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National Pastoral Congress (UK) 1980.

Excerpts from the book by  Michael Hornsby-Smith, Roman Catholics in England.
Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987. pp.37-43.
Published on our website with the author’s permission

The Congress was a key event in the attempts of the Church in these countries to come to terms with a rapidly changing world. It was attended, mainly by lay people but included 42 bishops, 255 clergy, 150 religious men and women and 36 ecumenical observers. In the two years preceding the Congress, the attempt had been made to involve as many Catholics as possible in the preparations and, to a considerable extent, the agenda was framed on the basis of responses of discussion groups at the parish level and by Catholic organisations (Anon., 1981). The bulk of the delegates were selected at the diocesan and deanery levels on the basis of one delegate for every 1,000 Sunday Mass attenders. Roughly equal numbers of men and women attended and there were over 300 delegates under 25 years of age, including about 100 still in their teens. The attempt was made to ensure representation of minority groups such as the Poles and members of the Latin Mass Society but there is evidence that the delegates were disproportionately articulate, educated, middle class and active members (Hornsby-Smith and Cordingley, 1983).

At each stage of the deliberations the bishops, clergy and members of the religious orders were all fully involved as participating members of the discussions. Before the Congress, doubts had been expressed that the whole exercise would simply be an elaborate, ‘triumphalist’ celebration but that serious debate and probable confrontation on such controversial issues as contraception or the morality of nuclear deterrence would be carefully stage-managed. The fears that the Congress proceedings might be manipulated in this way were sufficiently acute for some discussion-group leaders at a preliminary briefing on the first evening to challenge the desirability of playing a video-taped message from the Pope at the first session. They feared that this might be an attempt to pre-empt the agenda construction and discussion. In the event Pope John Paul II congratulated the delegates for the initiative they were taking in shared responsibility and the bishops shared fully in the discussions as participating members. There was no evidence that tolerance was not extended to minority views and the Congress was widely regarded by the delegates to have been a ‘conversion’ occasion and a remarkable and exhilarating experience of an open, participative, sharing and celebrating Church, unfamiliar to many delegates from parishes where liturgical worship was more traditional and ritualistic and where priest-lay relationships were more formal. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Congress concluded with considerable euphoria and the highest expectations for the future of the Church in the two countries.

The reports presented by the sector presidents on the final morning of the Congress were in many ways remarkable documents, characterised by an absence of obsequiousness to ecclesiastical authority but a firmness in expressing the views of the delegates on a wide range of religious, social and moral concerns with an unassertive tact. The bishops were urged, for example, by an overwhelming majority of sector A delegates to ‘consider the possibility of making provision for eucharistic hospitality in certain cases’ such as inter-Church marriages (Anon., 1981: 135). Sector B delegates hoped that ‘the possibility of admitting women to the ordained ministries’ would be explored (ibid.: 156). Sector C delegates voted overwhelmingly for ‘a fundamental re-examination of the teaching on marriage, sexuality and contraception’, the majority feeling that this ‘should leave open the possibility of change and development’ (ibid.: 170, 189). Sector G confessed ‘our failure as a Church to combat the prevailing national mood of insularity, to identify with the poor in our midst and to work vigorously for a more peaceful world’ (ibid.: 290), asserted that membership of the Church was incompatible with membership of the National Front and urged ‘the search for credible non-violent alternatives’ to war (ibid.: 293).


The bishops also had to take account of the reaction of the Roman authorities. With the lessons of the Dutch Church (Coleman, 1978) in mind and the Dutch Synod of January 1980 as a warning against excessive independence on the part of the local Church behind them, and the uncertain prospect of the Synod on the Family in Rome in September-October 1980 ahead of them, the questions of contraception, intercommunion and the pastoral care of the divorced and invalidly married clearly had to be handled with great care, if the full power of a traditionalist and centralist Pope was not to be provoked so as to limit the autonomy of the bishops in England and Wales. In the event, the Congress delegates expressed their concerns on these controversial issues with sensitivity and restraint. Subsequently, in their interventions at the Synod on the Family, Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Worlock expressed the concerns which the vast majority of Catholics in these countries had articulated through the Congress delegates. Cardinal Hume referred to the ‘special authority in matters concerning marriage’ of married couples and argued that it cannot just be said that people for whom ‘natural methods of birth control do not seem to them to be the definitive and only solution … have failed to overcome their human frailty and weakness’ since they ‘are often good, conscientious and faithful sons and daughters of the Church’ (Catholic Information Services, 1980: 6).




in spite of its origins, the organisation of the visit bore very little relationship to the N.P.C. At no time did the seven Sector Presidents who had been influential in the planning and execution of the Congress and the writing of its radical, if tactful, reports formally meet the pope. In fact, in spite of all the talk about the ‘Sharing Church’, organised laity had no opportunity at all to talk with the pope. Pope John Paul II came to speak to the laity, and in the euphoria of the visit only the Catholic Renewal Movement seemed to object at all loudly. In fact, the only people the pope appeared to have the opportunity to listen to were representatives of the British Council of Churches at Canterbury. (Hornsby-Smith, Brown and O’Byrne, 1983: 131)

The Pope’s visit was also paradoxical in other ways. Catholics appeared to be divided about his leadership style; they were attracted strongly by his warm humanity yet in the main were insistent on making up their own minds on social and moral issues, despite the Pope’s teaching, for example on contraception. In general the response of English Catholics to the visit reinforced the interpretation that there has been an irreversible shift from the view of the pope (or for that matter the parish priest) as having authority as a ‘sacred’ person to that which recognises the special guiding ministry of the pope (or priest at the local level) to offer religious and moral guidance in situations where, in the last analysis, the individual Catholic makes up his/her own mind … it seems that English Catholicism has at last come of age and become acceptable to the British people. As one nun put it: ‘we can come out now from under the bushes!’ (ibid.: 133)