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The leading proponent of relaxing the ban on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics tells Christopher Lamb that the Church too often appears rule-bound
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Having produced the Beatles, two famous football clubs and enough remarkable architecture to make it a world heritage site, Liverpool is rightly proud of its history.
Its illustrious past also includes being the traditional stronghold of Catholicism in England and Wales, driven by an Irish immigrant population during the Industrial Revolution.
But yesterday's installation of the ninth Archbishop of Liverpool, Malcolm McMahon, was a moment to look to the Church's future in the city.
This is a serious matter because, as one priest of the archdiocese told me afterwards, it looks “very, very grim”.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Malone, who, having been ordained in 1955, knows Liverpool better than most, outlined the difficulties. The problem for the Church, he explained, primarily lies in the massive decline of the city's population.
Forty years ago this stood at 750,000, while today it is 400,000. He said that in a two-mile radius of the city centre there are 20 Catholic churches, but at the latest headcount there were only 3,500 Mass-goers. There were 600 priests 50 years ago and today there are around 150 (excluding Religious priests).
Given that the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, in which Archbishop McMahon was installed, has a capacity of more than 2,000 worshippers it doesn't take a management consultant to work out that the diocese has too many churches for the number of Catholics.
Judging by his homily yesterday, it appears that Archbishop McMahon has already started grappling with the problems he faces.
He told the congregation that packed out the 1960s cathedral-in-the-round that the Church must be willing to take risks and break with “the structures and conventions that give us comfort, that feed our complacency and dull our sensitivity to the demands of being a Christian.”
The archbishop also called on those present to make a part of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium their own. This states that “all the baptised … are agents of evangelisation”. To emphasise the point he told the congregation to “wake up!” and take this on board.
Archbishop McMahon seems an excellent fit for Liverpool – pastoral, down-to-earth and sensitive to local issues. In his homily he made reference to the Hillsborough tragedy and praised the dignity of the families of those killed. He has already indicated his willingness to speak out about poverty which will be welcome in an area blighted by unemployment.
Watching him greet people after the installation Mass you could see a man who relishes being around people. He has also stayed in touch with his roots: among those present were a group of old friends from his school days at a Catholic secondary in north London.
But when the celebration is over the archbishop is going to need to make some tough decisions about Liverpool's future. That is, of course, if the city's Catholicism is going to be more than just a memory of its past.
Christopher Lamb is The Tablet's Assistant Editor (Home News)