Simon Evans describes the origins and aims of the Catholics for Growth project
What will enable a church to grow and become strong, rather than vulnerable to a sometimes predatory diocesan hierarchy? How can we reverse the trend that sees too many churches of our constituency being advertised as half stipend or house for duty?
Why are some churches growing while others are shrinking?
It is possible to create a climate in which renewal and growth can begin to take place in Catholic parishes. Of course there aren’t straightforward answers that fit every situation. However, in broad terms there are some underlying factors, as we have read in the stimulating series of articles by Fr Philip North in recent editions of ND. For too long, many of us have suffered from a climate that has not been healthy; not only the climate surrounding us in the Church of England but also the climate we have often allowed to be perpetuated within our parishes. Climate change is needed. It must begin with more of us embracing the theme which ran through Fr Philip Norths articles about the report on Evangelization: the renewal of the laity. But what does this mean in practice and how might we begin to encourage such renewal in our parishes?
The degree of numerical growth that has occurred in my own parish, St Martins Ruislip, took me initially by surprise. As I reflect on the past ten or so years, so much of what Fr North has written rings true to our experience here. Arriving in a parish that was unhappy and inward looking, almost as an act of desperation, I devised a programme for use in Lent that involved a large proportion of the congregation in building a common vision, with some clear goals. This exercise changed the climate, leading to the release of energy and gifts among all sorts of people, as well as starting a process that has led to growth in numbers, in strength, and in the renewing of the church’s liturgical and spiritual life. I also discovered that by letting go of some control and sharing responsibility, my own ministry as a priest became more focused and renewed.
Probably the other most significant factor in enabling this growth has been our enormous investment in catechetical formation. Based around a weekly catechumenal mass, and with a lengthy period of pre- and post-confirmation instruction, the aim has been to nurture confident, eucharistically-centred adults and young people.
Building on that experience here and in previous parishes in which I have worked – mostly council estates – as well as the experience of other parishes where renewal and growth have occurred, Fr Scott Anderson and I are launching a project in the Diocese of London, called Catholics for Growth. The scheme has the blessing and encouragement of the College of Bishops in London. It involves us laying on seminar days for groups of priests to explore ways in which we might: (1) create a climate for renewal and growth; (2) give confidence to the laity and enable their renewal as Christian disciples; and (3) encourage congregations to build vision together and become energised.
We are encouraging parishes to run a programme, based on that which started to make such a radical difference at St Martin’s several years ago, now adapted for use in varying contexts, which we call Building the Vision. It aims at involving the laity together with their priest in starting a process that can transform attitudes and expectations in parishes, and lead to renewal and growth. We have become convinced that building vision together is the crucial foundation and first step upon which renewal and growth can begin to take place.
So often we have been put into the position, by the politics of the Church of England, of being on the defensive and of being against things. The Catholics for Growth project is an attempt to try and alter that. It seeks to change the climate and to inject the determination to build for growth; to strengthen our parishes and our voice in a Church whose Catholic identity we wish to guard, strengthen and renew, especially now as we face the prospect of a further abandonment of Apostolic and Catholic tradition.