by Christopher Rails A BIG SHAKE-UP in the working of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and the possible recall of the National Pastoral Congress are key points in a discussion document published this week.
But members of the commissions which advise the bishops expressed almost unanimous discontent with the new structures proposed in the document.
The document is entitled In the House of the Living God, from a phrase used in the Second Vatican Council's decree, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. It proposes the setting-up of an extended central secretariat to service the conference and commissions.
Essential to the plan is the replacement of the 17 existing commissions and advisory bodies to the Bishops' Conference with three new commissions. Each would be subdivided to cover much of the work undertaken by the present commissions, plus areas of concern which have developed over the decade or more since most of the existing commissions came into being.
Best known among the existing commissions are those dealing with such areas as justice and peace, the laity, racial justice, and education. Some of the others, such as the Commission for Missionary Activity, are less well-known because the type of issue they deal with rarely hits the headlines.
The three new commissions would be called: • Faith and Worship, to include theology, Christian unity, Christian /Jewish relations, nonbelievers, pastoral liturgy, church music, art and architecture.
• Evangelisation, Christian education and formation, covering evangelisation at home and abroad, catechetics, adult formation, high education and priestly formation.
• Christian Life and Action, covering the three "sub-commissions": social responsibility, Christian life and international affairs.
The general secretariat would ideally be housed in one building in central London. No specific premises have been mentioned, but the convent of St Vincent's, Carlisle Place, is thought to be a hot favourite. It was the London press centre for the Pope's visit to Britain last summer, and has since been the London base for the Catholic Information Office.
At a press briefing on Monday, Archbishop Derek Worlock, a member of the review committee, outlined the reasoning behind the new commissions. He said the committee had looked at the role of the local bishop in terms of priest, teacher and shepherd. "The commissions should reflect those functions" he said. That was the thinking behind the formation of three new commissions.
The report does not claim to be a charter for the whole.Church. It regards this as having been the task of the national Pastoral Congress in 1980. It is, however, a response to dissatisfaction on the part of the bishops with the working of the Bishops' Conference and its commissions.
The official view of the report is that the reorganisation of the commissions should not be seen as "a threat to the dignity, role and ministry of the laity." The report mentions in some detail the hoped-for developments in local pastoral structures, with lay people fully involved. It even says that the National Pastoral Congress might in future be reconvened on an occasional basis.
But grassroots opinion in the commissions may not be so happy. There are already grumblings that in reality the bishops were unhappy with the way in which certain commissions have acted in ways which did not meet entirely with their approval, and that they want to claw back some control over the thought and action of the commissions.
Another fear is that part of the review was concerned with the cost of running the commissions, and that by opening a central secretariat some jobs would be lost. The new structure would in any case pose a threat to certain posts in the present commissions. Archbishop Worlock was not prepared to rule out the possibility of redundancies, and he said that at least two of the commissions (he mentioned no names) had volunteered to go into liquidation because they regarded their job as no longer necessary.
News Analysis — page 3.