Thursday, 16 May 2013

Renewing the Church in Australia Step 7: Engaging the laity through transparency and accountability

One of the biggest challenges, I think, for the revival of the Church in Australia, is actually mobilising the troops - and by troops I mean we, the laity, but also parish priests, religious and others - to help.

We can each take action on our own spiritual life, that necessary foundation for mission.  And we can each take advantage of the opportunities  providence provides to show forth our faith.

But ultimately we have leaders for a reason.  They need to point us in the right direction, they need to provide us with the information on the tactics that work, and with intelligence that let's us know whether or not our actions are contributing to the overall task, and are proving effectual or not.

In short we need genuine engagement between hierarchy and laity, and much more transparency and accountability.

Information for engagement

If you want to do something about an issue, you need to know its dimensions in order to shape appropriate action.

Once you are acting, you need to know whether or not what you are doing is actually working.

And typically, you need to share that information fairly widely in order to motivate people to act.

Yet most of the time, Catholics get given very little useful information indeed on what is happening in their church, unless they happen to be part of the magic inner circle.

Take parish finances.  I'm always bemused by the number of parish and community bulletins that include information on how much money members contributed - but absolutely none on how much is really needed, or what the money collected is actually being used for.  Yet on the face of it, people are much more likely to put more on the plate if they know the parish can't currently pay its heating bill, or needs to purchase new vestments, or whatever the issue is, than if you simply ask for 'more'!

Similarly, although the latest data on Mass attendance rates is now available, only one Australian diocese (Melbourne) has actually put up its 2011 figure on its website so far (as far as I've been able to find).  And how many parishes have told anyone outside the parish council how big the evangelisation challenge they face actually is, and  how many people have left since the last survey?  Where is the data for each diocese on baptisms and marriages mapped against all births and marriages for example?

Yet this seems to me to be vital intelligence that can be deployed to good effect, as the exemplary Parramatta Diocese pastoral planning process seems to be doing, for example, stirring up real signs of new life there.

Out with the old paradigm!

In order to tackle the sorry state of the Church in Australia, we have to face up to the real situation and be honest about the challenges we face.  We need to get everyone, not just the currently engaged few, on the same page.  In short, we need to mobilise.

So why are the hierarchy so reluctant to do that?

There are still, for example, no lay observers or, in contrast to the US, video-streamed public sessions of Australian Catholic Bishops Conference Plenary's for example.  In fact, only a couple of representatives of religious get to sit in.

A lot of data on the state of the Church in Australia is provided to Rome by dioceses - but very little of this appears on diocesan websites.

And even where dioceses have pastoral plans in place, where bishops issue pastoral letters that contain concrete measures, there seems to be little attempt to check that the measures have actually been implemented, evaluate their effectiveness, and share that information with those it impacts on.

Take the case of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  Its pastoral plan for 2008-2011 was lauded a few years back by AD 2000 as the answer to how to turn around the woeful state of the Australian Church.  But though its notional period of effect has long expired I could find absolutely nothing on the Archdiocesan website (or elsewhere) on how well it has or hasn't worked (and in reality, as far as I can work out, the answer seems to be a very mixed one).  Nor are there any signs of the next plan being formulated!

I don't think this kind of approach is tenable, if it ever was.

Accordingly, I think our leaders need to find new, much more open ways of engaging us, drawing on the tools of social media amongst others.

What's the Plan?

Michael Voris in one of his classically combative videos this week asked the question, What's the Plan?

That is, where is the bishops' master plan to revive the faith, not just manage the decline.`    

You can watch Voris' video over at Fr Ray Blake's blog, where you can also read the classic counter argument, that  men's 'cunning plans' tend to come to nothing, and attempts to come up  with them perhaps divert us from the supernatural vision, and God's supernatural leadership.

Now given this series you won't be surprised to know that I'm actually with Mr Voris on this one.

Yes, we need God's guidance on whatever form the plan should take.  And yes, we need to remember that nothing will succeed without God's grace.  We need to keep in mind that even what are perceived as failures in the world's eyes might actually turn out to be successes in the longer run: the blood of the martyrs, after all, has often been the seed of the church.

All the same, God expects us to employ all of the tools at our disposal in his cause: grace perfects nature; it doesn't displace it altogether.

And it seems to me that analysing the data, developing plans for the future, engaging people on those plans, and measuring success are tools we should be using.

Why is it, then, that many in the Church are so reluctant to genuinely engage the laity on the future of the Church?

Scared of debate?

One of the challenges of living in a post-modern, socially networked world is how to make decisions and engage in debate.

It is a problem for politics, but it is also a problem for the Church.

It has never really, I think, been the case that decisions were simply taken at the top, handed down and obeyed: there have always been formal and informal routes of influence; insiders and outsiders to the decision-making process.

What has changed, I think, is that those who typically remain outside the formal processes and under the radar have now been empowered by social media.

There are a lot of people (and I'm one of them) that tend to hang around the fringes of parishes, reluctant to get actively involved for various reasons.  One of the issues, I think, is that natural human tendency to want to welcome newcomers on our terms, happy to have them so long as they don't challenge the status quo.  Yet in reality the very reason many of us stay on the fringes is that we aren't happy with the status quo, but know that any challenge to it will not be welcomed (to put it mildly).  And that's also the reason many end up either going somewhere else,  or stop practising altogether.

Somehow or other, we need, I think, to find a way to engage those people on the fringe, and have the debate that needs to be had in a positive way.

How to have a (real) debate

There was an interesting rant this week that appeared in a number of forums called Why Australia hates thinkers.  It was basically a complaint about the strong anti-intellectual tradition in Australia, the intense dislike of public debate at the level of ideas.

Now as is often the case the author, Alecia Simmonds, went too far on a number of counts.  As Jeff Sparrow has pointed out on New Matilda, amongst other problems she seems to conflate the concept of intellectual with academic; she confuses the lack of left wing space in the public sphere with lack of space altogether; and seems to have some expectation that the pearls of wisdom imparted by the apparently delicate flowers of the liberal left should be applauded, rather than having to be defended through polemical debate.

Still, I do think there was something to Ms Simmonds original comments, in us much as within the Church and outside it, our culture devotes a lot of effort to preserving at least the illusion of decision-making by consensus, even though achieving this means marginalizing and excluding those with views challenge that consensus, rather than actually engaging with them in a meaningful way.

The recent manoeuvres around the National Disability Insurance Scheme, where a business leader was ridiculed for pointing to the effects of increased taxation on his industry, and the Opposition Leader forced into supporting the levy rather than being painted as being against the disabled in an election campaign, was a classic example of this in the secular sphere.  Now in that particular case, the ultimate outcome was probably the right one, but one can think of plenty of counter-examples - Australia's treatment of asylum seekers for example, or less controversially for this blog, abortion and euthanasia - where ridiculing and de facto exclusion of the alternative perspective seems likely to lead to less than optimal outcomes.  

Within the Church, the effective exclusion of traditionalists from the Churches consultative structures in this country, and the failure to engage those at the margins of parishes (and other communities) who might challenge the status quo, is, it seems to me, another manifestation of the same cultural problem.

The Benedictine model

In my view, there are actually models for engagement of the troops and decision-making that actually provide a way through these issues.  As I favour Benedictine spirituality, I'm going to propose that particular one, but there are others.

The model proposed by St Benedict is not about consensus decision-making.  In the end, the Abbot makes the important decisions within the monastery.

But St Benedict does impose a duty on the abbot to hold council meetings involving all, and to listen carefully to the views of all, even the newest and youngest, indeed, even to visiting outsiders lest they have been sent by God for that very purpose.

There is a nice exposition on the tension between our desire for consensus decision-making and our reluctance to obey in the latest installment (15 May) of The Abbot's Notebook from the US Christ in the Desert Monastery, chronicling the shift of the monastery from post-Vatican II experimentalism to a more traditional model.  When the monastery was established, Abbot Philip Lawrence relates, they wanted everything to be done by consensus: consensus was in, obedience to the abbot was out.  When they were admitted to a Benedictine Congregation, they were told this was not how Benedictine monasticism worked.  They complied, but hoped to maintain a consensus based approach as much as possible.

Similar tensions remain in the Church today, the Abbot suggests, with many Catholics reluctant to accept the divinely instituted nature of the Church and the limits on debate that imposes.

And it seems to me that the hierarchy's reluctance to engage stems from the fear that if they do open up the debate, Catholics are demonstrably reluctant to respect the limits set by the Church, and to accept the pastoral decisions that are made within those bounds.

Still, I think there are styles of leadership, ways of engaging that can work in the contemporary framework.  Indeed, Pope Francis' daily homilies seems to be an excellent example of just such a style of operation.

It won't be easy or painless.

But it is necessary.

***Making nuisances of ourselves

Pope Francis' latest week day sermon is very pertinent to this, talking about St Paul's talent Saint Paul for ‘being a nuisance’, at unsettling people who had grown too comfortable in their faith and imbuing them with that Apostolic zeal that is necessary for the Church to move forward.

Vatican Radio reports:

Pope Francis said that Apostolic zeal, implies "an element of madness, but of spiritual madness, of healthy madness” and proclaiming Christ has its consequences, which can often result in persecution. Nonetheless, stated the Pope, we must not be ‘backseat Christians’ cozy in our comfort zones. 

Drawing inspiration from the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 22, where Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin, Pope Francis pointed out that the life of the Apostle to the Gentiles was one of "persecution", but that this did not discourage him. The fate of Paul, he stressed, "is a fate with many crosses, but he keeps going, he looks to the Lord and keeps going":

"Paul is a nuisance: he is a man who, with his preaching, his work, his attitude irritates others, because testifying to Jesus Christ and the proclamation of Jesus Christ makes us uncomfortable, it threatens our comfort zones – even Christian comfort zones, right? It irritates us. The Lord always wants us to move forward, forward, forward ... not to take refuge in a quiet life or in cozy structures, no?... And Paul, in preaching of the Lord, was a nuisance. But he had deep within him that most Christian of attitudes: Apostolic zeal. He had its apostolic zeal. He was not a man of compromise. No! The truth: forward! The proclamation of Jesus Christ, forward! ".

We need to encourage each other to become holy nuisances!

You can find the next part in this series here.

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