I am relieved that I don’t have to try to summarise the content of our National Conference as the speeches are available to view on the website – well worth listening to if you were at the Conference as there were so many gems in the rich veins of theology, Pastoral Ministry, Church history and human stories which threaded through the day it was impossible to allow everything to sink in. Hopefully that will also encourage those who weren’t present to watch the speeches.

I would like to take a moment to summarise the tone and the feeling of the day. The organisation was outstanding, not just at the level of everything running smoothly and a packed timetable being completed, but, more importantly, because the warm and welcoming start created an atmosphere conducive to stimulating speeches and discussion groups and to relaxed and cheerful ‘catching up’ conversations between ACTA members. For the superb, warm and efficient organisation, thank you, ACTA Birmingham.

There is an almost ritual ‘Where do we go from here?’ to follow from any inspiring and uplifting day. Dare I suggest that for us, this question is more urgent precisely because the day was so inspiring. If we don’t allow ourselves as ACTA to be challenged by what we heard, we become day trippers who had a good day out rather than people who “want to contribute fully to the life of our Church so that we may be a more effective sign of the Kingdom of God.”

Picking out a few strands risks giving a personal slant on the day, but I would like to attempt to pick out what I thought were particularly relevant to ACTA’s ongoing mission.

Tony Flannery’s reflections on the Church in Ireland highlighted the problems of fewer and ageing priests which we are all familiar with. He drew attention to just how deep-seated the problems are when he pointed to the roots of the crisis being deeper than the sex abuse scandals which saw so many lay people leaving the pews. Many priests’ endless hours spent in the confessional after Humane Vitae trying to encourage lay people to use their conscience was the tip of a clericalism iceberg: the priest was expected to be the one who ran the show, and who told people what to think and how to conduct themselves in many areas of life. The clergy’s isolated position is even more accentuated today with many of the priests being pressured to work past retirement age, and many feeling demoralised and unsupported by their Bishops with whom there seems to be little communication.

One response in the church in Ireland has been the formation and flourishing of the Association of Catholic Priests which has, among other aims in its constitution, a desire for the full implementation of the vision and teaching of the Second Vatican Council, ‘with special emphasis on the primacy of the individual conscience, the status and active participation of all the baptised, the task of establishing a Church where all believers will be treated as equal’. (I recommend visiting their website).

The move away from clericalism envisioned by Vatican II and forced increasingly by the crisis in the number of priests, (remembering that a crisis is not necessarily a disaster: it is a turning point) is where the issue begins to challenge us. How can the laity be expected to play a key role in the Church when there aren’t the structures to allow significant leadership roles – especially for women – and when lay people don’t have the time, the training, or the opportunity to take up those positions?

David Mcloughlin’s talk on Bishop Lobinger’s solutions gave examples of how this can be possible. The model presented was one of locally ordained ministers – men and women –living their lives as members of the local community, but also being ordained. They would be rooted in their own community, whilst the ordained priests as we know them being more mobile and having a teaching function, acting as spiritual guides to the elders. This is actually the model for the early (vibrant!) church, where the eucharist was a gathering around a community leader, not around a ‘saint’ priest. As David pointed out, it is inconceivable to think that the early Christian churches would only have a eucharistic meal when an apostle visited.

Particularly encouraging is that it was Pope Francis who has asked for Bishop Lobinger to report to him. The Vatican is seriously looking at this model.

It is at this point that I sense the day tripper in me has to recognise that the inspirational material presented by David and the hope engendered by the ACP and other reform movements poses a serious question to me as an ACTA member: How do I/we promote / contribute to / agitate for renewal and reform at the local and Diocesan level?

ACTA’s role is not to present a list of demands or suggestions for this or that change: there are many worthy reform groups who focus on particular issues; nor is it our role to offer criticisms or solutions from the side-lines or the imagined moral or theological high ground. We are a grassroots movement made up of parishioners who want to contribute to the renewal of the church from our position in the pew. Of course, there are many obstacles to lay people being involved in truly collaborative ministry, some institutional and some to do with lay people themselves, so it would perhaps be unrealistic to set out a plan of action. We do, however, need to understand and promote an understanding of the ‘priesthood of the people, (1 Pet 2:5,9, Catechism, para 1546). Professor John Sullivan’s talk, ‘Being disciples in a changing church’, gave the theological and scriptural framework for this. John’s talk drew out how the church would look and operate differently if its authenticity came from a community of Christ, not from structures. In this community, people are not passive, anonymous congregations receiving from an outside source, but as disciples, they receive their mission and guidance from the risen Jesus. He described how such communities would offer ‘A story to enter, a language to speak, a group to belong to, a way to pray, a work to undertake.’

The talks and the discussions were challenging because they were uplifting. They did not invite us to look at the familiar problems of our church with jaded or cynical eyes, nor did they invite us to look for faults in other people. Tony Flannery invited us to look at the problems of a church where the priests are isolated with one compassionate eye on their welfare and impossible workload and one searching eye looking outwards from the empty pews. David Mcloughlin invited us to look with one eye on the past, to a church built around spirit-filled people who expected to serve and to build the community, and the other eye on a present model which makes it possible to renew parish structures along these lines. John Sullivan invited us to look to our relationship with Christ as the foundation of the church, so that, as living stones, we are able to respond to the promptings of the Spirit in our secular society by working towards a community of shared leadership and shared authority, as inspired by Vatican II and demanded by Jesus of his disciples.

These many perspectives allowed us to see the problems and the potential clearly. Looking to our radical Scriptural roots allows us to spot tables which need overturning so that the church can be a house of prayer, shaped by Pope Francis’ call for a renewed relationship with Christ rather than relationships dictated by structures that are the product of a relatively recent part of our tradition.

As parishioners who are ACTA members, we have been given an insight into how our church could be. Or responsibility, then, is to bring this potential and models to parish meetings and to individual conversations; as ACTA groups in the different diocese, we must offer talks, meetings, workshops or any other channels of communication to open up the possibilities for a renewed church based on the theological and ecclesial underpinning gleaned from this powerful day.

Martin Bennett (Chair)