THE year 1976 was for the Church in England and Wales one of promise rather than of great achievement. It was a time of preparation for things to come. It had the stir of spring, not the richness of harvest.
Throughout the year, it was hard to escape the feeling that there is a new life in the Church despite the doom-laden skies of the national scene. February saw the announcement of two appointments that many
people think will deeply affect the future of the Church at home.
First, on February 11, came the news that the Bishop Derek Worlock of Portsmouth was to be the new Archbishop of Liverpool.
A week later Abbot Basil Hume of Ampleforth was announced as the surprise choice to succeed Cardinal Heenan at Westminster. The twin appointments were to prove but the start of a major reshaping of the Bishops' Conference.
During the year, Bishop Alan Clark became Bishop of the newly-constituted diocese of East Anglia. Bishop Anthony Emery moved from Birmingham to succeed Archbishop Worlock at Portsmouth. On October 10, the sudden death of Archbishop Cyril Cowderoy left empty the See of Southwark. As the year closes, the Church awaits the creation of five new bishops.
Appointments are expected not only for Southwark, but also for two area bishops in Westminster, and for Auxiliaries in Birmingham and in the diocese of Hexham and Newcastle.
But 1976 was remarkable not only for new faces, but for new ideas, fresh initiatives. The diocese of East Anglia was formed by a division of Northampton. Lancaster announced a plan for pastoral reorganisation. In two larger dioceses, new leaders brought with them even more dramatic changes.
Westminster was reorganised into five pastoral areas. Five bishops are to form with Cardinal Hume what can best be described as a "team ministry" of bishops, each, except the Cardinal, responsible for a given territory, but jointly responsible for the spiritual health of the whole diocese.
The Archbishop retains responsibility for ministry to all the groups which span the diocese, whether children at school, handicapped, immigrants, youth.
Liverpool's reorganisation is different. Here the Archbishop, after intensive consultation, decided to leave the main diocesan structure intact. But he reorganised the local structures, replanning the deaneries. He delegated increased powers to episcopal vicars; he set up, where necessary, team ministries to cope especially with areas of urban deprivation. He recommended a strategy for the formation of local teams of lay apostles to tackle daily problems of secular life. And all this was set in the context of a vigorous initiative launched by his predecessor to develop adult religious education in the North through the work of the Upholland Northern Institute.
Reorganisation in dioceses was accompanied at national level by a restructuring of the Bishops Conference. The office of President is to be no longer the monopoly of Westminster. Archbishop Dwyer of Birmingham was elected to the post in Low Week. In the autumn the bishops agreed to the creation of a full-time General Secretariat whose job was to facilitate and make more effective the work of the Conference. For the same reason they also increased the powers of the Standing Committee.
In the devotional and sacramental life of the Church, perhaps the most valued innovation for many was the introduction of General Absolution in some dioceses during Lent. This led to crowded churches and a big increase in subsequent private confessions. The reception of Holy Communion in the hand was also in
troduced after Easter and seems to have become widely practised and accepted. The new rite of Penance has been gradually introduced throughout the year and is to become obligatory by not later than Easter next year.
Perhaps the most vivid act of Christian friendship this year was the singing of Vespers by Benedictine monks in Westminster Abbey on the evening of Abbot Hume's installation as Archbishop of Westminster. But it has also been the year when the Churches Unity Commission published its Ten Propositions and the Catholic Church has begun to fashion its provisional response. Official conversations are continuing between Methodists and Roman Catholics and a progress report is shortly to be published. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission has pursued its detailed study of the outstanding problem of authority in the Church. And yet another international commission published its report on the theology of marriage. The debate about the ordination of women in the Anglican Church provoked a spirited reaction from Pope Paul and seems likely to prove a further obstacle to Christian unity.
The horror of violence in Northern Ireland continues. The year began with the death from hunger strike of Frank Stagg in Wakefield gaol, but ended with the emergence of a vital new movement, the march of the Peace People. Christians and others on both sides of the Irish Sea have declared themselves unambiguously for non-violence. The Churches and Church leaders have backed the movement to the hilt.
But peace has not always been the keynote of Church life this year. Two international conflicts spilled over into England and Wales. In the summer the simmering conflict between Archbishop Lefebvre and Pope Paul came to the boil. The Archbishop's rejection of the Second Vatican Council and its reforms became headline news, He was suspended from preaching and exercising his priestly orders because he carried out illegal ordinations. He then publicly defied his suspension. In October, our bishops denounced the setting up of unauthorised Mass centres by the Archbishop's supporters in this country, but the next month he came to some of these centres in what proved to be a muted visit. In the Ukrainian Catholic community in England and Wales, 1976 has seen continued unrest because of a concerted international campaign to declare Cardinal Slipyj a Patriarch in defiance of Pope Paul. Bishop Hornyak and his loyal priests in this country have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of abuse, vocal intimidation and financial boycott. Controversy continued throughout the year over the fundamental questions of abortion and euthanasia. Catholics have continued to work alongside others for a tightening up of the Abortion Act. But the bishops in October made it quite clear that only the complete repeal of the Act would satisfy the Catholic conscience.
The end of November saw the publication of a radical but hopeful report by an official working party set up by the Bishops Conference and the National Conference of Priests. "A Time for Building" was prepared by bishops, priests, religious and lay people. It suggests a plan of future action both to preach the Good News to everyone in the country and to tackle the basic problems of our society. It will occasion a national debate on what the future holds for the Church in England and Wales.
Which leads me to that perilous pastime of foretelling the future. If I am asked to suggest what the key issues of 1977 will be, I can offer only a lightning sketch which, of its nature, must be personal and subjective. The economic and political problems of our country will inevitably present the Church with a challenge
and an opportunity to confront society with the Gospel claims. The Catholic Church will be called on to play an increasing part in the public life of the nation. We shall have to accept our share of responsibility for major Christian witness. The pure vision of the Peace People will need to be translated into political action. Courage and sanity will be essential. And we won't be able to leave it all to others. I foresee that new crises in Rhodesia and South Africa will test the reality of our belief in human dignity and equality.
The role of women in the Church is certain to become a burning issue, and sooner or later it must catch fire here. The ecumenical dialogue is moving towards a climax, and the debate on the Ten Propositions is only a prelude to wider discussions.
Major meetings planned for 1977 are sure to focus attention on two large issues. The Synod of Bishops in Autumn should spark off an international debate on religious education — a debate that will gain urgency here because of the certainty that Government cuts in public spending will bring about the closure of more colleges of education, and Catholic ones will face their share of replanning. Catholics will be challenged by a national conference to examine their attitudes and their willingness to care effectively for those in prison and those who offend against the law.
I am sure the Church will deepen its debate on how best to plan for the future: "A Time for Building" will be the subject of prolonged discussions. And all this will take place against the growing possibility that the pontificate of Pope Paul VI may be drawing to its natural close. The Pope will be eighty next year and talks more frequently of the prospect of death. The period of adaptation to the Second Vatican Council will have come to an end, and new horizons will begin to open before the Church.