Great to see the work for Church Reform going on in Scotland. But you will see from the account below that they are meeting with obstacles that we are familiar with here in Ireland. This is an account of their progress so far.
The Scottish Laity Network – Networking for Change
Prophets come in strange garb – they shock.
An unexpected group of prophets shocked the diocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh last summer when we rose up after the effective closure, without warning or collaboration, of our diocesan pastoral agencies. A petition of protest reached 660 signatures in a matter of days. Our ‘strange garb’ as prophets lies perhaps more in what we are than in what we are not. We are neither radicals nor malcontents. Rather we are faithful Catholics, church insiders, active in our parishes and in lay ministry.
Why then did such faithful laypeople petition an Archbishop and ultimately decide to send our concerns to the papal nuncio and the hierarchy in Rome? Perhaps it was our anger at being blindsided by the loss of vital pastoral resources and an important mission outreach. Perhaps it was the curial reform itself, which sought to replace qualified, expert laypeople with inexperienced, already overburdened priests. Perhaps it was sheer frustration at our attempts at dialogue being blocked. We saw in that a resurgence of clericalism, a dangerous, retrograde step.
The papacy of Francis was changing our lived reality as Catholics. His pastoral theology offers clear guidelines for a practical implementation of Vatican II. The Church should be flourishing. But looking around us in the pews we still saw indifference or passive dependence, both rooted in the clerical mindset that ‘the one duty of the multitude is to allow themselves to be led, and like a docile flock, to follow the Pastors.’ (Pius X)
We had a collective kairos moment. The prophet Ezekiel speaks of a moment like that: ‘The Spirit set me on my feet.’ (Ezk 2:2) We stood up. Together.
As individuals we met, initially in anger, then stayed to pray, knowing our reaction was rooted in the sensus fidelium, a felt sense that our leaders had exceeded their authority. Canon Law agreed that as baptised lay faithful we had the right to raise our concerns for the common good. We found we had the courage in the Spirit to do just that.
In speaking out we realised we were part of the quiet revolution Pope Francis is asking for within the Catholic Church. Unexpected prophets, we shared the vision of the People of God walking together in a much more inclusive Church, with leadership open to the wisdom of the faithful in its decision-making. But we were people without a voice. Standing up was just the beginning – if we wanted a ‘synodal’ church that would mean changed ecclesial structures, a culture of dialogue, and the communal discernment needed for Christ’s Mission. We decided to ask for those things.
As we grew in strength and numbers we found our feet were on firm spiritual ground. Individuals and groups are free to set up lay associations which promote the mission of the Church (Christifideles Laici 29). Our call and our mission come not from the hierarchy but from Christ himself. They are rooted in our baptism (CL 64). To live out our mission as laypeople we have the right to call for adequate training (Apostolicam Actuositatem 28-32) and to ask that it be placed ‘among the priorities of a diocese’ (CL 57). We have the right to encouragement and support from our bishop (AA 25) and to ask that priests and people learn to work together (CL 31).
There is no precedent in Scotland for an organisation like the Scottish Laity Network (SLN). The need for systemic change – innovative, inclusive, with effective collaboration – is self- evident but we are clear on our responsibility to help build new pathways of communication, new relationships, new community. Inspired by Christ’s metaphor of the vine and branches (Jn 15:5) we have started to come together, building our own lay network – online, in informal groups, and at parish level, sharing ideas, information and resources.
Our focus is a genuine voice for lay people, incorporated into the decision making of the church. Church leaders need to be able to trust our knowledge and judgment. For that lay formation, which is the right and duty of all, is required. Parishes should be houses of lay education, forming us just as a seminary forms priests. We need to take the initiative, to ask and keep asking for training, including in lay leadership, and to host small groups in our parishes which will to bring new vitality, faith enrichment and mission opportunities to our apostolate. As laity we cannot be passive any longer.
When, six months after our petition, Archbishop Cushley finally agreed to a meeting with a representative group from SLN, he was asked for more accountability, transparency and collaboration. The Archbishop listened politely, offered no promises, then wrote saying communication with him was closed. This was regarded as an expression of the clericalism which debilitates our ecclesial structures and relationships. How can it be that laity, asking for our rights, and wanting to better live out our responsibilities, are viewed as a threat? We had the choice to accept the Archbishop’s decision or take our concerns further up. Understanding that we cannot wait for the hierarchy to change a structure that works for them we chose to go to Rome. We chose to be heard.
The work of bridgebuilding is difficult. It means dismantling old structures, challenging old attitudes. That includes common misunderstandings on both sides. Our vision as SLN includes introducing the comfortable and sometimes reluctant to the Church’s teaching on the lay apostolate and the complementary but differing roles of laity and priests. Our apostolate involves so much more than ‘helping Father’.
In asking for the change we believe necessary for a healthy, revitalised church, it’s been put to us that our name – Scottish Laity Network – could be deemed anti-clerical, or that what we are asking for (in effect a return to old church practices) will lead to a devaluation of the priesthood. Ironically, our asking for the laity to be promoted comes from our love for and admiration of our priests. Educating and enabling the laity does not mean devaluing the priesthood. Our hope is for the flourishing of all the faithful – lay and clergy alike – all those baptised priests, prophets and kings, working together so that the Church can be more fully the presence of Christ in the world.
Together with courageous clergy SLN has begun to live this new reality. Not competing but mutually empowering each other, clear on our different roles, working together, unified by our baptismal mission and identity. We have discovered that there is joy in the work of bridgebuilding. The joy of working for a common purpose, the joy of momentum after such a long period of stasis, in discovering we are ‘not lacking in any spiritual gift’ (1 Cor: 1-7). Our bottom up movement can generate transformation. The Scottish Laity Network is growing, with membership now stretching from Uist to the Borders. Parish councils are reaching out to us. Other dioceses, we know, are watching what’s happening with great interest.
Progress is slow, and sometimes difficult. Thomas Merton, in his book, ‘New Seeds of Contemplation’ likens love to the ‘resetting of broken bones.’ It must be very painful for our leaders to be confronted suddenly with determined Catholics mature enough in their faith to challenge, not as revolt but as an act of faith. For our part we recognise that, particularly in the beginning, our frustration was evident. But working and praying together over many months, we have come to trust the Spirit working in us.
As He is working in others. The Scottish Laity Network is part of a global phenomenon of laypeople asking for ecclesial change. There is pioneering work happening in Hexham and Newcastle, developing lay leadership. The ‘listening process’ of Killala diocese in Ireland is a fine example of synodality – people, priests and bishop listening keenly to the sensus fidelium and deciding together the needs and hopes of the local church.
Recently the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh advertised a formation day on the role of the laity. How closely that formation will echo the vision of the Holy Father in spirit remains to be seen.
But could it be that our leaders are listening?
To learn more, join the Scottish Laity Network or find out about starting a group, please visit us on Face Book or email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.