Aidan Hart is a former Head of RE in schools, with experience as a N.Ireland Department of Education inspector for school-based religious education, and in the facilitation of inter-Christian and inter-faith discussion. Here he responds to the reported call by Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry for the adoption of a ‘mission’ stance by the people of Derry diocese.
Bishop McKeown’s call to ‘mission’ suggests a local diocesan programme with many possibilities. However, it still has to move from vision to detailed plans, from aims to objectives, from generalisations to practical programmes of action, from Bishop to local clergy and laity.
It is particularly interesting in light of Pope Francis’ reported statement that he is not going to impose change but to decentralise authority back to local bishops and await their requests.
The idea of training is sound and very necessary but possible participants will first want to know: ‘training in what, to do what and for whom?’ This will need to eventually become a diocesan wide programme involving every parish.
One hopes local clergy and parish councils were consulted before this statement went to press and became public. Without their full commitment and co-operation it will remain another unfulfilled possibility.
We in ACI are right to raise several important questions that as yet remain unanswered. At this stage it is impossible to know all the details of the final destination of the process. However people need to feel assured that the journey of consultation, discussion and decision making is moving in the right direction of travel, by planning to address all the key issues – with full commitment to activating fully all agreed decisions. Nothing should be ‘off the table’.
Does Bishop McKeown’s ‘missionary programme’ envisage enough serious change to begin to turn around the current exodus from the Church? Is it a vision for the future or a return to the Church as it once was before the Second Vatican Council?
For example, is it prepared to discuss burning issues such as:
- An acceptance that the Holy Spirit is as active among the laity as among the clergy;
- Married priests;
- The return to active ministry of priest who left, are now married and willing to return;
- Non-stipendiary priests who support themselves financially by alternating employment during the week with working alongside full time priests at weekends;
- Full time priests to be salaried at a level commensurate with a simple life style and all Mass, wedding and funeral stipends to be abolished;
- The ordination of single or married women;
- Small missionary Christian communities rather than large, declining and somewhat impersonal parishes;
- These small missionary Christian communities working in close and equal partnership with clergy and bishop,
- Less celebration of Eucharist on a daily basis and instead the use of Scripture and other para-liturgies led by laity within their own missionary communities;
- Sunday Eucharist to have much more active involvement of the laity in both planning and execution, and to be a spiritual experience of divine Presence rather than a priestly action to be passively observed;
- Formation of an expanded list of parish trained lay ministers such as Minister of Marriage, Minister of Baptism, Lay Funeral Minister, Minister of Bereavement, Minister of Religious Formation, Minister of Music, Minister of Prayer Services, including Eucharistic Prayer Services;
- Every group of Small Missionary Christian Communities (SMCC) or parish to have a Lay Council working to a diocesan constitution drawn up by a Diocesan Lay Council in co-operation with, and approved by, the local Bishop and having as its foundational and overriding principles equality, transparency and accountability.
- People of all gender orientations (LGBTQ) and those divorced and remarried made welcome into outward-looking, missionary communities, reflecting God’s unconditional love, forgiveness and compassion?
I invite the reader to suggest any other important issues that need to be addressed with urgency or which of the above should not be on this list.
I suspect that the switch to ‘mission’ can only come step-by-step, rather than ‘all at once’ in a broad programme such as the above.
My guess is that Bishop McKeown is thinking first of all of ‘gap filling’ – how laity can plug the gaps in priestly capability soon to emerge (for example the loss of the weekday Mass; funeral services; parish administration).
But Aidan is quite right to look to something far wider than this, and right away – especially the activation of his item 1: the acceptance by the hierarchy that it is time to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to the whole church through all of the baptised.
For me, fear of open assembly on the part of clergy – of convening the people NOW to face and discuss this crisis – is the most serious barrier to the recovery of the Irish church. That fear is obvious in the failure of every other diocese to follow the example of Limerick in holding a diocesan synod. Irish clerical lack of faith in their own lay people, and in the Holy Spirit, is causing total paralysis.
Throttled by clericalism, the Irish Church is dying – day by day by day.