Page 9, 7th July 2006

7th July 2006
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Page 9, 7th July 2006 — So will my parish church close down?
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Organisations: Catholic Church
Locations: Liverpool, Portsmouth, London

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So will my parish church close down?

Some time ago Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor issued his long expected White Paper, a little number entitled Communion and Mission in which the Cardinal outlined his future hopes for the Diocese of Westminster. l'he document grew out of a threeyear programme of spiritual renewal called At Your Word, Lord, which was based on the American Renew programme. The Cardinal had previously employed this programme in Arundel and Brighton when he was bishop there. But in this context At Your Word, Lord was a direct response to Pope John Paul H's invitation in Nova Millennio lneunte for dioceses to engage in spiritual and pastoral renewal. The Pope had encouraged local

churches to listen to Jesus's words to Peter to "put out into the deep".

In the Diocese of Westminster parishioners were encouraged to gather together over five seasons in order to use the Sunday gospels to think and pray through a number of issues ranging from the Trinity to social justice. Those who took part in the programme. enjoyed it. People valued meeting in each others homes in order to discuss, listen and pray together.

Many of Westminster's priests were encouraged by what they witnessed. But the usual round of cynical clerical humour was also present and the programme eventually became known as At Our Expense, Lord.

In fact we still don't know how much the whole thing cost. I wouldn't be surprised if we were talking about at least a million pounds by the time all the expen.ses have been factored in. These included a never-to-be-forgotten night at Wembley Arena, and a diocesan gang show which all Westminster priests were required to attend at Butlins, Bognor Regis. Lots of statements recalling the late King's sentiments about Bognor were employed by the priests as they made their way to their holiday chalets after a hard day's debate on whether

or not to adopt the programme.

As At Your Word, Lord progressed the second half of the Cardinal's strategy was unveiled. This time, members of the diocese were asked to work through the so-called Green Paper, a document entitled Graced by the Spirit. This

paper asked priests, parishes and deaneries to gather together to think about the nature of our parishes, about their viability and about the . possibility of working together and sharing resources. For the most part the deanery gatherings were remarkable in terms of the openness that was exhibited by the people who attended.

Now, Hallow that this wasn't the same in all deaneries. "You don't understand our needs," I was told by one man. However, my overall impression was that there was a genuine willingness to work with whatever changes might come our way. But we did have to explain that it wasn't in our remit to talk about married priests, the ordination of women and all the other hot topics of the present moment.

There were more than a few disappointed people at that stage. Nevertheless, this meant that we were forced to engage with present realities rather than some longed-for changes, and for the most part the outcome was positive.

These years of spiritual renewal were intended to

create a new vision for the diocese that would be contained in the White Paper, Communion and Mission. We waited for the White Paper amid much anxiety, not helped by the delay in its publication.

When it finally appeared last November Communion and Mission outlined five priorities for the diocese: the call to holiness, prayer and the eucharist; the formation of adults and young people; small communities; priesthood and vocations and structures for participation, change and accountability. These, as the Cardinal was eager to point out. echoed the words of Pope Benedict XVI: The real programme of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas; but to listen, together. with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord."

But these in fact are the same priorities that have always existed for the Church: liturgy, evangelisation, formation and participation. What is missing from the list are decisions about future realignment. Admittedly an audit of parishes has been called for, but an audit has already taken place as part of the proms of the Green Paper. The reason for a second audit, in so short a space of time, is because a number of parishes didn't reply first time around. So Westminster continues to lumber along like one of those old aristocratic families who couldn't possibly think of selling the family seat. even if the west wing is falling down.

It's obvious that with the declining number of clergy and demographic shifts, our diocese cannot continue to sustain its present curial and parochial structures. Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth has recognised this and on the feast of Pentecost this year he announced a plan whereby his diocese would be divided into 24 pastoral areas (these would replace the present deanery structures). This would also necessitate the joining together of parishes which would have to share a priest. Parish communities have been encouraged to get to know each other. One novel idea is for parishioners to "organise a (..mr treasure hunt as a fun way of getting used to the geography of the pastoral area and end with a picnic or shared meal".

How lovely.

Presumably, the parish priest will be too exhausted to attend the treasure hunt himself. He will be reccwering from running between irnshc in order to celebrate Mass, attend to the sick and deal with a whole host of administrative burdens that will come his way, and anyway, the thought of spending yet more time in his car would impel him to reach for the gin.

The real problem with restructuring is the halfhearted manner in which it is being implemented. No one likes to see a church close, but the fact of the matter is we have too many churches and not enough ordained personnel. Some of the bishops seem to have made a commitment to cluster parishes, but is this a realistic option? Surely it's the low]. priest who ends up suffering because of this mindset. He spreads himself

even more thinly in order to provide some sort of ministry to the communities entrusted to his care and he may feel useless became he cannot become part of one community where he is able to offer appropriate pastoral concern. The closure of church buildings and amalgamation of parish communities is without doubt brutal, but surely in the long term this is a much more realistic option.

This more radical tactic is being thought about by the Archdiocese of Liverpool. Liverpool's experience is that parish clustering is ultimately unsatisfactory. Everyone seems dissatisfied by this approach. Priests feel over burdened and the parishioners feel they are being short changed. So Archbishop Patrick Kelly has launched an initiative called l_mving Safe Harbours and though this will probably involve the dreaded notion clustering, it will also address the issue of the closure of a significant number of parish churches.

Some of Liverpool's priests see Archbishop Kelly' g plans as too hasty. Their concerns revolve around a lack of clarity with regard to leadership within presbyteral team structures and the canonical implications of what this might mean.

Meanwhile. a number of Liverpool's parishioners fear that they will lose their bell parochial identity and that they will be assigned to a sort of ecclesiastical doctor's surgery. The reality is that they will. But what is the alternative for a diocese where only 69,000 people out of an estimated Catholic population of half a million practise the Faith and where the priestly population is also in dramatic decline.

Meanwhile, we continue to heap funds into our schools. A testament to the wisdom of this strategy can be witnessed on most Sundays in our parishes.

Experience indicates that our churches are not exactly crammed to the rafters with young people who are in receipt of a Catholic education and who are intent on the practice of the faith. And so we unwisely deploy some major financial resources which could instead be used to employ lay people as parish pastoral assistants. In this way a great number of Communities could be helped to maintain some sort of full-time pastoral presence.

It's obvious that there are no easy answers to our present dilemmas. But when a genuine effort at consultation with the laity is made the response can be positive.

Our bishops have to realise that they can no longer play a paralysing waiting game with their dioceses and that parish clustering is not the way forward.

Ultimately we are all in a no-win situation. It would be wonderful to maintain the status quo. but that is simply not an option. We have to trust that with time we will get over our mourning and come to accept the loss of some of our present arrangements.

And who knows, what emerges may be better than our present experience and may actually lead to a revival of the faith for which so many of as long. The alternative is to place a diminishing number of priests under an intolerable and insunnountable burden. Given the present nature of how the Catholic Church is organised this would ultimately be disastrous.

Fr Shaun Middleton is parish priest of St Francis, Pottery Lane in west London




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