Saturday 25th February saw clergy and laity come together at Brentwood School to discuss the way forward for the Diocese of Brentwood.
The meeting was part of the Stewards of the Gospel initiative launched by Bishop Alan Williams a year ago which was designed to promote collaborative working and planning for the future.
It was also an opportunity for newly appointed Director of Development, Steve Webb, to talk about a timeline for change, and for groups of priests and lay people to discuss ways of working together and ideas for evangelisation.
In his introduction, Bishop Alan recalled Pope Saint John-Paul II’s words: ‘Dioceses should embrace collaboration, dialogue, discernment and consultation with lay people.’
“I take those words very seriously,” he said. “And Pope Francis has taken up precisely that point. If you simply identify goals as a Bishop, that is not an adequate way forward. It must be a collaborative journey – we must not walk alone but rely on each other as brothers and sisters (under the leadership of the bishop).”
‘Discernment’ is an important word, he said, and is part of the Christian furniture. St Ignatius and the Jesuits were masters of discernment, he added, and presupposed that every Christian will put a good interpretation on something rather than say it is false. “We need that generosity of heart today to listen to others and be generous in our interpretation of their ideas. We will not walk by or crush our neighbour with criticism.”
He concluded: “I am delighted to see you all here today – it shows that we have begun to move forward together.”
In a positive and upbeat address, Steve Webb reminded his audience that “change is not only necessary, good and a fact of life but that Jesus did not come into the world to maintain the status quo but to change things”. And, he said, the Church has seen significant changes over the centuries since then.
Now, he said, Pope Francis has encouraged the Christian faithful to embark on a new wave of evangelisation and “the responsibility falls to us to develop our church for the future so more people can hear the Gospel message. We must transform ourselves and our parishes – the goals, structures, styles and methods of evangelisation in our diocese”.
As director of development, he said, he would not be blindly optimistic but realistic. “I intend to look at everything afresh in this time of discernment, decision-making and change for our diocese.”
He said that the plan must include a new and exciting relationship between laity and priests. “If we engage in a fruitful dialogue, we can do almost anything.”
For some people, change is a very scary word, he added, and there are different responses to the change process. But he promised his audience that everyone would be listened to and taken seriously, before mapping out a timeline of discussion and collaboration which would culminate in the publication of a vision for the Diocese in 2019.
Subsequently, Fr David Clements and Fr Dan Mason gave a clergy perspective. Fr David said: “Every day brings something different – from unblocking a toilet blocked with wasps to sitting with someone as they die. They don’t teach you that at Christology classes.” He expressed some reservations about Steve Webb’s optimism: “I am hobbit-like – I don’t relish adventures; they make you late for dinner.”
He pointed out that being a priest does not endow a man with the qualities of a social worker, a nurse, a psychologist. And Fr Dan agreed. “We are not ordained to be glorified social workers or car park attendants.”
He continued: “I hope that this initiative is about looking holistically at the relationship between priests and the people they serve.” He said a reality for many priests was a growing workload, the increasing complexity of pastoral work and isolation. “I hope this consulting process will lead to a deeper understanding and empathy between priests and people.”
Two break-out sessions involved small group discussions on ‘sharing responsibilities, delegation and complementarity’; and ‘how can we better evangelise together?’ The latter, in particular, fed back a number of ideas to the whole group, including: soup kitchens and street pastors; ecumenical work for the homeless; shared resources; the utilisation of the SVP and other groups; family events to welcome new people; and prayer groups to develop people’s prayer lives. Some groups called on the Diocese to support evangelisation efforts through education and the sharing of resources.
Steve Webb facilitated a short question and answer session, which produced a number of conclusions. “I won’t be using formulae to change things in the Diocese because hard and fast rules don’t work,” he said. “What we are dealing with here are people’s relationships with God and with other parishioners and parishes – it is about relationships rather than numbers. I will use a starting point the survey produced by you, the stewards.”
He said one of his guiding principles was to share information wherever possible. “And we need to make sure that priests feel at home in our communities – for the sake of their mental health and happiness. It is about working smarter rather than harder – getting more out of the resources we have and making life easier at the same time.”
Bishop Alan closed the assembly by reiterating his concern for hard-working priests – and his desire that all of them should have a day off each week. “All priests are overburdened and may not look after themselves as well as they ought. I have seen two people with malnutrition recently and both of them were Catholic priests – thankfully not from this Diocese.”
He expressed his passion for his plan for the Diocese. “I really want to go for this, so come to the table and get involved. What is important for me is that you have a willingness to enter into personal conversion.”
He finished with another reference to Pope Francis: “He really is discernment in action. He is remarkable when you meet him – there is no tension between him and his office. He is calling us to discernment. So let us finish Lent in a better place than we are now.”