THIS QUESTION was put to me recently by an American: "Everyone seems to agree that 'small is beautiful'. But does that necessarily mean that 'big is bad'?"
He went on to enumerate what he regarded as the inherent weaknesses of big business and big government. Then came the punch-line: "What about big Church?" he asked.
It is easy to reply that a Universal Church can set no
A boundaries on earth. That is only half the answer. Small is a dimension, but it can also describe the way in which units can contribute to the good of the larger whole.
In all the recent talk about small communities this has to be kept in mind. They can be excellent in themselves, a help to the members, a service and inspiration to others, But not if they are splinter groups: not if they lead to the disintegration of the larger body, It is easy to point to the dangers, but few would deny the invigorating value to the Church of these new small cornmunities, seeking expression for Christian ideals in a manner they find difficult in the larger, more formal, structures of the "Institutional" Church.
What must be insisted upon is that they maintain a proper relationship with the other groupings of the local Church, notably with the bishop and his representatives in the parishes. In practice they cannot really "go it alone" and retain their place in the community of the Church.
These small communities are often spoken of as a new phenomenon in the Church. Their increase may be new: but this form of apostolic grouping is as old as the Church itself.
Their size reflects the method of achieving effective participation in the life of the Church. It is not itself a new structure or organisation.
Not surprisingly, lay associations within the Church have had to take a new look at themselves since the Council. The call for renewal required that. But in most cases they have had to do so against a picture of falling membership. Are they failing in this important hour of need? I recently attended an international conference at which the agenda included as items for discussion "The promise of small communities" and "The crisis of associationism" (sic). A number of points emerged: 1. Where renewal has in great measure been carried through successfully, with an ademiately developed sense of coresponsibility with the laity, it
has almost invariably been effected with the help of those leaders who received their formation in one of the lay apostolic organisation of the Church.
2. OrganisaVons are not an end in themselves. When they form leaders who enter fully into the service of the rest of the community — in civic life, local government, trade unions and associations, etc — it is often impossible for such leaders to find time for more than nominal membership of the organisation which trained them. The size of membership is not itself a criterion of success.
3. Efforts have been made in many dioceses to develop parish councils and similar structures. These demand much time if they are to be effective.
Although Catholics are drawn into such activity who have not previously been engaged in the apostolic mission of the Church, not uncommonly such structures draw their members from existent organisations, which subsequently feel the draught or fold up altogether. This is not a necessary consequence but it has happened, especially in these areas where Catholics are few.
4. Many Catholic lay organisations, recognising the spread of family groups and discussion groups and other forms of small community throughout the country, have generally disregarded their own development and sought merely to provide a service through the preparation of the kind of literature and training material which is essential for these new groupings.
If we are to have the benefit of their experience and resources this is highly desirable, It is to be hoped that it does not prove suicidal.
5. In an age of antiinstitutionalism, people are nowadays allergic to national and international direction of their apostolic activities, especially if this direction is achieved at the cost of capitation fees and other financial commitments.
They are apt to feel that they can manage well enough on their own, buy what books they want and embark on what initiative has their interest without subscribing to the upkeep of a so-called remote and faceless permanent official and secretariat.
Those are just some of the considerations. What reply can be given? To say that unity is strength can apply as much to small communities as to massmovements.
More important is the role of the lay organisation in ensuring the co-ordination of apostolic work and of servicing individual members and branches with the help they need to develop the effectiveness of their efforts.
To take an example: What about • the work of lay organisations in training Catholics for public life?
It is always difficult to know about the availability of replacements until vacancies occur. Moreover, succeeding generations do not have to follow identical methods.
Yet it is a cause of anxiety that there is little sign just now that a new generation, trained in the social apostolate, is ready to replace those who in the 1950s and early 1960s prepared themselves to make a Christian contribution to public life.
Perhaps they will be forthcoming from a different background. But the Church, as a community, has a responsibility to encourage such apostolic public work. It must ensure that the necessary formation and training are available.
Equally, our lay organisations must show themselves capable of fulfilling this task of training for leadership. There is increasingly a demand for Christian leadership. Are the Organisations ready and able to provide the material and the formation?
Although it is sometimes suggested that Catholics today are less active than in the past, in fact there are undoubtedly more Catholics than before more fully engaged in the work of the Church. • More important is the recognition that Catholics who are giving their witness to Christian vdlues in their own secular life are truly engaged in the life and mission of the Church in the world today.
How well equipped are they for their task? How are they to be sustained in their sometimes lonely work? Here is a job for the lay organisations. This is not to exclude such responsibility from the rest of the community or from such new representative groupings as parish councils.
It will be of great importance
to the future of the Church in this country that Catholic lay organisations are developed to meet new and future needs. Their work may well include the servicing of smaller units. This is not the age of massmovements for any age group.
But our Catholic lay organisations must not be allowed to fade away. The new small communities, as well as the Church as a whole, continue to need them.
What is certain is that small groups and lay organisations are not mutually exclusive. Together they could be a great force for a renewed and vital apostolic Church.
t Derek Worlock, Archbishop of Liverpool