will be merely a Parliament of the Ignorant. 'Time for Building' shows up far too many areas of pastoral principle and practice that need proper research.