And it is here that I shall home back in on my starting point: how was the Bishops’ Conference to be structured, and what role would what lay people play in it? Here is the section on Conference and Diocese. I don’t apologise for quoting at length.
“112. The sense of sharing in the life and mission of the Church comes from our understanding of baptism as the means through which we are drawn mystically into Christ's body and are formed thereby into a community. Rooted in Christ we are set free to live and work together in a loving, confident partnership. We are truly incorporated into a body which is living and growing, a community marked by love, care, acceptance and respect. This community of faith is Christ-centred through its worship, teaching and service. At its heart is the living presence of Jesus Christ in the eucharist. And the eucharist both celebrates and forms the community: at the same time it both expresses and creates the Church. It gives the community a missionary purpose. Each local Church, each diocese, deanery and parish is a living expression of God's people.
113. The Second Vatican Council, in its Decree on the Bishops' Pastoral Office n. 36, recalled that “from the earliest ages of the Church, bishops in charge of particular churches, inspired by a spirit of fraternal charity and by zeal for the universal mission entrusted to the apostles, have pooled their resources and their aspirations in order to promote both the common good and the good of individual churches”. But although this relationship of mutual help was long established, until recently relatively few countries had formalised the relationship in a Bishops' Conference, with statutes recognised by the Holy See as a basis for its exercising juridical power in certain circumstances. The establishment of our Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, which was formally recognised in January 1967, was a natural consequence of this grant of juridical status, but in many ways its concern has been primarily with pastoral affairs. To that time meetings of the Hierarchy of England and Wales were no more than opportunities for consultation between individual local Ordinaries who might or might not agree a common policy in administering their own dioceses. The Bishops' Conference, as now established, is a nice balance between on the one hand adequate responsibility and initiative for the local bishop's pastoral care for his diocese, and on the other hand his collegial responsibility for the mission of the universal Church and especially for the good of the territory or country of which his diocese is only part. Strictly a national Church as such does not exist: there must be respect for the reasonable autonomy of a diocese, and for this there is a strong theological as well as historical basis. Nevertheless a national group of dioceses, if not exactly a national Church, is a reality. It responds to the needs of a particular nation or territory; it relates to the Holy See with regard to the Church in that nation and it can take certain national initiatives. The National Pastoral Congress was a good example of this.
114. The scope of our Bishops' Conference is explicitly drawn from the Council's decree we have just mentioned: “An Episcopal Conference is a kind of council in which bishops of a given nation or territory jointly exercise their pastoral office by way of promoting that greater good which the Church offers mankind especially through forms and programmes of the apostolate which are fittingly adapted to the circumstances of the age” (Christus Dominus, n. 38, 1). The Conference possesses detailed statutes regarding its structure and procedures, and it makes provision also for “episcopal commissions, consisting of bishops and experts”, who, in accordance with the powers granted to them, assist the Conference in the fulfilment of its functions”. These commissions are of an advisory or consultative nature, each with a bishop as its president or chairman, and with a membership which is drawn from among clergy, religious and laity. “To ensure that the basis of the advice offered should be reasonably comprehensive, membership of each commission should be widely-drawn and varied in age-range and experience. But its task is essentially to offer advice to the bishops and to assist the Church through the Conference in the various fields of the Church's mission for which responsibility is shared but in which the bishops as a body have a particular ministry to fulfil'” (Review Committee Report, 1971, n. 8).
115. We welcome this opportunity to place on record our gratitude to the laity, clergy and religious who in the past thirteen years have served on these commissions and have given our Conference and the Church in this country able and generous assistance. The needs of society and the challenges facing the Church change constantly. From time to time it is necessary for us to review both the procedures of our Conference and the structure and work of its constituent commissions. For example, in an earlier section of this Message we have indicated that, if we are to work more closely with the British Council of Churches, it will be necessary for us to review our commission structure to make sure that there is no unnecessary duplication or wastage of our resources. At such a time it may well be desirable to consider the establishment of a commission to advise specifically about pastoral concerns and developments, including the implementation of certain policy recommendations in this Message. This would provide for the co-ordination of experience and possibly of resources, but not as an interference in the proper responsibilities and local initiatives of individual dioceses. But for the immediate future, save where we have indicated that we are taking direct action ourselves, the follow-up to the Congress lies definitely within the responsibility of the dioceses, aided locally, we hope, by the religious orders, by lay organisations and other apostolic groups and of course by the delegates themselves.
116. We have already referred to the statement by the Council Fathers that “a diocese constitutes a particular Church in which the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active” (Christus Dominus, n. 11). Each diocese is therefore a community of faith called to fulfil the life and mission of God's people in an effective way. Its capacity to realise its worshipping, sanctifying, missionary and pastoral purpose, within the total mission of the universal Church, is the primary consideration in assessing its viability. In 1974 a working party established by the Bishops' Conference produced a report entitled Ground-Plan. This was published as a consultative document to guide those concerned with the possible re-organisation and re-division of the dioceses of England and Wales. Certain principles were offered; since then two new dioceses have been established and proposals for two others were, after consultation, set aside. Other developments will doubtless be carried through in the future.
117. It is generally agreed that a diocese must be an effective pastoral “unit”. Yet that very description implies something rather impersonal, whereas there is an increasing awareness of a diocese as a community of the faithful people of God, led by a bishop able to make suitable provision for their spiritual and pastoral needs. It is not just a convenient geographical unit with appropriate numbers. Great importance is rightly attached to the mutual sense of “belonging” between pastors and people. Clearly the numbers who can be known to a bishop and who can know him are limited but the real criterion is the bishop's capacity, with and through his collaborators to provide for his priests and people a leadership and service suited to their purpose as a ”particular” Church. The service required is bound to vary with the nature of the diocese, its social and cultural needs, its rural or urban situation.
118. Diocesan development remains under constant review. In the meantime certain valuable experiences are being gained from discovering the relative advantages of the creation of new smaller dioceses (at a time when the overall number of priests is still falling), the use of area bishops acting as a team under the leadership of the bishop of the whole diocese, and the system of episcopal vicars, not themselves necessarily bishops but exercising ordinary jurisdiction in their various spheres of responsibility. It seems unlikely that any one solution will necessarily serve every part of our countries. The important consideration remains the effective spiritual and pastoral collaboration of the bishop with the laity, clergy and religious of the diocese in their life and purpose as a community of faith.”
You might think that the story ends here but there is one last story to tell. One of the promises made to the members of the NPC by the Cardinal in his final sermon was that “in loyalty and obedience we shall lay before him our hopes and anxieties” – “him” in this case, meant the Holy Father, Pope John Paul. The opportunity to do same came shortly afterwards: Archbishops Hume and Worlock were elected by the Bishops’ Conference to be their representatives at the European Synod of Bishops, and off they went, with Father “Vin” Nichols, who had chaired one of the NPC groups, as Worlock’s assistant.
The Archbishops presented a copy of the conclusions of the NPC to Pope John Paul II either open on the page demanding access to contraception or not, depending on who was telling the story to whom, only for it to be completely ignored by the Pope (whether contemptuously or not again depends on who was telling the story to whom). The two Archbishops then tried to sell both the NPC view on contraception and its view on the admittance of divorced Catholics to the sacraments to the Synod: they were heard politely and ignored: the 1980 Synod marked the point at which John Paul II’s putting an end to the “spirit of Vatican II” began to become Church policy again after a decade of doctrinal anarchy.
It should also be noted that to their great and lasting credit, two English Bishops, Holland of Salford, and Lindsay of Hexham and Newcastle, denounced in The Universe what they saw as a misrepresentation of the views of the Bishops of England and Wales by Hume and Worlock in Rome.
On their return, they found themselves greeted with a communication from the National Council of Priests, welcoming The Easter People but disappointed that Hume and Worlock had not pressed the case for it sufficiently at the Synod for it to have been adopted by the Church at large. Mgr David Norris, Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference wrote a note of the meeting, which included an extraordinarily candid section about the Synod:
“The Declaration accepted wholeheartedly the findings of the National Pastoral Congress and welcomed the bishops' message The Easter People. However, the National Conference had some problems with the bishops' message for they felt that the bishops had moved away from some of the resolutions of the Congress. The bishops appeared to give up their right as a local Church and to be too willing to give way to the Roman Curia.
The Cardinal replied that he considered that conservatism was succeeding in many parts of the world and was also rising in Rome. We had to remember that Western Europe was now a minority in the Church and places like Africa and South America were very conservative. Our local church has to find its way in the present circumstances and it is not always clear how it should proceed.
The Cardinal was sure that it would not help to have public calls on our bishops to act by themselves.
There were some conservatives in this country who were already attacking what had already been done by himself and Archbishop Worlock.
The Archbishop was more optimistic - he compared the Synod with the last Council - then the minority had proposed renewal and had managed to become the majority by the end of the Council. Now there had been a change during the four weeks of the Synod, though perhaps not a full acceptance of the minority view. The Pope, too, had attended all the plenary sessions and had made no attempt to interfere with the freedom of those taking part. In his closing speech, the Pope had not closed the door and had in fact welcomed the propositions. Nor had he rejected the famous law of gradualness; what he had condemned was a graded law."
Hume and Worlock made sure that this record of their meeting was suppressed – in fact it was not published until 2000. But it shows that the decision had been made to trim: to appear outwardly as loyal as any other Conference, while doggedly pursuing as much of the NPC/Easter People agenda as could be got away with.
I thought, the first time I showed a friend this piece in draft that the awfulness of what happened on the return from Rome spoke for itself, but it didn’t. I forget how much time has passed, how many things have happened. By avoiding a fight over the poster issues, Hume and Worlock got away with much more.
The Hierarchies in Switzerland, Austria, Germany, the US and Holland had picked a fight with the Vatican over the “spirit of Vatican II”. All lost, though the losses to the Church in those countries were grievous. Hume, the smooth Prince of the Church, and Worlock, the outstanding apparatchik, made sure that didn’t happen in England and Wales. Instead, they invited the Pope to come on a pastoral visit, and allowed the schmaltzy side of British ultramontanism temporarily to seem to take over while, with the help of successive complaisant Nuncios, the plan took root and took hold as the old Bishops were succeeded by priests who were “on message”.
And it is all of this which, for the last thirty years, has governed the way the Church in England and Wales has been run. A sympathetic Nunciature has made sure that the agenda has been advanced: it hasn’t changed. Look, for example, at the stranglehold on liturgical music by a tiny coterie of activist laypeople. Look at the way that Catholic schools stopped preparing children for First Confession and First Holy Communion so that the catechesis could take place in parishes, run by lay people. Look at the multiplicity of lay “ministries” in the Church.
And understand why the Internet is such a threat. Understand that there are Catholic voices which belong to many people who are finding them and using them, and understand that losing control, as the regimes in Eastern Europe lost control in 1989, or as regimes in the Middle East and North Africa lost control in 2010, and you may begin to understand why the pathological hatred of any manifestation of “unofficial” Catholicism is so manifest today.
Maybe, as so often, Chesterton was looking close to home as well as more widely:
“We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia's wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God's scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.”