A message from ACTA Chair, Martin Bennett in Liverpool
My preparations for the delegates' and leadership conference in Birmingham, Sept 24th, had some questions mixed in with the usual sense of anticipation and enthusiasm which the reports from diocesan groups around the country normally produce, (reports available on the website).
If there is one theme which dominates ACTA in diocesan groups and in the planning for the National Conference, it is working to increase the role of the laity at all levels of the church. It would seem obvious to me that any reading of the reports reflects a group of people keen to learn from Scripture and from Church teachings, (not exclusively from Pope Francis, but we do like to promote the Pope), and a desire to put what we learn into action both locally and in the wider church.
It is clear, though, that it isn't obvious to everyone that ACTA is making a positive and constructive contribution to the life of the Church. In different parts of the country, ACTA groups have faced opposition from some people who do not agree that we are a positive movement; there are also people who ask 'but what does ACTA actually do?
If we listen to criticism and opposing views, and if we face searching questions openly, there is always the possibilty that we find out we aren't what we claim to be, or that our work isn't yet bearing fruit. One option is to talk to each other and convince ourselves that 'we' are right and 'they' are wrong. The other option is to always examine ourselves and to constantly be open to dialogue with all people who are pursuing the same goal - service of the church.
These views formed two questions which I approached the conference in Birmingham with. As a grassroots movement (rather than a pressure group), we have to ask of ourselves, and anticipate that others will ask:
Does our work come out of the mission of the church, or are we coming with our own agenda and vision of what we think the church should be like?
Do our plans and events enable members of ACTA, together with other people in the church, participate fully in the life and mission of the church, in keeping with the many official church documents from Vatican II onwards?
At any point in the day, from the opening prayer which included the words, "Lord we come with our hopes and our fears. We come because you invited us to come", and guided throughout by the words of Charles PeGuy's 'God's Dream' But from those who share my dreams, I ask a little patience, a little humour, some small courage, and a listening heart - I will do the rest" the answer to both questions would demonstrably be 'yes'.
A detailed report giving an account of the various items on the agenda will be sent to members via co-ordinators. Each of the items would allow us to answer 'yes' to the two questions:
the Conference will explore the role of the laity at parish level and at diocesan level;
the NDC delegates discussed the evolution of a regional organisation of ACTA groups to strengthen the current model by allowing for more regular sharing of ideas, events and experience within the church;
delegates raised the importance of diocesan councils and representation of the laity on them, proposing a countrywide project to present to the Bishops' Conference;
the report on the Conversations trial showed how the proposed format might allow all sections of the church, (with differing levels of engagement) to discuss their relationship with God and with the church in an open and constructive way.
An item which should have been discussed was ACTA's concern about the widespread merging of parishes. As the number of available clergy falls, the bishops try to cope by amalgamating local Catholic congregations. But this often produces artificial superstructures where the sense of intimate community is lost. John Wilkins has been leading an ACTA initiative which seeks to launch detailed professional research into these mega-parishes and into alternative ways forward.
It may not be obvious from these separate bullet points, (detailed reports will be available on all points), but a particularly strong, and encouraging, feature of the day was how much each item related to the others. Returning to the two questions, the speakers at the National Conference, (as well as the various talks organised by local ACTA groups) ensure that our agenda arises from and immerses us completely in, the church's mission, and from Pope Francis' urgent request for its renewal; the format of the Conference discussions, the proposals put forward by the delegates and the Conversations project ensure that dialogue will progress to action.
I am sure many of you have, like me, been on retreats where you have come away feeling energised and uplifted by both the content and the people you shared with. I had that feeling coming away from Birmingham on Saturday.
Please note: if you are not a member of ACTA, you are very welcome to our website. Click on 'join' to see how easy it is to join: it's free, takes less than 2 minutes and the amount of commitment you make is up to you. We don't have a point of view on any given issue, only that all issues should be open to respectful dialogue.