From turmoil to stabilisation
ANDREW BONAR LAW was the diffident, un-charismatic Conservative politician who in 1922 emerged from retirement to bring the Lloyd-George Coalition to an end. Both in personality and political style, Law differed sharply from the 'Welsh Wizard'. Lloyd-George's restless and erratic energies had eventually exhausted his colleagues, Parliament and the country. Law's motto by contrast - a single word which became his general election campaign slogan - seemed to promise what, by then, everyone wanted: "tranquillity".
The recent history of the Catholic Church in Britain suggests at least one parallel with these earlier events in our national history.
After the Second Vatican Council the Church embarked upon a programme of renewal and modernisation which unleashed great ferment and upheaval, even turmoil. But it was a programme which ultimately collapsed in exhaustion and disillusion, fulfilling few of its original hopes. Now, almost forty years after the close of Vatican II, what the battered Catholic community needs is a period of stabilisation and - with due deference to Bonar Law - tranquillity.
The advocates of change in the era of the Council entertained two very laudable ambitions. One was that Catholicism would be re-cast in a modern mould which would invigorate the faith of existing Church members and also win new converts. The second was that the Catholic Church would become a great force, alongside all the others in those expansive days, for 'changing society'. It was the age of Slant Magazine and the Catholic-Marxist dialogue - now vanished, sadly, along with the rest of the radical Left.
The Church in Britain avoided most of the acrimony and polarisation that characterised the reception of Vatican II in other parts of the world, but there was still plenty of vigorous debate as the familiar categories of Catholic theology, catechetics and liturgy were subjected to redefinition and reinterpretation.
Then in the 1970's the Charismatic Renewal - a Catholic version of the pentecostal movement - brought fresh convulsions. The movement's tendency to stress personal 'baptism in the Spirit' and its implication of direct access to spiritual gifts were potentially at odds with the traditional Catholic emphasis on the mediating role of the Church, the sacraments and the ordained ministry. Like the participants in most revivalist movements, the Charismatics relied heavily on emotion and enthusiasm as guarantees of authenticity. There was little grounding in solid theology but often more than a hint of spiritual superiority.
Foundations built on sand
Today, a generation or so later, I think we would have to concede that the exuberant modernisation movement of the 1960's and -70's simply failed to realise its grand aspirations. For one thing forces outside the Church contributed to a sharp change in climate: as the economic crisis of the mid-seventies gave birth to a corporate counter-attack against the social welfare gains of the post-war period, the naive optimism of the boom years soon evaporated. But internal Church factors also played their part in the failure.
Calm reflection and long-term perspectives are at a discount in times of hectic change. There is a tendency to concentrate on surface events, to over-rate the importance of novelty, to lose contact with origins and basic foundations. What we can see now more clearly, with the benefit of hindsight, is that much of the activism of the post-conciliar period was rooted in rather shallow soil. The activists neglected to heed Christ's own warning about the danger of building one's house on sand.
The priests, nuns and laypeople who were most caught up in the post-conciliar tumult are now of course in late middle age or even older. Today they have a raddled, washed-up air about them, reminiscent of George Best or Ozzie Osbourne, or some other dazed survivor of earlier excess.
On one level they retain their commitment to the package of liberal reforms first set out forty or so years ago: married priests, women priests, remarriage for divorcees, ecumenical enthusiasm and its more contemporary, sentimental flipside, 'the-pain-of-division'. As priests' numbers decline, a new and multifarious project of lay leadership has been added to the manifesto.
But at the level of their own personal faith in God these now slightly jaded apostles of progress often appear uncertain as to what they actually believe. Having spent so many years engaged in church management, or wrapped up in some brand of feel-good spirituality, they now find themselves confronted with the threadbare state of their own faith.
These are not the Catholics who repudiated their religion in adolescence or early adulthood, never to embrace it again - a regular feature of Church life for decades. Today we are confronted with an increasingly common phenomenon: that of the former parish activist, busily involved for years, but now bitter about defunct plans and unrewarded effort, and wondering 'what it's all about'.
And what of our leaders? Sadly, in many ways they have fared little better. For most of today's bishops the above period in social history was formative. Doubtless it was an exciting time to be a young priest emerging from seminary, as many now-senior clergy were doing. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive" and all the rest of it.
Unfortunately it also appears to have left them in a mental time-warp, unable to adapt to our present, more testing, circumstances, or to offer any fresh thinking. The current episcopal mania for reorganising internal church structures signals a retreat into the bunker, not the bold forward planning of official propaganda. They obviously feel obliged to be seen to be 'doing something' in the face of the Church's precipitous decline, but they would be of greater service to themselves and everyone else if they had the courage to do nothing at all.
Retrenchment and reform
At the moment the Catholic community in Britain does not need new pastoral structures or any more projects of parish 'renewal'. Experience shows that these elicit confusion and weariness, rather than any upsurge of fresh commitment. What the Church requires now, as stated above, is a period of stabilisation and tranquillity - a period of retrenchment even - in which we honestly take stock of our dwindling resources and reorientate ourselves to essentials, both in our individual faith and in the life of our communities.
A period of diminishing strength is the least opportune moment to launch new and consuming initiatives. Today, a perceptive reading of the Signs of the Times would suggest a humbler and more realistic attitude, a scaling-down of both the rhetoric and the plans. Indeed, our present fragility makes this kind of retrenchment, and the accompanying return to essentials, all the more desirable.
Bonar Law's slogan won him the 1922 election. During the campaign he promised the electorate 'the minimum of interference at home and of disturbance abroad'. I believe that we would all be wise to adopt the basic gist of this pledge for the foreseeable future, at every level of the Church's life and mission.
Notes and References
 Charles Davis, who was very far from being a conservative or traditionalist Catholic wrote as long ago as 1966 that 'The reluctance to believe is too easily rationalised as legitimate concern with the updating of Christian teaching' - words which have turned out almost forty years later to be strangely prophetic. God's Grace in History, p.73.
 Monsignor Peter Wilkinson of Salford Diocese wrote of a massive consultation exercise in his own diocese: 'The report as presented to the Salford Diocese in general consists largely of the average replies of the average Catholic. A group of any dozen Catholics would have produced very similar results'. Later in the same article he describes the present tendency towards enormous but pointless investment in 'initiatives which drain the heart and soul and usually achieve nothing'. 'Marginalisation in the Church', Edges Magazine, Issue 29, pp18-19.
 'The more I reflect on the Church and the gospel,' writes Clare Watkins, 'the clearer it seems to me that we are called, together, to holiness, rather than achievement; to waiting on the Lord, rather than planning and managing; to mission rather than project; to being in and for the world, rather than making an organisational success of things.' Priests and People, July 2003, p.302
 Interesting in this regard is a report by Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance, 'The Phenomenon and Significance of Precariousness' (published on-line at www.ocso.org/docfinmgm-en.htm.) What is immediately noticeable is the truthful and straightforward character of the Trappists' reflections, in contrast to the air of fantasy and forced jollity that characterises most diocesan reports and consultations. As befits those committed to the contemplative dimension of Christian faith, the Cistercians state that their insecure future must be seen as ' a liberation within the context of the Pascal Mystery', which entails ridding themselves of the large and disproportionate structures inherited from the past. The time has arrived, they conclude, for a 'return to the essentials, to radical evangelical simplicity which is made all the more possible by the fragility of our circumstances'. Borrowing the monks' phraseology fairly exactly, I have tried to suggest that we need to adopt a similar approach to the life of the Church as a whole.