Date: Tue, 14 Nov 1995 01:20:42 -0800
Sender: News and Articles From and About Ireland <IRL-NEWS@RUTVM1.BITNET>
From: Tony Hurson <tony@BGA.COM>
Subject: Church needs a centre to find itself—IT, 1995/11/13
To: Multiple recipients of list IRL-NEWS <IRL-NEWS@RUTVM1.BITNET>

Church needs a centre to find itself

By Enda McDonagh, The Irish Times, [14 November 1995]

A COMMUNITY as disturbed and distressed as the Irish Catholic Church is at present is not a pleasant sight to itself or others. The Late Late Show earlier this month confirmed that. Yet there was a certain wholesomeness about the honesty, anger and even bravery of participants as they struggled to address the painful difficulties besetting the church.

Church members will need a lot more space and time than a Late Late could provide to tackle such problems as clerical sexual failure, let alone the more deep-seated problems of structure and faith. It is only gradually that the depth of such difficulties will be revealed.

Things must still get worse before they get better.

Yet the church, institution and people, cannot afford to sit idly by. And there are beacons of light to be seen amidst the developing darkness. Groups of lay people, particularly of lay women, of religious and priests, are actively witnessing to the power of the Gospel in situations of poverty and injustice. Some larger vision and plan is urgently needed to ensure that that light is not mastered by the growing darkness.

A number of ideas have been floated already about how all these problems and the possibilities that can go with them might be taken up by the Irish church as a whole. The most widely discussed form of dealing with the church crisis has been that of a synod of the whole church.

Synod is used ambiguously or loosely. Many people seem to have in mind not a synod simply of bishops but a widely representative consultation of the whole Irish church along the lines of the Pastoral Council held in Liverpool in 1980.

A great deal of clarification of the idea and then of preparation for the project would be necessary if it were not to end in disaster. But some such synod or council cannot be finally ignored without great damage to the church.

In the shorter term, an initiative similar to that of the Opsahl Commission in Northern Ireland could give a voice to the frustrations, needs and aspirations of all Irish believers in a forum that would be non-threatening and facilitating.

The report and recommendations of such a commission could assist all Irish religious communities to understand themselves and one another better and so live in greater harmony. It could also help the Catholic Church in particular to undertake the fuller internal consultation it certainly needs.

A further project in a programme for recovery was raised in my article in the October issue of The Furrow (``Bruised Reeds and the Mystery of the Church''). Basically it involves a kind of Annaghmakerrig in a religious context or with a religious dimension.

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre contributed substantially to the present flowering of the arts in Ireland. Without people of talent, of course, no such institution could flourish. But without the support and setting, silence and dialogue, solitude and community which a place like Annaghmakerrig provides for young and older poets, playwrights, painters and musicians for months at a time, the artists themselves would find it more difficult to survive and flourish. The practical and useful is also the symbolic.

Ireland's commitment to the arts has this symbolic centre which in no way distracts from the more particular practical and symbolic centres such as theatres and concert halls and art galleries.

WHAT is proposed here would not be any simple imitation. The inspiration remains while the rationale and form might differ. The rationale could, in the current jargon, be twin-track, reflecting the needs of the church or more broadly the needs of Irish religious life and, at the same time, recognising the potential of religion to contribute in dialogue to Irish artistic and intellectual life.

The historic forces in Irish life might be summarised as prayer, poetry and politics. Irish religion was a formative influence in the shaping of Ireland, even in pre-Christian times. Its interaction with poetry and the arts goes back as far.

In more recent times the connection between religion and politics has been powerful, for good and ill to both partners. A new relationship is in process. What is needed now for church and society is a more differentiated relationship which represents independence of these traditional forces.

From the perspective of church crisis, what is needed is a much more critical awareness by the church of its lack of connection with the present artistic renaissance in Ireland and with its less noted but no less vigorous intellectual life.

Indeed, the confusion which affects religion and politics at present may be traced to church failure, intellectually and imaginatively. The lack of a rigorous respect for intellect and its integrity in the Irish church has made it very vulnerable, even to unreasoned criticism.

It may be too harsh to say that Ireland has moved from an uninformed and uncritical religious belief to a similar disbelief, but there is some truth there. The weakness of Irish theology and its absence in the colleges of the National University are some testimony to that.

Faith without intelligent critique cannot survive in today's intellectual climate. The fear of theology evident in church leadership is ultimately self-destructive.

The church's failures in imagination may be even more important for the very reason that the Irish imagination has always been so active and is on a new ascending curve in recent decades. The award of the Nobel Prize to Seamus Heaney is the most potent symbol of that.

The range of other good poets, novelists and dramatists, of painters and sculptors, of musicians of all kinds and of film-makers, illustrates an artistic and imaginative life which is sadly unrecognised in a church with a Catholic history including Dante, Michelangelo and Palestrina, and an Irish history that was rooted in the poetry and artistic achievement of its early monks.

RECENT responses to crisis have shown no capacity to enter imaginatively into the world of the suffering or erring. Liturgical and ecumenical movements have slowed down partly because they are not in touch with the current sources of spiritual energy manifest in the arts. Vital expressions of spiritual energy like that of justice for women are too threatening to an unimaginative church.

It is in this context that a church initiative is necessary to establish a centre where artists and intellectuals would be welcome and could find the time and space to dream, create or converse in a context of peace and (non-intrusive) prayer.

Such a centre should be open to physicists and other scientists, to philosophers and theologians as well as to artists. In this way it could establish something essential and unique not only to Ireland but to the wider western world.

The church initiative would have to be humble, listening and searching not as a strategy but as an acceptance of the reality that it is a pitiful newcomer to this scene. Yet the religious tradition has eventually much to give as well as to receive. It must first learn to receive.