Joanna Moorhead IN 1978, 13 years after Vatican II had rewritten the direction and scope of the Catholic Church, half its members in England and Wales were unaware that anything had happened. At least, they knew something was going on the priest had suddenly started talking to them in English at Mass, and was encouraging them to participate and even to say what they thought but they had no reason to link what they might have believed was local upheaval in with worldwide change. Even for the Catholic Church, such spectacular lack of communication is astonishing. Knowing it existed, though, is vital if one is to understand what has been happening in the Church over recent decades: after all, if people didn't realise there was Vatican backing for the transformations going on around them, no wonder one or two decided to resist.
Michael Hornsby-Smith, in this welcome sociological study of the modern Catholic parishes draws attention to this and a whole wealth of facts, figures and testimonies which together provide the pieces of a huge and complex jigsaw. The picture is not completed, even by the appendix, as many bits will not be available until well into the next century. But insofar as forms and shapes can be seen emerging, and background painted, Hornsby-Smith has identified and outlined them.
It is a fascinating account to read, for it traces the grassroots Church through a period of immense change. The change has been outside as well as within: opportunities, education, social mobility and greater wealth have altered the lives of Catholics as they have those of everyone else, and as a result the whole basis of the institutional Church has been transformed. Formerly a working-class, urban-based structure, it has moved on to become surburban, middleclass, diverse.
Partly as a result of these social factors and partly because of Vatican II itself, those inside the Church have widened their horizons considerably over the last 25 years. Catholics are no longer likely to see their parish as the centre of their social life, or to consult their priest on every problem or moral difficulty. They are no longer so likely to have a majority of Catholic friends, and less than half as likely to marry one as they were in the 1930s.
What will become of the Church in the wake of these vital changes: what will their effect be in that most important arena, the parish? Hornsby-Smith pinpoints potential dangers arising amongst them, he describes the threat of what has been termed the "greedy parish", the all-devouring body which eats up every bit of its parishioners' energy and time and even makes them feel guilty about the attention they give anything else. Surely, argues Hornsby-Smith, our call to be Christians involves more than a lifetime spent attending parish
meetings and raising money for a new church roof.
But if it is not greedy, will the parish become so muted that it will cease to figure in our lives at all? And would that matter, anyway? Hornsby-Smith assesses the nature of community within the parish by way of a comparison with the early church, and finds it wanting on every score: its members do not know one another and do not share their wealth, do not pray daily together and rarely share the same values or beliefs.
What, then, could replace the parish as the essential grassroots structure of the Church? The obvious contender, of course, is the basic Christian community: We have much to learn from these closely-knit, socially aware groups pioneered in the Third World, the author argues.