Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varities of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. I Corinthians 12:4 RSV
Last Sunday, at The Most Precious Blood, Borough (the first parish in the country to be placed in the care of the Ordinariate) we held an Annual Meeting after the Sung Mass. Those of us who come from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church will be very familiar with the Annual Meeting, or to give it the full title, Annual Parochial Church Meeting (APCM). A brief explanation might be useful for (life-long) Catholic readers.
Every parish in the C of E is required, by law, to hold a meeting of parishioners each year before the end of April. At this meeting two Churchwardens (senior lay people) are elected along with a Church Council. The priest and Council meet regularly during the year for the running of the parish. The priest has no vote in the lay elections, and the Council must authorise financial and building matters.
Our meeting at Precious Blood, attended by 48 parishioners, differed significantly, of course, from the Anglican model because the Canon Law of the Catholic Church places the governance of the parish in the hands of the Parish Priest. Many Catholic parishes now have a Pastoral Council which advises and collaborates with the priest in significant areas of parish life. On this provision we based our understanding of the purpose and aims of our meeting. First, in a series of (very) short reports we gave thanks to God (and took some satisfaction) on all that is going well and growing in our parish. The Treasurer reminded us (gently but firmly) of the need to make the parish financially secure. The Ordinariate group thanked the parish for its welcome, and the parish extended thanks to the Parish Priest – who then reminded us that we were not two separate groups, but united in the Catholic Faith and in our mission to our area. (Applause) The Pastoral Council is not elected, and so our priest asked us for written nominations, from which he will draw a balanced group of people best placed to work with him in all the areas of parish life.
I hear objections. The first is that this way of working gives the laity no real power, that it is too close to the old autocratic clericalism. True, it is dependent on a priest who wishes to work in collaboration with this people, who trusts them – and they him. It requires of the priest a confidence in his own ministry – to teach the faith, to preside at the Eucharist, to celebrate the other sacraments, to reconcile and to give spiritual counsel, to guide and even to rebuke – and to have the maturity to allow the laity to develop their God-given role and talents as the People of God. The leadership of the priest is not modelled on the Chairman of the Board, but rather as the one ordained to preside at the Sunday Eucharist. He calls the community of faith together, he consecrates the Body and Blood of Christ; by his strong and humble presence at chair and altar he enables those who read and pray and take holy communion to the sick to do so effectively and for the good of the Church. He neither domineers, nor does he abdicate his responsibility.
This last point was brought home to me some years ago by a wise bishop. I had gone to him in desperation about a small group of people who seemed determined to undermine every plan I had for the parish. I could not get them to be open about this, (criticism was always behind my back) nor did they ever produce an alternative to solve the many difficulties we had over buildings and finance. The bishop pointed out to me that, if I did not lead, there were people in the parish who certainly would! But the difference was that I was accountable to the Bishop, and they were not. If they led and got it wrong then they could walk away. On reflection I knew that there were many parishes like this; the Catholic Church may have its difficulties through clerical domination, but it is also true that many Anglican parishes have been blighted by domineering laity and infighting which has nothing to do with the Gospel. St Paul warned the Corinthian Christians, and his words warn us 2,000 years later.
So I am not uncomfortable with the way in which Canon Law places the governance of the parish in the hands of the Parish Priest. This ‘power’ is about responsibility and service and the priest exercises it wisely and humbly. I also know from experience that a community of people grows where each is valued – and used – for what each brings of him or herself for the common good. If we truly know ourselves to be the Church whose life and work Christ has entrusted to all the faithful, and not just priests, then we shall demand much more of ourselves and each other than a minimalist religion – in which duty is fulfilled but no more – and which takes us nowhere.