CPW Winter Weekend 2019 Report
Church at the Crossroads: Responding to Challenging Times
Boar’s Hill, 15 - 17th Feb, 2019
Deep in the night, an owl called, right outside my bedroom window. What a beautiful place to arrive at that Friday evening, the Carmelites at Boars Hill, with trees and birdsong lapping my upstairs window, and smoky blue Oxford twinkling at our feet. The air was ancient with stillness. All was peace.
I felt a happy sense of welcome amongst the people gathering; low-key, open and friendly. I struggle with faces and names, but nobody seemed to mind. I loved the poetry of the first evening, and wondered whether I could remember enough of my Francis Thompson to join in:
“And lo, Christ walking upon the water,
Not of Genesarath, but Thames.”
Joana de Paula of Alpha and Divine Renovation opened our talks next morning, her excitement and commitment to mission apparent in her every sentence. She spoke of the guiding principles and philosophy of Fr James Mallon and his essential programme of mission in Halifax, pointing out that maintainance is almost a dead duck, given the rates at which Catholics are falling away from the church attendance in the west.
She glowed with enthusiasm and deep commitment. However, I was left pondering both that DR remains a priest-dependent organisation, and that I wasn’t sure that Fr Mallon’s solutions, successful as they are, really address the structural and hierarchical problems of the Catholic Church today. So it was a pleasure to hear Canon Kieron O’Brien of St Joseph’s and St John the Baptist Churches, Brighton, explaining how he and his team implement DR in practice in two widely differing parishes. Joana had deliberately left the practical explanations to Canon Kieron, and he did not disappoint. One could wish that more parishes and parish priests were of his mould. But again the questions - does it all hinge upon the priest? Should it?
As for our liturgies at CPW that weekend, it was a joy to participate simply and fully in our liturgies. I was so happy to join in our prayerful worship dance at the Offertory. To be asked to read the Gospel felt like a great privilege. We have been accustomed by practice and socialisation to a monolithic liturgy - only a priest may speak these words; only those words may be spoken by the laity. How far has this ritual travelled from the last meal that Jesus shared with his family and followers? There’s a comfort in an unchanging liturgy - but it can also be a prison. Let the openness and spiritual freedom of the CPW approach to worship blow through the Church!
Finally, it was a privilege for Pamela Perry and myself to be given a short slot each at the conference next morning. Opening the session as a member of Catholic Women’s Ordination, it was a joy to feel that we were amongst friends and fellow-travellers. The early Church followed Jesus’s example in according women the greatest respect and confidence, contrary to all public norms at that time. When Constantine adopted Christianity, however, and promulgated it throughout the Roman Empire, women were systematically airbrushed out of the picture - where they remain even now. When asked what change we should most like to see in our Church, my answer is simple: we wish to see the Church treat women as equal people, in governance, in decision-making, in a renewed and inclusive priestly ministry. Unless and until the Church does this, it will not survive. Nor will it deserve to.
Our chaplain for the weekend, Fr Tim Redmond, followed by referring us to the Acts of the Apostles. “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Tim’s laid-back attitude of complete acceptance was refreshing and sustaining. I felt that I was being treated as a grown-up. I’m a member of the Lay Community of St Benedict, where we have a similar approach, but rarely elsewhere have I encountered this sense of equality and shared mission in my six decades of Catholic life. But why not? What is there for the hierarchy to feel so frightened about? As Tony Flannery writes in Fragments of Reality, the Church is 'shackled by its over dependence on clericalism, the system of priestly ministry that (it) is clinging to with an almost desperate determination’.
Pamela Perry, founder of the new grass-roots organisation, Parishioners’ Call, of which I am also a member, then outlined how we in PC call for a radical re-imagining of the priesthood; for women and men in shared ministry, whether married or single or celibate. As majority shareholders in the Roman Catholic institution, we lay people are co-responsible for its credibility and effectiveness in sharing this Word. It’s our duty to call now for change and growth. One of the best ways to do this is for Catholic parishioners to start talking safely and respectfully about new ways forwards. PC supports and enables such conversations, whether of three or four people having a coffee together, or helping to bring in speakers to larger gatherings. Only when we Catholics realise our power in the Church will we enable meaningful, authentic change.
Lastly, Aidan Reynolds of Abergavenny, from Deirdre Mahon’s and my own parish, responded to the DR opportunity in practical terms by lay people, considering its implications and opportunities. Helen closed the session by showing Mary McAleese’s magnificent call for change and an end to misogyny at the Voices of Faith conference in Rome last year, on International Women’s Day. If you’ve not already heard her, I recommend twenty minutes well spent with her insightful and powerful message for a Church at the crossroads: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9Q9VqkrfCw
As a conclusion, it could hardly be bettered. Pam, Aidan and I left having made many new friends, being much heartened in faith, and deeply grateful to Anne and Malcolm Dixon, Helen Floyd, Fr Tim and Deirdre Mahon for providing the careful planning and execution of the weekend, for making it so easy to feel welcomed and wanted, and for providing a prayerful space of great inspiration. Deo gratias.