Ivan Clutterbuck argues for a more informed and active laity

SINCE THE ‘60S AT LEAST there has been a great cry from the laity.
We want sound teaching and now this has been answered by an outbreak
of study courses - Credo, Alpha and Star, to name some.
Provided these steer clear of liberal ideas, this is excellent. We
are realising at last that the present malaise of the Church can be
laid at the door of irresponsible speculation which has all but removed
the Jesus of the Gospel from our eyes. So we have courses which start
from scratch - I believe that we have to go further back and start
from minus but that is the result of having lived daily among the
‘tents of the ungodly’ for many years. You hear strange ideas in a
school staffroom or a ship’s messdeck!
Provided too, we do not end up with another round of discussion groups.
What is needed is teaching with authority - teacher to pupil and there
is plenty of new sound scholarship to support this.
When the course is over, what then? How shall we employ our instructed
pupils, for there is nothing more frustrating than getting qualified
and then finding there is no employment. There was a period about
20 years ago when we were training teachers for school jobs which
did not exist. This, too, has been happening in diocesan religious
courses where bishops’ certificates are awarded and then nothing more.
It is here that a movement called the Lay Apostolate may come to our
aid. It began in the First Great War in Belgium where a Catholic parish,
Fr. Cardin, saw his most promising young men being lost to atheism
in the factories. So he formed them into groups of Young Christian
Workers (Jocists) and trained them to go on the attack against unbelief.
This movement spread to France and then to other countries. It was
developed in different ways but always the object was the same: sound
teaching and mission. It operated on the edge of the main church and
brought many back to faith.
Twenty-five years ago, the Church Union adapted this strategy for
use in parishes round the country and there was considerable support
- over sixty cells were formed. Programmes for study were made available
in a still difficult theological situation.
Priests began to see the value of having lay people, men and women,
who could share some of his duties with him. So they were trained
for a ministry which had always been theirs but which had been lost
over the centuries. It was, of course, the way by which the early
church spread so rapidly and can be seen clearly throughout the gospel.
If lay people could not carry out all the priestly functions at least
they could teach, visit and bring others to be taught.
The lay apostolate is based firmly within a parish and the parish
priest is in charge. In this way the danger of wrong teaching from
outside is eliminated. The priest uses his lay ‘apostles’ according
to the local situation. So it is clear that he must be prepared to
share his priesthood with them as far as Catholic teaching allows.
The slogan for the lay apostolate has been from the beginning “The
Growth of the Church" (Croissance de l’eglise in France) and growth
is measured by increase of numbers at the Sunday Mass. Courses of
study are needed but we have already seen that there are a number
of these available but they should be carefully vetted. Teachers may
be a problem but in most parishes there are retired or active professional
teachers and these could be used until others are trained. There are
more potential teachers in our society than we realise.
Volunteers are asked for from the whole congregation - this is important
because nobody must feel left out: a group is formed and the course
started, others may join until a point when another group is needed.
Our Forward in Faith laity have been wonderful in coming to meetings
and rallies but we cannot expect them to continue indefinitely. Many,
I know, want to do something more positive for the Catholic cause
and the lay apostolate seems to be a helpful way forward. It needs
little organising from the centre, only parish priests with vision
of how the Gospel may be taken to more people. Vatican II supported
the apostolate when it “Many people can only hear the Gospel through
the laity who live near them” and it is time we all put that into
It was unfortunate that the Church Union Lay Apostolate was allowed
to fade away because over the last 25 years we might have built up
a resource of trained lay people who could have opposed the flood
of liberal teaching which has brought our Church to its present divided
Newman in the last century noted that the laity in the fourth century
had saved the bishops and clergy from lapsing into heresy!
In a short article I can only sound out some of the basic facts of
this apostolate. I have described it more fully in my last book, A
Church in Miniature (Gracewing) and even suggested a course for the
first two or three years. The strategy lies on the table, ready for
our integrity to use it on the edge of that Church to which we have
been pushed.
Ivan Clutterbuck is a retired priest living in the diocese of Truro.
He was Orgnising Secretary of the Church Union in the 1960s.