Someone rang me this week to ask what had happened to the report from our recent consultation for the forthcoming Synod on Marriage and Family life. I had to admit that the report was on my desk but I hadn’t yet put it out in the parish. It made me wonder why, and I concluded that I am getting caught up in the inertia in the diocese about the Synod, which is such a shame.
The four parishes of West Wirral had invited parishioners to a meeting to discuss the Synod in March. Led by local priest Fr Peter Phillips, we marched into a local parish hall to find around 100 parishioners, many over 50, eager for the discussion. It was a fabulous occasion and very humbling. They considered areas such as marriage preparation, responsible parenthood, marital breakdown, homosexuality and gay relationships. The overwhelming mood was of sympathy and understanding. Ordinary people, experienced people, having lived their lives and probably been shocked from time to time by their children and grandchildren, really wanted the “Church” to understand, be more caring and to show Jesus’ love.
Now, having met, what do we do about it? “Send the response to the bishops’ conference” is the party line, but they ask, what is that going to do?
Fifteen years ago Brian Noble, the previous Bishop of Shrewsbury, launched a pastoral review of his diocese. He asked every deanery to discuss circulated papers about how the mission of the diocese could be sustained over the next 20 years. It didn’t dodge issues, it made the facts clear but more than anything, it made clear that he, as bishop, wanted to hear what the people in the parishes felt about sustaining their future.
More than that, he asked every deanery to hold public meetings so that the people in each area could have their say. To each of these meetings he sent a trustee or a representative to work through the consultation. At the end he published a glossy magazine containing the outcomes from every one of those meetings. He asked, he listened and as a consequence he made decisions, sometimes hard decisions, but he brought the people with him. Happy times and real and valuable consultation!
That is what we want from our bishops. We need to see a published response from all the laity of all the dioceses across the country. This is too important to allow some portly bishop’s secretary to fudge a report for Rome. This is about marriage and family life, and it is those who live those lives who should be agreeing what is sent to Rome on their behalf.
To me it is scary that a letter from a disconnected group of priests asking the Pope to maintain the status quo on the Church’s attitude to marriage could get the publicity it did [http://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/1909/0/cardinal-rebukes-priests-for-publicising-call-to-resist-reform] and even a put-down from Cardinal Nichols, when the cries of the ordinary parishioners for understanding have not even raised an eyebrow!
If the bishops are looking for a model of good practice on how to make a response, I suggest they ring Brian Noble and he, lovely man he is, will no doubt give sound advice.
Fr John G Feeney is the parish priest of Leasowe and Moreton in the diocese of Shrewsbury