1 A PPROACHED the Congress in a state of advanced schizophrenia. As a delegate I was warned against the folly of talking to the press who would be out to misrepresent me, and as an accredited journalist I knew the frustration of trying to get to grips with the cloistered delegates as they began their deliberations in their scattered discussion centres. I resolved to abide by the rules and not to talk even to myself without first obtaining my Sector President's permission.
A press badge was the NPC equivalent of the mark of Cain. "Did you have much difficulty getting here?" I asked one of my fellow delegates. Their eyes narrowed and they glanced knowingly at the offending label. A non-committal grunt which could not have been spelt much less attributed to anyone, was the only response offered to my searching question. From then on I decided to forego my label, which in any case only gave an unfair advantage to delegates with long sight.
After the liturgical Spring cleaning and the civic jollifications on Friday night — at which I discovered two long lost relations — the 2100 of us subdivided like a very busy amoeba and turned our thoughts to a part of one of the great themes of the conference.
I was placed on the Communications Section of Christian Witness in discussion group F4/4, the Congress equivalent of name, rank and number. I had prepared for the topic but in common with other delegates was rather surprised at the particular discussion group I landed in.
We were led with gentle efficiency by a man with a
pronounced American accent who was convinced he came from Somerset. We included a solicitor, a sprinkling of teachers, a rather high-powered man, a bishop, and an eminent observer from the Free Churches. Our discussion was a forcible reminder that the Congress's great strength lay in the common purpose and vastly differing experiences or those taking part. In many cases one person's unspoken fears were met by another's tried solutions.
The shortfall of priests is a threat which looms over our present parish structure. Yet in our group there was a young married woman from a southern rural parish which had to share a priest and yet she could report on a lively committed community where the laity had risen to the challenge of lifting the nonsacramental side of parish life from the priest's shoulders.
I had become very accustomed to heads being shaken in despair at the disaffection of the young but in Liverpool they were involved at every level within the Con gress an d cared enough about the Church to complain when they felt it fell short of their ideals.
Our group contained two teenagers: one was already doing more for her parish than most people twice her age and the other one brought the discussion to a complete standstill and drew a spontaneous burst of applause from our bishop by her startlingly simple and accurate encapsulation of what the rest of us were hedging around.
By Sunday we had moved to our 60 strong topic group and the race was on to complete our report. Having resolved that communication was often hampered by jargon and unnecessarily elaborate sentences, we developed a solution "simpler than thou" standard for our report which in my biased view made it one of the most easily digestible.
When we reached the sector assembly stage the eagle eyes of the press were finally allowed to observe us at work. Union was a steady stream of people queuing up for the ordeal of standing up in front of a microphone and addressing 300 people. A plethora of hard questions was placed before us ranging from the soullessness of the new towns to the opportunity for conveying the Christian message by the latest techniques in communication.
.But we were not merely dazzled by technological communication. Many proposals were fiercely practical. The importance of personal contact and example came again and again. Priests were urged to begin knocking on doors again, in the same way as the police have been told to get out of their panda cars and back on the beat.
And when rather punch-drunk with good intentions we went to the final meeting in the Philharmonic Hall, the words of one of our bishops were ringing in our ears: — the laity had underestimated themselves for too long, they should accept the challenge of taking Christ centred initiatives within their own communities. It was time for us to come of age.