In putting together my first Newsletter as Chair of ACTA I thought it might be helpful if I told you a little about myself. I have been involved in ACTA from the outset and attended the now famous meeting at Heythrop when we had to decamp to a large neighbouring church, so many had turned up in London. It was a truly uplifting occasion and I could sense the energy of this large group of faithful Catholics who wanted to dialogue with other groups in the Church, including bishops. The one thing that drew us together was our passionate love of Church and our wish to spread the good news of the gospels.
Since that day in 2012, along with my husband, Joe, I have been an active member of the Leeds ACTA group and I chaired the first regional conference in Leeds in April 2013. Other things that happened in that time was that I retired as a headteacher, gained two new grandsons, Edward and Finn, who give Edward’s sister, Felicity, a hard time. Talking of family, we have two adult children, both working hard in education, Fiona as an Ofsted Inspector (don’t blame me) and Matt as vice-principal of a new secondary free school in Bradford. The present state of education along with ACTA business are staples of our family discussions. I have in the past worked for the Leeds Diocese as Director of Schools before returning to the coal-face.
I was truly surprised when I was asked to take on the role of Chair of ACTA. I really thought that there must be someone more suited than myself, in good old Catholic tradition! I thought long and hard before agreeing to be considered because I wanted to be clear about what I wanted ACTA to achieve. I am deeply conscious of standing on the shoulders of Jean Riordan, who really got the wheels of the wagons rolling along with her leadership team, who have been magnificent in their support. I wish to thank Jean formally on behalf of us all for her sterling contribution. She has personally been immensely helpful in the support she has given me to date. Most of the leadership team are continuing in their roles but I would also like to thank Fr Derek Reeve and Richard Brooke who have decided to step down.
As I see it, there are three things at the top of the ACTA agenda for the coming year, underpinned by an important principle, namely that the real work of ACTA is done at the local, Diocesan level. I see the role of the national leadership team as setting the general direction for the movement and providing support and networking where possible, but it is then down to local groups to follow through; I am also strongly of the belief that there is strength in numbers and hence that it is of incalculable value that local groups work together and that more established groups offer support and guidance to those that are relatively recent.
So back to the three priorities:
1. Dialogue. This lies at the heart of our movement. We are a group of lay folk, priests and religious, who want to enter into dialogue with other interested parties in our Church. We want our voice to be heard at the hierarchical level and we want to work in tandem with these other parties. We also want our voice to be heeded and, equally importantly, we want to listen to what others have to say. Indeed, the Vatican II document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, speaks of ‘this familiar dialogue between the laity and their pastors’ (LG, 37), suggesting that dialogue of this kind ought to be happening and to be fairly habitual. Pope Francis has reinforced this message from Vatican II by saying in his early trip to Brazil that ‘dialogue, dialogue, dialogue’ is the best way to overcome misunderstandings and resolve disputes. We none of us have anything to fear from open and free dialogue with one another. The need for dialogue is based on our recognition of our own limitations; we all have a partial view of things and dialogue helps to lead us to a more ample and rounded viewpoint. This means that as well as speaking our minds, we are also obliged to listen and heed the other. If there is a single message that keeps returning to me it is that mentioned by Cardinal Nichols when he said that today’s laity ‘are on the front line’ in our highly secularised country. So as well as giving witness to the gospel by our way of life and our defence of our faith, we also need to be empowered to feed back our viewpoint that is forged by our lived, felt experiences. Our views must influence decisions and in this way we ought to become part of the decision-making process in our Church. As reluctant as I am to bring in a negative, I must emphasise that we are not a movement bent on undermining Church teaching or on imposing our own viewpoint on others. As adults we just want to be heard and to listen. To quote Lumen Gentium once more, ‘Individual lay people, by reason of the knowledge, competence or outstanding ability which they may enjoy, are permitted and sometimes even obliged to express their opinions on things which concern the good of the Church.’ (37) This suggests to some of us that we sometimes have to think for the Church as well as with the Church.
As you can imagine, discussion about dialogue permeated everything we talked about at the last Delegates’ Conference at Hinsley Hall, Leeds, at the end of November. Here I want to pass on a couple of suggestions made at this meeting. Some groups have succeeded in meeting with their bishops and at the national conference held at Liverpool Hope a warm welcome was extended to ACTA by Archbishop Malcolm McMahon. We can make use of these positive precedents when we approach our own bishops and deaneries; all of us should try to publicise ACTA meetings at the local parish level. Another suggestion is that local groups should send meeting agendas and minutes as well as dates and plans to their bishops and deans; they may not always be met with approval and there may be no response at all but it is a good idea to be open and ‘up-front’. There has already been fruitful work undertaken in some local groups on identifying appropriate local forums by means of which ‘bottom-up’ lay-clergy-religious contributions can become part of local decision-making. It would be very helpful if effective practice in this area were to be disseminated via the Website or direct contact between coordinators. We must always remain peaceful and never get aggressive. ‘They will know we are Christians by our love’ – but we will be persistent Christians.
2. The Synod on the Family. If there is one area where we want our voice to be heard it is here. After all, the laity are the ones who live typical, normal family lives with all the joys and travails that this presents. Coal-face religious and clergy are the ones who are most closely in touch with the laity’s complex experiences in this area and who are often called upon to give practical pastoral support. Cardinal Nichols has said that a consultation document preparatory to the Synod (part 2) will be going to parishes and clergy. It is imperative that ACTA members in groups and at parish level take part in this consultation. I would strongly recommend that local groups submit their responses, in the first instance to their local bishops, and also to whoever is collating these nationally. Three members of the leadership group – Andrew Hornsby-Smith, John Wilkins and Fr Gerry Hughes SJ – are putting together a document to guide local groups, which will be distributed to diocesan delegates and coordinators soon.
3. National Conference 2015. This will be held on 31st October 2015 at Leeds Trinity University. It will take place shortly after the above-mentioned Synod and its overall title will be
‘After the Synod: The Church in Britain Tomorrow’
Information about speakers, times and practical arrangements will be sent out in the new year. We are conscious that the journey to Leeds might be considered long for those who live ‘down south’ and we shall be sensitive to this when we decide on timings etc. In the meantime it might be helpful to investigate train deals.
Preparations for the 2016 National Conference are already underway.
Liverpool Hope Conference: Saturday 25th October 2014. A comprehensive analysis of the conference can be found on the website. Overall it was a highly successful event, well organised, and thoughtfully put together. A special thanks are due to Jean and the national leadership team as well as to members of Liverpool ACTA. It is good to learn from these occasions and the analysis of responses offered by attendees indicates a few areas where improvements could be made. While there was widespread appreciation of the various speakers, delegates felt that they would have liked more time for discussion. This is logical and fits in with the kind of group we are – we want to have our say! The quality of discussion in the groups was reported to have been very good; however, it might be improved further if group leaders could be given more time to prepare and guidance on how to keep people focused on the agreed topic while giving everyone a chance to speak. One group leader said it was all a bit breathless and rushed. More time for discussion will probably require us to reduce the number of speakers.
Delegates’ Conference: Hinsley Hall, Leeds, Friday 21st Nov-Sat 22nd 2014. Once again, there are detailed minutes that will be available on the website. What struck me was that ACTA is a very big tent which accommodates a variety of regional groups which are beginning to develop their own individual character and flavour. Nevertheless, the ACTA mission was very much to the fore not least the point that ACTA exists to give members a voice. I am proposing that the three priorities set out above should give that voice a focus in the coming year. This is I believe an important point for now and the future – we have to have focus, something concrete to propose, if our voice is to be effective.
An important issue raised in discussion was membership of ACTA. There is a register of members amounting to just under 2,000 in number; however, Jean with her detailed knowledge reckons that this is about half of the true number. It would be most helpful if all local groups could make sure that all their members are formally registered by means of a postal address or an email address. We shall ask for updates later in the year. Thanks for your help with this.
The next delegates’ meetings are:
Saturday 16th May 2015 in Birmingham
Friday and Saturday 4th and 5th December 2015 at Hinsley Hall, Leeds.
This would not be a Catholic outfit if I did not raise the subject of money at some point. Delegates and members of the leadership team cover their own expenses for travel, accommodation etc. I mention this only because I think it ought to be acknowledged. People foot their own bills because they believe in the cause.
New Leadership Team. This was elected at the Delegates’ Conference. The names are as follows:
- Eileen Fitzpatrick: Chair
- Fr Gerry Hughes SJ: Vice-chair
- Kathy Bamber: Vice-chair
- Valerie Stroud - Treasurer
- Mike Phelan
- Jo Fenton
- Andrew Hornsby-Smith
- Claire Ball: Membership secretary
- John McLorinan: NDC
- Brian Pointer: NDC
- John Wilkins: Media
- Alex Walker: Web and Social media
The dates for the leadership meetings in the coming year:
Saturday 24 January 2015 – St Catherine’s Convent, Birmingham
Saturday 19 September 2015 – St Catherine’s Convent, Birmingham
Don’t forget the National Conference on Saturday 31 October 2015
I just wish to repeat my heartfelt thanks to Jean Riordan for her magnificent work and for the support provided by Richard Brooke. And of course none of this would be happening if it was not for Fr Derek Reeve.