Many blogs and news reports that you read will speak of the dire straits that the Bishop's Conference of England and Wales is in-- in fact, according to these sources, perhaps the one thing going for the BCEW is that it is not as bad off as the Scottish Bishop's Conference!
In light of the riots and other news coming out of the UK, I thought I would share a bit of my experience living and working in ministry there for three years, as this “moderately pessimistic” viewpoint shared by many has not been my experience at all.
In October of 2006, as a new convert I travelled to Scotland to be a part of the Living Water Ministry, a lay community of young Catholics who committed themselves to a year of retreat ministry throughout all of the dioceses in Scotland, primarily targeted toward secondary schools and parish programmes. I travelled quite a bit, but had as a base of operations Taynuilt, a tiny village in the West Highlands, not far from Oban, and, incidentally, not far from the Craig Lodge Community. Canon Fraser, the spiritual director for the community, was a wise priest, full of wit, and "a true Scotsman".
At the end of my year, I discerned that God wasn't finished with me yet in the UK, and so I took up a position at the Maryvale Institute in north Birmingham. While working there, I lived at the Newman House at nearby University of Birmingham, living in a small community of men under the direction of Fr. Julian Green, doing ministry at the chaplaincy. I also was blessed to have a spiritual director in Fr. Philip Cleevely of the Oratory, just up the road in Edgbaston, where I served Mass, and was first really introduced to the Extraordinary Form, and where, later, I would propose to my wife.
During my three years of living in the UK, I came into contact with some extraordinary movements, and some even more extraordinary people. I was involved with Youth2000, I came into contact with folks from the Faith movement, as well as attending the Evangelium Conferences. I made a pilgrimage to Walsingham, to Glastonbury, to Ladyewell, to Harvington, on several occasions to the martyr's shrine at Tyburn, to the cells of Thomas More and John Fisher at the Tower of London, and even on a hunt to find the remains of Thomas a' Becket through Canterbury Cathedral.
I had the opportunity to go on retreat both at Pluscarden Abbey in the far north of Scotland, and at Quarr Abbey in the far south of England. I have met many a fine diocesan priest, such as notable blogger Fr. Tim Finigan, Fr. John Saward, vocations director extraordinaire Fr. Stephen Langridge of Southwark, and I could go on, but then, there would be no room for mentioning the great CFR friars, the blackfriars in Oxford, the Dominican Sisters of St. Joseph, the SOLT community... With all of these fine leaders already present in the Church, and now with the influx of Catholics through the Ordinariate-- of people who have actively chosen the truth in spite of great adversity-- Catholic presence in the public forum (both positive and negatively spun) is sure to increase.
The point is, God in his providence really blessed me greatly. As a new convert, I had no concept of "liberal" vs. "conservative," or "progressivism," or "orthodoxy"-- yet he placed me into the heart of the Church to be found in one of the ancient centres of the Faith: Britain, of all places!
Now, I won't name names, but there are plenty of ministries that if you live in England you know that I could have been involved in that would have not given me near the experience and formation in the Faith that I gained while living abroad. To throw darts at a board, I more than likely would have ended up in such a ministry. And yet, without even knowing, I stumbled into this epicenter of orthodoxy, and came to more fully root myself in a Catholic identity.
I write all of this, hopefully to encourage and inspire-- in spite of the problems in English society, and yes, even within the Church herself, her parishes and schools, there is a mighty vine underneath the soil of Great Britain, simply waiting for the right moment to spring up. There is a faith deeply rooted in the spirit of a Briton-- and, dare I say it, that faith is Roman Catholic.
Now, for a challenge.
How do these various groups of people: academics, “trads,” “charismatics,” youth and adults alike, all come together to drive a wedge of orthodoxy into the culture? I’ll give you one idea. This weekend, in the wake of World Youth Day and over the bank holiday weekend, there are two separate groups converging on the National Shrine to Our Lady in Walsingham-- the annual Youth2000 festival, and also the Latin Mass Society walking pilgrimage. Combined, there are sure to be 2,000 or more pilgrims in the same place this weekend. And yet, neither of these communities have traditionally related at all with each other, in spite of the fact that many folks involved in the LMS had some exposure to Youth2000 in the past. I use this as an example, not to be critical of either movement (perhaps there will be some interaction between the two this weekend?), but to point out a trend that many of these groups seem not to interact with each other very much, and many not at all.
The challenge is this: in loving the Church, in cultivating “the Benedict Bounce” further, it seems that it would be prudent to form some strategic plan in order to bring about the New Evangelisation in Britain. Somehow, folks who perhaps come back into the Church through the gateway of Youth2000 or another movement, get passed forward to movements like Faith, or invited to the Evangelium Conference, or perhaps get mobilized into the pro-life movement through the university SPUC Conferences.
I can already hear the nay-sayers complaining that the Bishop’s Conference won’t support it, that they already don’t vocally support these movements individually, let alone collectively. Rather than enter into a political game, which is what too often people reduce some of these rather complex pastoral decisions to, I’d simply say this: the Bishops will never be able to do anything in this arena without a well-mobilised laity.
This is where the ball is in your court. Rather than simply waiting for “the biological solution,” there are a ton of priests and religious (and even Bishops!) today, now, to support this effort. In the face of an increasing secularism and loss of identity, these groups of faithful Catholics need to come together, in spite of disagreements over liturgical preference, methods of youth ministry, etc-- or maybe even because of these disagreements-- in order to form a unified front, rallied around this great “romance of Orthodoxy” that Chesterton spoke of.
I’ll close with one final thought: this “organisation” need not be a bureaucracy by any means. I think that, if you look at what all of these individual organizations have in common, you’ll find the answer: Prayer, the Sacraments, and Our Lady. In 1061, the mother of Christ asked that a chapel of the Annunciation be built there in Walsingham, and though that structure no longer stands, I think that this event holds the key-- the surest way towards achieving this “new evangelisation” is in fulfilling the request that was made nearly a thousand years ago: to, not unlike St. Francis, re-build the church, one that presents the Annunciation, the Incarnation of Christ, to all people.
If this happens, and I believe it has already started and will continue over the next coming years, then the renewal of the Church in England will be a glorious revival-- something that Bl. John Henry Newman dreamed of in his day, and, by God’s grace, will result in the re-awakening of the Catholic in the heart of every Briton.