“Courageous Conversations” Where do we go from here?
Newman University Birmingham
Where are we now?
How did we get here?
Where do we go from here?
…were the three questions that some 250 ACTA supporters were invited to ask in one form or another at our second national conference. We had arrived from every diocese in England and Wales, blown in like the squally rain and the autumn leaves that were the early warnings of a stormy week ahead. Some had attended the Spring delegate meeting in Leeds; some the first meeting at Heythrop a year ago; others were attending as diocesan representatives to the inaugural meeting of the National Delegate Council while some just wanted to find out what we were about.
Friendly conversations were much in evidence in the buzz of ‘getting to know you’ and ‘nice to meet you’ talk over coffee in the atrium and in the words of greeting from Jean Riordan, chair of the National Steering Group.
In the chapel we were invited to be still and be open to the Holy Spirit, as we were led in prayer by David McLoughlin from the Theology department at Newman University.
What followed then over the course of the day was challenging and empowering, and at times powerfully moving. A newcomer to ACTA spoke of feeling as if she had come home again to the church of her baptism; another’s experience, he reflected later, was of ‘being caught up in an enormous surge of shared love and commitment, not demonstrative or excited but rather a deep hope, inspiring and overwhelming.’
The structure of the day comprised not only the formal adoption of the interim constitution for ACTA by the National Delegate Council, but also a workshop session, led by Andrew Thomson, in which the ACTA mission statement was the focus for the development of a collective set of generic values which characterise ACTA and help to define what sort of people we are. Moreover, three distinguished speakers invited us all to ponder in a number of ways, the nature of discipleship in the twenty first century.
The unambiguous title of Professor John Sullivan’s opening address “Ecclesial Citizens not Sheep” was prefaced with Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus:
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens
with the saints and also members of the household of God’ ( 2 :14)
If there is a climate of ‘fear and lack of consultation’ we were warned, then a mature church is impossible. On the other hand, ‘healthy citizenship will produce not only map readers, readers of what has been handed on and learned in and from the past~ but also map-makers~ people able to work at the frontiers of knowledge.’
Furthermore, misunderstanding of the true nature of authority and obedience (properly understood as ‘deep listening’) ‘undermines the church as a credible community’ and creates an unhealthy climate for communication.
What ACTA is working for instead is, ‘a healthy climate for communication: mutual, respectful, serious, open, honest, engaged and courageous conversations between laity, clergy, bishops and religious’, thus promoting ‘more mature discipleship on all sides’.
This was a view that resonated strongly with his audience.
Professor Ursula King posed the question: ‘The Church in dialogue with women?’. We were offered fruits from a career spanning half a century in theology and religious studies, which included her work on Teillhard de Chardin; her time as a student of Joseph Ratzinger; the distinctive, distinguished but often unacknowledged role of women in the church of the past; and the work of so many women theologians throughout the world today.
And then what of the future? Here there were signposts that pointed to the probability of women being able to share in positions of responsibility and decision making in the rapidly emerging church that the first six months of Francis’ papacy seemed to be signalling. For this listener, there was more than a glimpse of the ‘map readers’ that John Sullivan had spoken of graduating to become ‘map makers’. Here was the possibility of fully fledged ‘ecclesial citizens’; women and men, none of whom were ‘strangers and aliens’ in the Kingdom of God any more.
In the closing address, ‘Where do we go from here?’, Gerry Hughes, Jesuit philosopher and teacher, invited us to ask first, ‘Where are we now?’ He acknowledged that, sadly, for many in the church the answer would be,’ a state of distress, dissatisfaction, sometimes near despair’. He was, however, taking heart from the exhortation of Pope Francis for the church to find ‘new roads’; for a church’ that is able to step outside itself’. (Those map makers again.)
Before ACTA members could fully answer the question ‘Where do we go from here?’ he suggested we needed to rethink how this unhealthy climate in our church arose ~ and the answer he provided was simple ~ fear. The main stumbling block, he continued, had been ‘anxiety, bordering on fear’ : a reaction to the emerging challenges of liberalism, democracy, biblical scholarship and the new sciences ~ rooted in the nineteenth century and not confined to the Catholic Church ; ’a reaction born out of overpowering ‘fearfor the faith’.
Until we could listen fully to this fear then any attempt at dialogue was in danger of floundering, and the challenge for ACTA was to attempt to discern how and when to foster such courageous conversations. We were again reminded of the words of Pope Francis: ‘before trying to teach anyone, we must try to learn from them’. Only in a spirit of trust and honesty on both sides and seeking common ground wherever possible, could such conversations be fruitful.
With an exhortation to recapture the spirit of the 1980 Pastoral Congress and ‘relearn the ability to live as befits people all of whom are gifted with the Holy Spirit’, we were urged, ‘ with prayer, with trust in God and with an enormous sense of urgency, make it happen again’.
Finally, then, we were sent out to face the threatened storm, to the words and music of the Taize community, and with warm words of encouragement and benediction from Derek Reeve, the priest who had courageously asked questions of himself, and then, no less courageously, shared them with others barely 500 days ago.