Listen, anyone who has ears!
A critical look at the English & Welsh Catholic bishops' project Listening 2004
by Cornelius Conwell


Shepherds or Managers?
Evelyn Waugh derided the young left-leaning poets of the 1930's for being unable to produce any substantial literary work except in collaboration. The same appears to be true, mutatis mutandis, of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, among whom a strange herd instinct has recently developed.
The cynic would argue, no doubt, that a mood of general bewilderment and a desire to flee the reality of their shrinking estates has led the bishops to seek safety in numbers. In addition their preferred style of leadership is managerial rather than pastoral: many individual bishops seem to regard themselves less as shepherds of their own particular flock and more as conduits for the ideas and strategies spawned by the various departments of the national Bishops' Conference.
A visit to individual diocesan websites reveals that bishops' pastoral letters now rarely explain doctrinal themes or impart useful spiritual counsel. Instead they function as advertisements for the latest organisational initiatives: a course in public speaking for readers, perhaps, a new magazine, or the addition of another layer to the diocesan council.
The regrettable truth is that the Catholic Church in England and Wales is, for the most part, exhausted and disorientated, and this is naturally reflected in the quality of its leadership. The Bishops' Conference contains no outstanding theological talent, no notable contemplative, no man, even, of deep-rooted Catholic culture. What it contains is administrators. The bishops' expertise, if it may be so termed, is concentrated in what is probably the least important aspect of the Church's life: it's institutional "structures".
As a group the English and Welsh bishops seem rather too favourably impressed by the techniques and methods we have come to associate with the architects of "New Labour". The technocratic mentality concentrates on means, procedures, strategies, surface appearances; on questions of fundamental principle and ultimate purpose it has nothing to offer. Thus the Blair government unleashes a torrent of inconsequential initiatives, reforms and regulatory measures in lieu of a coherent political philosophy or an overall vision of the good society.
Similarly, the plans that now emanate from the bishops' committees and working-parties are far likelier to be couched in managerial slogans or the incomprehensible jargon of academia than the recognisable language and concepts of Catholic theology.[1] Certainly there is no sense of continuity with the work of great Catholic intellectuals like Christopher Dawson or Jacques Maritain, or the host of lesser apologists who, in palmier days, offered distinctive Catholic perspectives on culture, social life, politics and the arts.
In other parts of the modern Church the emphasis is on ressourcement - a retrieval of classical Catholic Christianity as the foundation of both personal spirituality and a truly humanist vision of society.[2] But here the focus for many years has been relentlessly inward-looking and churchy: we never seem to rise above tinkering with schemes of parish development, lay "ministries", "structures of collaboration", liturgy planning. Despite the succession of buzzwords, the reality nearly always boils down to the same in-crowds sitting around in church halls and meeting rooms "organising" things.
Listening 2004
For all these reasons I did not react with avid anticipation when the bishops announced in 2004 that they had resolved to launch yet another vast consultative exercise, this time on the theme of "family life".[3]
The volume of mostly fruitless chatter produced by the synods and congresses held at the time of the Millennium apparently only whetted the bishops' appetites. Now, again, in church halls and conference centres throughout the dioceses of England and Wales, churchgoers were to be corralled into "small groups" to manufacture a fresh collection of sound bites for the "facilitators" to scribble on their flip-charts: "shortage of priests", "teenagers bored by Mass", "up-date teaching on marriage", "need for more openness" and so on.
Even the project's title, the snappy but portentous-sounding Listening 2004, had more of a marketing flavour about it than the mark of authentic evangelical proclamation. Why didn't the bishops go the whole hog and add a movie-style by-line: "Listening 2004: We're All Ears" (whimsical comedy) or perhaps more accurately (horror movie): "The Voices Never Stop"?
Listening - but to whom?
Innumerable spiritual writers - and not least the authors of Scripture - have used the physical senses of sight, hearing and touch to describe, metaphorically, God's revelation of himself in human history and our sensitivity to his presence. Figuratively we "see" or "touch" God and "hear" his "voice". The prophetic biblical figures in particular withdrew to silent remote places so as to hear God speak to them, i.e., to discern his will.
St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions: "My soul, you too must listen to the word of God. Do not be foolish, do not let the din of your folly deafen the ears of your heart. For the Word himself calls you to return".[4] God's call, the soul's capacity to hear his voice, the "din" of human folly - these are all metaphors which seek to convey the reality of God's approach to us and our receptivity to him - or indeed, as Augustine implies, our frequent preference for other sounds.
Unfortunately this is not what the organisers of Listening 2004 meant when they talked about listening. Their concept of listening was not drawn from the Christian theology of revelation but from the field of modern market research. The voice which the participants were urged to listen to was not God's but their own. The promotional literature for Listening 2004 itself made clear the focus-group nature of the exercise.
"Why is listening to each other important?" asked the introductory brochure. Then in a somewhat cloying answer to its own question: "We are listening to learn and understand...to show love and respect...to enable change to happen". The planners' benign intentions were underlined with a quotation from Margaret Wheatley, a writer on "leadership and change": "All change, even very large and powerful change, begins when a few people start talking with one another about something they care about".
Guided by the profundities of Ms Wheatley's zen-managerialism the views expressed during the consultation, which took place in every diocese on specially designated "listening days", were bound to be impressionistic and anecdotal, drawn largely from the participants' own experiences. There was no other likely - and perhaps no other desired - outcome.
A fundamental difficulty with the methods and procedures used in opinion surveys like Listening 2004 is that they are inherently biased in favour of brief, oversimplified summaries and against any kind of thoughtful, detailed argument.
As such the diocesan "listening days" were unlikely to penetrate very deeply into the social and economic changes which since the 1950's, say, have placed the traditional structures of family life under strain. Nor were they likely to identify factors of social class or disparate levels of income and economic security as determining very different patterns of "family life". The aim of market research, after all, is to sell something, not to raise people's consciousness of political and social reality.
Another problem is the emphasis which Listening 2004, in common with other similar exercises, placed on non-judgemental listening, or whatever the correct term is. This discourages candid debate and institutionalises a kind of relativism whereby all statements are treated as matters of personal opinion, with each opinion as "valid" as every other.
This might be a legitimate procedure for a focus group choosing colours for a new range of mobile phones but when the discussion concerns some of the central questions of Christian morality should there not be at least some sort of presumption in favour of received teaching and a clear declaration that some views, however widely-held, are simply erroneous?
Lastly it is difficult to believe that the bishops were not already familiar with the different opinions that exist among ordinary Catholics on such topics as mixed marriages, divorce, child-rearing and the rigours of Catholic sexual ethics – now, by all accounts, more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Most of the views aired during Listening 2004 have been around for forty years or more.
The results
According to individual reports on the Listening 2004 website many of those who participated in the consultation lamented the "materialism" of modern British society and the negative influence of "the media", but it is difficult to know what was really meant by these vague expressions of unease. After all English and Welsh Catholics do not on the whole distinguish themselves by living in conscious resistance to the values of consumer capitalism. On the contrary, many express resentment that "the Church" imposes moral attitudes which, if taken seriously, would make them stand out uncomfortably from the majority.
The reality of the situation is illustrated vividly at large church occasions, which are now nearly always imbued with the spirit of vulgar and competitive display. Weddings and First Communion and Confirmation Masses often assume something of an Oscars Night atmosphere: lavish expenditure and raucous, attention-seeking behaviour are much in evidence while the values of the Sermon on the Mount are plainly the last thing on the participants' minds.
Listening 2004, like other previous church surveys, also threw up some real howlers - the notion, for example, that priestly ordination confers "full membership" of the Church and therefore must be extended to women.
But it was interesting and encouraging to find several calls for clarity of teaching, for principled church leadership in a milieu perceived to be generally hostile to Christian belief, and a desire to situate family affairs in the context of universal Christian spirituality and the call to holiness. These orientations need to be stressed if we are to resist the incipient Anglican tendencies exhibited by certain bourgeois elements in our congregations.
In their recently-published response to Listening 2004 the bishops too made some encouraging remarks and criticisms.[5] Without saying so precisely they appear to acknowledge that many people living in our consumer society - including many ostensible believers - approach the Church with the disposition of customers to service-provider. People today often entertain high expectations of what "the Church" should offer them, but they reveal a poor understanding of Christian discipleship as something potentially costly. They are often repelled by such "traditional" Christian virtues as humility, self-denial and the acceptance of suffering.
For many people today concepts like happiness and fulfilment do not refer to anything beyond their own material welfare: hence the rise of self-involved D.I.Y. "spirituality" - religion as commodity. Christ's cross is still the stumbling block that it always was. The bishops could have essayed a more prophetic reflection here, but let us at least applaud the few seeds of critical analysis they did sow.
The next phase: "All are welcome!"
On the whole the Listening 2004 consultation illuminated the faith and perseverance of Catholics under various forms of pressure but it also reflected predictable areas of ignorance, confusion and shallow thinking. Whether the exercise produces any positive results remains to be seen.
In my mind the bishops' proposed plan of action - a further lengthy series of policy-forming consultations spread over the years 2006-2008 - rings alarm bells. Bishop Regan of Wrexham has called this a "rolling plan for the next three years" and the term may be more apt than he thinks: like the Mississippi river, the bishops' schemes seem to "just keep rollin’ along", with participants “gettin’ no rest till the judgement day”.[6]
The bishops appear to have sifted the responses gathered during the listening days and selected the themes that dovetail most neatly with their own preferred policies. Businesses and other institutions - including, a few years ago, the Blair government - are forever engaged in projects aimed at improving their relations with their customers, and now the Catholic Church is to join them. We are all to think of ways that our parish communities can better exhibit qualities of "acceptance", "inclusiveness" and "welcome".
Parishes, we are told, are going to be made more "family-friendly" (another barbarous borrowing from the business lexicon). Couples seeking baptism for their children and those in various other categories - the mentally ill are singled out for special mention for some inexplicable reason - are to be made to feel more welcome. All those seeking meaning in their lives - possibly the most inclusive heading the bishops could think of, since theoretically it covers the entire human race - are to be made to feel more accepted by Catholic parishes.
Of course in terms of the bishops' own leadership this is taking the line of least resistance. Jollying everyone along in an effort to be "inclusive" is obviously a more congenial activity than denouncing the idolatries of the day and incurring the wrath of the multitude.
The main problem with these catchphrases is their tendency to raise expectations of a sort of Christianity lite. There are already strong secularising currents at work in our congregations which privilege the purely human and social aspects of church membership over unity in belief and witness, and rather than challenging these impulses the bishops' plans may well encourage them to sink deeper roots.
Christ's own ministry began with a call to repentance and ongoing conversion is an indispensable part of every believer's life of faith. Church membership is voluntary but, like other bodies which exist for specific purposes, the Body of Christ has certain conditions and duties of membership: adherence to the articles of the Creed, commitment to Christian moral principles, acceptance of the demands of Christian spiritual life.
Essentially men and women can only enter the inclusivity of the Church if fundamentally they accept the Church's message. If they refuse, or apostasise, they place themselves outside the community - and this is what many people, who reject religious belief on principle, explicitly choose to do. Of course an intelligent faith faces doubts and questions all the time as it grows and deepens. But many people now seem to believe that inclusiveness is some kind of absolute norm in itself.
They urge the Church to open its doors indiscriminately and allow men and women to avail themselves of its amenities regardless of whether they possess any real faith in Christ or not. They propose to draw the parameters of doctrine, ethics and practice so wide that all views and interpretations are encompassed, and the one mortal sin is to "exclude" anyone by advancing principles too narrow or precise. I worry that the bishops' stress on "welcoming" will give fresh impetus to this erroneous, incoherent way of thinking.
A related concern is the increasing tendency among Catholics to construe Church membership in terms of what I would call a puerile utopianism. On this view the primary function of the Christian community is to supply their personal need for emotional warmth and a sense of belonging. Many now leave the Church in anger because they feel that these needs have not been adequately catered for.
But the same individuals do not seem to ask themselves how far they have contributed to the spirit of fellowship and they are often far less eager to embrace other central aspects of Christian faith: perseverance, forgiveness of enemies, the carrying of the cross. The great expectations they harbour towards others is not balanced by a commitment to conversion and discipleship on their own part.
However much we might find the demands of a true gospel lifestyle a struggle - and everyone should recognise from the outset that dedicated Christian life is always going to be a struggle - the Church cannot alter the content of belief or relax the demands of Christian moral life simply in order to make the Church appear more "inclusive". Christ himself advised aspiring followers that if they did not prepare themselves for certain hardships they would be better not even to set out on the journey. No matter how ingenious we are in devising new gestures of welcome, these are basic facets of Christian spirituality which every genuine follower of Christ eventually has to reckon with.
The same is true regarding many of the particular issues raised during Listening 2004 concerning co-habitation, divorce, remarriage, homosexuality, marriages between Catholics and Christians of others traditions, etc. Most Catholic parishes already strive to welcome persons affected by the Church's teaching in all these areas, and indeed the bishops themselves have previously felt the need to upbraid priests and laity for pursuing inclusiveness to the point of breaching the Church's Eucharistic discipline. What more needs to be done, or even can be done without violating essential principles?
I will be told of course that this is not what the bishops mean by the idea of welcome - but if not, what do they mean? Merely that we should all smile more broadly and clasp each other by the shoulder?
On this point it would be useful to know more precisely what the bishops mean by "the parish". For the most part "the parish" is an abstraction, a collection - possibly a large collection - of individuals who do not necessarily know each other closely on the level of purely human fellowship. Parish communities are not monolithic entities with a single mind and will. At the same time the mark of genuine Christian community life is the persistent effort to serve one another with love and forbearance. This is quite different from an ethos of ostentatious chumminess.
My fear is that when the bishops talk about parishes becoming more welcoming, what they really have in their sights is the Sunday Mass, the one occasion when the whole parish community comes together, in theory at least. All I can say here is that I hope the Sunday Mass is not to be further hijacked and manipulated by the liturgy planners, this time for the purpose of projecting a sentimental ideology of "inclusiveness".
If this is encouraged it will cause great damage. We already face the problem of a shallow appreciation of the Eucharist among many church-goers. The faithful priest today can feel that he is waging a constant battle against trivialisation, against efforts to enhance entertainment-value and other pressures which reduce the Mass to a purely social occasion. The bishops' new welcoming motif may well exacerbate trends in these directions, and hinder, rather than assist, a deepening of authentic Catholic faith.
We have the experience of the other churches to warn us about the perils of assimilating our public worship to the strain of exaggerated emotionality present in contemporary culture. Peter Mullen, himself an Anglican clergyman, has written despairingly about the character of services in his own church once the sentimentalists, as he calls them, take control:
"It is all content-free, insubstantial, and its evident purpose is to foster a rootless, nebulous togetherness...A few begin to twitch and jabber, and others jig about a bit; but most only look mildly bored. Even sentimentalists seem to guess when they are being overfed with sentimentalist cues." [7]
"They would say that they are communicating the gospel...in a 'form' that is 'accessible' to 'young people'" he goes on. "But when these middle-aged ecclesiastical rockers say such things they deceive themselves. Nothing is being communicated except a sentimental-paranoiac proclamation of the superior, privileged status of the Charismatic in-group. Bonding ceremonies for the like-minded."
Personally I would like to see Catholics reverse the moves we have already taken in this direction, and Mullen is clear about what must take their place: "The Church," he writes, "is commanded by Christ to teach, and teaching requires the putting-in of substantial verities".
When outsiders come to the Catholic Church they should not only find a chummy atmosphere and warm handshakes. They must encounter spiritual depth and richness and an authentic portal to the divine. Why no "rolling plans" to foster these qualities in our parishes?
Conclusion
"All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place!" proclaims the hymn. In one sense - as a description of God's love - this is true of course: he wants us to come to him and in the last analysis there is nothing we can do that alters his desire to welcome us into communion with him.
Jesus' own image of this reality was the parable of the prodigal son: the father's love was constant, his forgiveness immediate and unconditional. But on his part the son returned home a changed man, humbly seeking forgiveness and expressing his new orientation towards love, service and holiness. As always, Jesus meant his listeners to "go and do likewise".
So in another important sense not "all" is welcome in God's house. Our greed, our cruelty and violence, our blindness and hardened consciences have no place within God's Reign and the Christian tradition has always recognised our need for purification and transformation.
Modern society by contrast derives its priorities from the workings of the market, not from Revelation. As such it is permeated by worldliness and the denial of transcendence. With no concept of meaning beyond the enjoyment of material commodities in this life it engenders relativism and indifference, which it then flatteringly labels as "inclusiveness" or broadmindedness. It legitimises self-centredness and moral laziness and passes this off as mature acceptance of human weakness. But the gospel, for its part, calls us to participate in God's own life and therefore asks far more of us than that.
I hope that devoted Catholics will present some of the above concerns in the assemblies which are due to take place between now and 2008. I hope that their persevering efforts will help to align the English and Welsh Church with the great recovery of depth and integrity which the Holy Spirit is bringing to fulfilment in many other parts of the Catholic world today.


Notes and References
[1] The Sign We Give, Report of the working party on collaborative ministry, Matthew James Publishing, 1995, articulates the pragmatic managerialism and anti-clericalism of liberal middle-class social layers. Cf “The Priest's Ministry of Leadership” by Alan Hartnell, Agenda for Prophets, October 2004. On the Threshold by the Bishops' Conference Working Party on Sacramental Initiation, Matthew James Publishing, 2000, and On the Way to Life by Fr. James Hanvey, S.J., The Heythrop Institute for Religion, Ethics and Public Life, 2005, are monuments of postmodern gibberish, to use Noam Chomsky’s phrase. I would be interested to discover whether anyone working in the field of faith education has actually found either of these documents remotely useful (or even comprehensible).
[2] On the movement of ressourcement , I am thinking, for example, of works like The Dynamics of Word History by Christopher Dawson, True Humanism by Jacques Maritain (sometimes called Integral Humanism), Catholicism by Henri De Lubac, The Spirit of Catholicism by Karl Adam, Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton - all currently in print. The legacies of Dawson and Maritain are also well-represented on the World Wide Web.
[3] Listening 2004 website: http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/listening2004/
[4] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin, Penguin Books 1961, p.81.
[5] The Bishops’ Conference Final Report on Listening 2004: http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/listening2004/report/1-4.htm
[6] Pastoral Letter, Sunday 26th February, published in North Wales Catholic, Issue 39, March 2006.
[7] Peter Mullen, "All feelings and no doctrine" in Faking It, The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society, eds Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen, Penguin Books 1998, pp.107-108.