As a teenager, growing up in a sea-side town, I was aware of the (Roman) Catholic Church. We lived opposite the classical fronted, early nineteenth century building, which my grandmother still called ‘the Catholic Chapel’. It was extended in the early 60’s with a new sacntuary. Then there were two more parishes in the town, and I think at least two ‘mass centres’ for outlying estates. The town then was served by three Catholic parish priests and there were curates, too.
Within the last year Catholic re-organization has been completed, the mass-centres closed some time ago, and there is now a single parish with one church, extended and beautifully re-modelled to hold 300. I attended the Vigil Mass of Christmas (advertised for parents and children) and had to stand at the back! The parish is served by one priest, together with several deacons and parish sisters.
But the pragmatic reorganisation and the enlarged building cannot hide the fact that the numbers of practising Catholics has dimished quite dramatically in the fifty years since I was a child. Even greater is the decline in the number of priests. And to its credit, this is not denied by the hierarchy. The annual mass figures are published as they stand. When I was an Anglican I used to write and speak with ever-growing exasperation at the spurious optimism at the centre of the C of E, and its constant changing of the criteria by which numbers were measured. The decline in religious practise across Europe is marked and worrying.
The phrase ‘The Death of Christian Britain’ comes from the title of a very persuasive book by Callum Brown.
It took several centuries (in what historians used to call the Dark Ages) to convert Britain to Christianity, but it has taken less than forty years for the country to forsake it. For a thousand years, Christianity penetrated deeply into the lives of the people, enduring Reformation, Enlightenment and industrial revolution by adapting to each new social and cultural context that arose. Then really quite suddenly in 1963, something very profound ruptured the character of the nation and its people, sending organised Christianity on a downward spiral to the margins of social significance. In unprecedented numbers, the British people since the 1960’s have stopped going to church, have allowed their church membership to lapse, have stopped marrying in church and have neglected to baptise their children.
The Death of Christian Britain – Callum Brown
Growth and decline in the UK
The Catholic Church in the UK grew from the nineteenth century through until the 1960’s. It grew while the Church of England and the Free Churches slowly declined. And then it too began to decline. Its growth had been principally what we call ‘biological growth’ i.e. when Catholic parents bring up their children in the faith, and they in turn come to adult commitment, which they pass on to their children, and so on and so on.
But throughout the period of growth there was also a steady stream of what were then called ‘converts’. Many of them had been brought up within other Christian communities (though some were high profile atheists/agnostics) and nowadays we would call this ‘transfer growth’ – for these people already knew God and had been baptised and lived the Christian life, while outside the Communion of Peter.
The attack on Christian life and values
But by the 1980’s there had been what Callum Brown rightly calls, a ‘rupture’. The secular, materialist society was now strong enough to create a ‘generation gap’, and parents found it difficult, if not impossible, to pass their belief and value system on to their children. This generation gap was astutely nurtured by the great commercial forces, as they created a ‘youth world’ of constantly changing music, fashion and fads, all of which required young people to part with their money! The values this new world imparted had nothing to do with saying your prayers, going to Mass, loving God and building up your family.
It was ruthless and destructive of all that had gone before, and of many of the young people who were drawn by its passing glitter. The damage it did is only now being revealed, and those responsible are still deeply unwilling to admit their part in it. The mantra, ‘Lessons must be learnt’ means ‘by everyone else except us’.
The Church’s weakness
Christianity in Britain was caught unawares by the rapid secularisation of society in the 1960’s. The dramatic fall in the number of vocations to the priesthood, and the numbers of priests leaving their ministry, had a profound effect on the confidence of the Church, and its ability to organize dioceses and parishes for mission as it had done in the past.
The lay people – and the hope for the future
It is often claimed that the Second Vatican Council ‘re-invented’ the laity. But the following quote must surely show that the Council was responding to thinking at the highest level:
Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth….. They are the Church.
Pope Pius XII quoted in CCC 899
Let the Church learn from Anglican experience (good and bad)
Groups of Anglicans coming into communion with the worldwide Church bring with them a tradition and way of working which involves the laity at every level. I know that this is a very mixed blessing: it was the assertion of lay control over the English Church by King Henry VIII which led to the devastating schism. The furious reaction from the (lay and secularised) Parliament when General Synod refused the pass legislation for ‘women bishops’, shows very clearly why the Establishment of the C of E has been so destructive of the National Church. Yet I also believe that the lay involvement which Anglo-Catholic parishes nurtured is part of our Patrimony. Rightly understood and developed within the structure of Catholic Canon Law, it could release and strengthen the Catholic Church in England and Wales for a new evangelisation of these islands.
After Easter the Ordinariate Parish to which I belong is going to have an Annual Meeting. These meetings were a legal requirement in our Anglican Parishes, and could (and did) sometimes become a forum for attacks on the Vicar, endless rounds of voting, and squabbles about the building. Such a meeting has no canonical status in a Catholic Parish, and so its agenda is freer and its aim, I suggest, is threefold. First, to thank God for his blessings on the parish, and to encourage all the parishioners in their share in its life. Secondly, to ask where the life of the parish is weak or failing, and what needs to be done about this. Thirdly, to support, advise and encourage the Parish Priest in his leadership of the parish and to enable him to collaborate wisely and effectively with his people.
10 signs for the renewal of parish life
These signs might provide a programme for parish renewal, and a check list for the Pastoral Council.
- The centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the parish and every member of the congregation.
- The love of the Scriptures so that the People of God listen attentively to them at Mass, study them alone and in groups, and mould a new and radical way of living in society
- Common prayer, so that Catholics pray with the Church, whether alone or in groups, in homes or church building
- Consistent teaching, (catechesis) so that we are committed to deepening our faith, not just as children, but throughout our lives, and the laity expect the clergy to teach as an indispensable part of their ministry
- Effective witness, so that every Catholic welcomes the stranger and shares his or her personal faith, humbly but confidently.
- Able leadership, (by which I mean leadership that en-ables, not dis-ables) from both clergy to the people, and the people to each other, so that the whole congregation is able to find and use the gifts God has given to each member.
- Responsible membership of all parishioners, so that all play their part in the life of the Church, and not just some.
- Pastoral charity extending within and beyond the congregation, so that everyone is involved in giving and receiving of loving care in the name of Christ.
- Openness, both to continuity and change, so that we are able to discern where God calls us to remain faithful to the tradition, and where we must make radical changes in order to grow
- Sacrificial giving, so that each parishioner is responsible for providing what is needed by giving time, money and ability to make the Church grow.