Reasons for great hope — a lay strategic plan for renewal from Britain. Is there anything in this for Australia?
Independent Catholic News in Britain carries a report today of a new lay initiative in Great Britain for renewal of the Church. Is there anything in this strategic plan that might be valuable for us here in Australia? I think it offers great hope for two important reasons...
Tom Horwood is a journalist who worked for the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales for six years; he was acting director of the Catholic Media Office in London for one year (2001) and communications adviser to the Nolan Review of Child Protection.
Responding to Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's challenge for "a lot more lay Catholics to speak out", Horwood has authored a strategic plan for tackling the challenges faced by the Church today.
There are two observations that merit comment in this forum around the other side of the world...
The first observation is on the report itself. Unfortunately at this stage I only have access to a summary of his report and plan but even from that, and just perusing the summary leads me to think that Horwood does have suggestions that do have application here in Australia. The decline in relevance of the institutional Church in Britain is, if anything, even greater than it is in Australia. I am sure readers of Horwood's summary will find many echoes of arguments I have been making in this forum, and others, over the last half-dozen years.
The most serious barrier to change is fear.
Horwood sees issues such as our language as being one of the principal impediments as to why fewer and fewer people are listening to the Church anymore. He critiques the systemic causes that restrict the bishops in their ability to set a clear direction. In Chapter 8 of his report and plan he argues: "The most serious barrier to change is fear. The Church should be a beacon of hope, and that starts with addressing fear and lack of faith." Does any of this sound familiar? I can assure you Tom Horwood is not some clone of Tom Scott.
What is perhaps just as interesting though is not the report itself but that here is another lay driven initiative effectively doing something out of a sense of abysmal frustration that one cannot do anything within the institutional structure because of all the political, bureaucratic and communication impediments that exist today.
As I have argued recently about this new initiative I've decided to try and get off the ground: I would far preferred to have been doing this work under the umbrella of the institution. In fact I have spent the last twelve years of my life endeavouring to work within the institutional structure to develop many, many initiatives that do actually address this crisis the institution is facing in Australia and throughout the Western world. It is only out of utter frustration that I am finally driven to take this initiative outside the institution and I can almost bet now that there will be forces within the institution that are going to try and obstruct what I am attempting to do - or deliberately try and misconstrue it as some initiative that is rebellious against the institution instead of what it actually is which is an initiative to do what the institution itself should be facilitating.
Lay initiatives that are "breaking out"...
But there is hope. I am aware of a growing number of lay-led initiatives around the world today that are beginning to "break out" and argue for the changes that are the only ones capable of re-evangelising the world but which the institution is either afraid or unable to tackle because of cultural or institutional inertia, sheer bloody mindedness, or fear.
The development of an independent Catholic media in Australia is a welcome development and reflects again this frustration of lay Catholics with the lack of authentic spiritual leadership from the top. In America, for the seventh year in a row that nations major independent Catholic publisher, National Catholic Reporter, has taken off the major award at the Natiional Catholic Press Association Awards. Does this not tell us something about the paucity of Catholic communications today? The institution causes forests to be cut down each day in the reports it publishes around the world but who reads them? Who are they really influencing? The trouble is they are not actually written to communicate downwards and outwards to this world of ours which is starving for "the Good News". It is largely written with a view to impressing someone further up the hierarchical chain that whoever wrote the report is being a good boy or a good girl. Bishops do it, Agency directors do it, School Principals and CEO Directors do it and Catholic journalists have become masters at it.
Let us celebrate...
Independent Catholic News in Britain which has brought us the news of this report is another reflection of the frustration of lay Catholic communicators who have become frustrated at the lie one has to live in trying to earn a living as a journalist from within the institution and they have gone and set something up on the fringes of the institution. The Tablet in London, the doyen and first of these independent initiatives around the world has recently undergone perhaps the most significant revamp in its history. This again reflects the fresh hope and the new spring that is occurring not within the institution but on the periphery. Let us celebrate and take heart that so many people around the world are as frustrated as we are and have been getting off their arses and doing something!
We welcome your thoughts in response to this commentary in our forum.