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Why is there in the Church, on both sides of the Atlantic, such a failure of leadership? Is it because it is being frustrated by bishops’ conferences?

The bureaucratisation of the hierarchy has left the Church rudderless and ineffective

By on Tuesday, 11 December 2012

US bishops look over documents at a meeting in Baltimore (Photo: CNS)

US bishops look over documents at a meeting in Baltimore (Photo: CNS)

Since the presidential election, I haven’t been watching the American news channels much, I haven’t had the heart. The US appears to be about to go over something they are calling the fiscal cliff because of Obama’s triumphalistic behaviour: he won, so he’s not compromising with congressional Republicans who want much-needed public spending cuts, and he’ll blame them if they do all go over this cliff (there are, I understand, other analyses of what is happening, but I like this one best). This cliff may not seem like our business, but it is: if they do go over it, it will have a very severe effect on the American economy and therefore on everyone else’s, including ours.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to write about: watching, for old time’s sake, the wondrous Megyn Kelly on Fox News the other day (she comes on at the most convenient time for English observers) I came across an interview with a Fox anchor called Bill O’Reilly, who seemed like a good egg, so I had a look at his own more primetime show, The O’Reilly Factor. This, according to Wikipedia, is “the most watched cable news television program on American television”. I found, interestingly, that he is not only currently running a campaign in defence of Christmas against the atheists who want any mention of it banned in all public places and institutions, but also one more broadly in defence of Christianity itself, against the increasingly aggressive secularism more and more endemic in American culture. Inter alia, he protested last week at having to lead such a campaign himself because of the total failure of leadership in all the mainline churches. He didn’t say so, but he sounded like a Catholic to me (Wikipedia confirms this). This is what he said: “There’s a lack of will and a lack of leadership in the Christian communities generally speaking. I have to lead this campaign. The biggest sinner in the world is leading this campaign. What God’s saying is, is there anyone else who can lead this campaign? Anybody except O’Reilly? Anybody? I have to lead this campaign. We don’t get, what we’re not getting, is organised leadership from any of the churches. They just don’t engage.”

Sound familiar, dear English readers? The day after I saw that (you can watch the whole discussion here) I read this, on Fr Ray Blake’s admirable website.

I have rarely seen Fr Blake more passionate: “I cannot help but feel very angry,” he says, “that since the letter from the Archbishops of the four Provinces of England and Wales we have heard nothing officially from the Bishops or the Bishops’ Conference on ‘gay-marriage’. In the last few days I have received communications from several individual priests urging me to write to my MP or to the Prime Minister, I have also received emails from a few non-Catholic Ministers of Religion and a local rabbi, and as it is Brighton from a group of gay Christians who recognise the redefinition of marriage as an attack on the stability of the family but from the hierarchy there is only continuous silence.”

What’s interesting here is Fr Blake’s analysis of exactly why this is so, which is one I have more than once argued myself: it’s the existence of the bishops’ conference as a bureaucratic entity (rather than as a spiritual body). It’s the bureaucratisation of our hierarchy — so that only the official episcopal spokesman in a particular area, as chairman of some board or other run from Eccleston Square, with its own lay secretary (probably an ex-priest or laicised nun), or on the other hand the archbishops speaking collectively (an extreme rarity) — may speak for the other bishops: this means that individual bishops have their own prophetic voice if not silenced then severely weakened.

As Fr Blake interestingly says: “A Curial Bishop once told me that a few Episcopal Conferences in the world give leadership but most frustrate it. In our case the bishops’ conference certainly frustrates the accountability of individual bishops to their presbyterates and their people, an accountability which was in the vision of Vatican II, in its strengthening of the bond between a bishop and his diocese.” Fr Blake goes on to quote the present Pope, who over two decades ago said: “The decisive new emphasis on the role of the bishops is in reality restrained or actually risks being smothered by the insertion of bishops into episcopal conferences that are ever more organised, often with burdensome bureaucratic structures. We must not forget that the episcopal conferences have no theological basis, they do not belong to the structure of the Church, as willed by Christ, that cannot be eliminated; they have only a practical, concrete function.” (The Ratzinger Report, 59-61)

The fact is, however, that since episcopal conferences have no theological basis, individual bishops could still say exactly what they want to say at any time, whether the conference bureaucrats like it or not: and one or two have actually started to do just that. There was, you will remember, the great Bishop Patrick O’Donohue of Lancaster, now alas retired; and more recently and repeatedly, there has been (guess who) Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury. On the subject currently exercising Fr Blake, he says this:

Bishop Davies said [the Telegraph reported in June]: “The Deputy Prime Minister was recently reported as saying he could not understand why Christians and other people of faith saw a legal redefinition of marriage as a matter of conscience: it would not, he claimed, impinge on religious freedoms.

“Experience, of course, might make us cautious of such assurances, even those given by a Deputy Prime Minister, that this agenda will not threaten religious freedom.”

He said that concerns were not solely about religious freedoms but also the attack on marriage as the foundation of family life.

“Today we see a government, without mandate, disposing of any credible consultation, seeking to impose one of the greatest acts of ‘social engineering’ in our history in uprooting the legal definition of marriage. Marriage lies at the very foundation of the family.

“For all generations to come one generation of politicians sets out to demolish in the name of an ‘equality agenda’ the understanding of marriage that has served as the timeless foundation for the family.

“The Government is seeking to do this at the very moment when marriage as an institution has been more weakened than ever before. Yet it asks: why are people of faith concerned?”

Bishop Davies added: “So far from weakening and confusing the foundation of the family we invite our political leaders to give back to the institution of marriage and the family the recognition and confidence it deserves.”

So, it’s not entirely true that there is no leadership from our hierarchy. There is, we see reported here, at least one voice speaking out in words not vetted and emasculated by Eccleston Square. But it’s not enough: we need them all to speak out, we need an episcopal cacophony. So, anyone else? Well yes: again, guess who: “The Rt Rev Philip Egan, Catholic Bishop of Portsmouth”, reports the Bicester Advertiser, “has said the plans to extend the right to marry would have catastrophic consequences… Such a change is of immense significance. By this change, [the Prime Minister] is luring the people of England away from their common Christian values and Christian patrimony, and forcing upon us a brave new world, artificially engineered.”

That’s what we need now: bishops who will speak out, in and to their dioceses and therefore directly to the wider world; and we need many more of them.

Archbishop Mennini, please note.

  • Patrickhowes

    Here,Here,by the way it is “If I were…

  • Dominic Kane

     I agree that Bishops must take responsiblity over their diocese.

    However, Episcopal Conferences are canonical…

    Can. 447 A
    conference of bishops, a permanent institution, is a group of bishops of some
    nation or certain territory who jointly exercise certain pastoral functions for
    the Christian faithful of their territory in order to promote the greater good
    which the Church offers to humanity, especially through forms and programs of
    the apostolate fittingly adapted to the circumstances of time and place,
    according to the norm of law.

    Whether they should exist and whether they are counter-productive is another matter.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Another modern construct which inhibits the work of the Church in saving souls.

  • Sweetjae

    Yes there is a clear distinction between a canonical from theological basis. Bishop Conferences has canonical basis though not theological. Cardinal Ratzinger was right when he made the report.

  • Matty

    So do you think that by stopping same sex marriages it will change any of,the social problems we have? I think not. Having read Bishop Davies’. Christmas sermon I fear for us if that is the direction the church is going. Christmas time and he decides to berate and cast doom rather than bring the joy and peace of God to people. It is by changing hearts that Christ’s message succeeds not by changing laws. Thank God for the sermon in my own parish which challenged us to know God deep within our being and be transformed by it – to be in awe of the coming of Christ. Regular Mass attenders will have been inspired and more especially those who were there because it was Christmas will have been encouraged to come more.
    As for Bishop Davies’ listeners well I wonder…….