Down and Connor’s Living Church Report: An Evaluation

image The Diocese of Down and Connor’s Living Church project, begun earlier this year with a listening process in local parishes, has produced an initial Report (available in full here). Officially launched on 3 November and distributed in parishes the past two weekends, the Report draws on the contributions of the more than 3,000 people who participated in the listening process.

The Report identifies five areas “for further discussion and work,” according to Bishop Noel Treanor’s Forward.

The Report itself devotes a section to each of these five areas, giving them the labels:

  • Lay Participation
  • Open, Welcoming, Community
  • Clergy
  • Faith and Worship
  • Passing on the Faith

Each section includes Action Points for the Bishop and for the Parishes, and examples of how the Living Church project will provide support. The Report indicates that the Bishop will set up a Living Church Office to facilitate these changes. For a fuller description of each of the five areas, visit CatholicIreland.net.

As a Christian, two aspects of the Report offer me the most encouragement.

First, I’m encouraged by the commitment to “actions” expressed in the Report. For example, the Bishop’s actions in the lay participation section are:

  • The calling of a Diocesan Congress “Living Church 2013”
  • The establishing of a Diocesan Pastoral Council following the Congress to implement its recommendations.
  • The creation of new opportunities for lay participation in the ministry of the Church.

The third point is a bit broad and vague (as are a few in the Report), but the first two are specific and achievable.

Second, I’m encouraged by the responsibility that the Report places on lay people.

It comes out quite clearly in the Report that many of those who attended the listening sessions want to be more involved in their church and believe that a church that depends too much on its clergy – especially for passing on faith to young people – is not sustainable. At one point the Report reads (p. 2):

It is felt that the talents and skills of many lay people, and especially women, for ministry (other than ordained ministry), are left untapped. Reference was often made to the ‘Priesthood of the Laity’ and the Church as the ‘People of God’. Many people want to serve the Church but feel that they have never been invited, or indeed feel discouraged as if surplus to requirements. This change in culture must be backed up by training in skills and leadership for priests and people.

… In the future there will be a greater need to hire lay professionals in both administrative and ministerial roles. In this regard, the need for professionals to work in youth ministry was particularly highlighted. We could learn a lot from the experience of Protestant churches.

The above reference to Protestantism aside, the Report did not mention ecumenism or the relationships of Catholics with other expressions of Christianity. This is disappointing to me because relationships with Protestant churches were discussed at the listening session which I attended.

This session was at Clonard Monastery, which has long-standing ecumenical relationships with a number of Protestant churches. So it is possible that “ecumenism” did not feature at most sessions and was thus not deemed important enough to be considered in more detail in the Report.

But I think that the future for the churches on this island is bleak if they focus too much on their own internal structures, neglecting relationships with other churches and the “ecumenical formation” of their members.

There was also only one paragraph in the Report which acknowledged the impact of the Child Sexual Abuse crisis (p. 2). It reads:

A significant number of people expressed feelings of anger and frustration that Church leaders at every level, including the Pope, have not been fully open with regard to the Child Sexual Abuse crisis. There is a sense that this issue is calling on the Church to reform a longstanding culture of secrecy and a lack of accountability.

This paragraph is situated in a discussion of the theme of open, welcoming, community. But disappointingly, the only action point for the Bishop under this theme is:

  • Development of a communications strategy to foster openness, transparency and accountability.

No “communications strategy”, however well-intentioned, is going to get to the heart of what needs to happen for the church to help to heal those who have been abused.

  • exsdlp

    To be fair – and I know a lot of people don’t like to be fair to the Church – the comments extracted above do not represent the totality of the Church’s response to the issue of abuse. In fact on the home page of the diocesan website there is a link to a summary of an independent review of abuse cases, http://www.downandconnor.org/blog/2011/10/31/31-october-2011/

    The issue of the response of the Church to abuse was raised at the meeting I attended, and the way in which it is described in the Living Church document is a fair precis of the discussion.

    At least, and at last, Down and Connor are talking to and with their lay congregation. That’s a good thing.

  • ThomasMourne

    Pastoral Councils were first established in some Down & Connor parishes from the late 1980s.

    I’m not aware of any earth-shattering changes in the Catholic Church as a result of their work over the past 25 years or so.

    This time it will be different – won’t it?