February 2003

Women after dialogue

Bishop Vincent Malone

Vincent Malone is the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Liverpool and Episcopal Liaison Officer of the National Board of Catholic Women. Here he outlines the process of dialogue which has been undertaken with the NBCW and suggests ways in which women can serve officially in the Church. He endorses the invitation to women made by the bishops of England and Wales: ‘You must not be excluded from the process of pastoral planning and decision-making.’

The core text on the matter of women in the Church in England and Wales in the present era must surely be the benchmark statement by the Bishops’ Conference in 1980. In the middle of July that year, the bishops assembled in an Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference at Archbishop’s House in Westminster. Their special purpose was to approve a message emanating from the National Pastoral Congress held in Liverpool during the previous May. The document was The Easter People: a message from the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in light of the National Pastoral Congress in 1980.

Section IV of The Easter People was entitled ‘The Challenging Vision: the use of special gifts’, and it professed a wish ‘in a spirit of genuine dialogue’ to address itself ‘to women, to young people, to single people, to religious and to priests’. ‘We wish,’ it read ‘to call their attention to the challenge of the vision of their role in the Church in the light of their special gifts.’

Para. 178 deserves quoting extensively, not least because of its concluding words to women:

You must not be excluded from the process of pastoral planning and decision-making. We assure you of our collaboration and support as you achieve your genuine role in the Church and society at large.

The bishops had led themselves to that conclusion by addressing these words to women:

We believe the time is overdue for more positive attitudes about your participation in the life of the Church and we recognize with regret that you have often been permitted to play mainly a limited, and often inferior, part in the Church. We welcome the evidence that change has already begun. Our appeal, then, is that each of you individually will feel able to use to the full your gifts, your skills and your knowledge in the life and service of the Church. Traditional and unquestioned attitudes towards women and your role may have to be changed. We ourselves and our clergy may well have to be persuaded gently of our insensitivity and of our assumptions of male dominance. We suspect that on occasion you yourselves will have to be encouraged to undertake your positive role.

That was written 22 years ago. Many of the bishops of 1980 have died or retired, but there is no evidence that their successors wish to take a different view. The sobering fact is that the Bishops’ Conference today could well utter the same words with equal sincerity and with equal freshness. Are there any actions to match the words?

Into dialogue
The answer to that question has a little history of its own. In June 1988 the National Board of Catholic Women (keeping in that year the golden jubilee of its foundation as a Consultative Body of the Bishops’ Conference) received a letter from the Standing Committee of the Conference saying:

The bishops, for their thinking and reflection, need to receive a regular report or contribution, giving them a clear understanding of the concerns and perceptions of women in many matters of the life of the Church in and for the world. They need to listen to the voices of women and they are ready to do so. They recognise the importance of these perceptions and their relevance to the ministry of the bishops in the Church.

That invitation, coupled with the publication of Christifideles Laici in the following year, gave the impetus to the Board to prepare a consultative paper entitled ‘Women: status and role, life and mission’. It offered extracts from Christifideles Laici concerning the status and role of women in the Church and society, and proposed questions and discussion points. Some of the words of Christifideles Laici (51) are worth quoting here:

Without discrimination, women should be participants in the life of the Church and also in consultations and in the process of coming to decisions. Women … ought to be associated in the preparation of pastoral and missionary documents.

Above all the acknowledgement in theory of the active and responsible presence of women in the Church must be recognised in practice … the revised Code of Canon Law contains many provisions on the participation of women in the life and mission of the Church: they are provisions that must be commonly known and, according to the diverse sensibilities of culture and opportuneness in a pastoral situation, be realised with greater timeliness and determination.

New possibilities
Those who might have turned hopefully to the index of the new (1983) Code of Canon Law to see what entries were offered under ‘Woman’ would have been disappointed: there are only two, both concerning their participation in marriage! Their attention (and ours) would be better directed to the heading ‘Laity’, to find this reference;

Canon 228 #1: Lay people who are found to be suitable are capable of being admitted by the sacred pastors to those ecclesiastical offices and functions which, in accordance with the provisions of the law, they can discharge.

Some specification of those offices and functions is found, for example, in Canons 482, 766, 1421:

Canon 482 #1: In each curia a chancellor is to be appointed, whose principal office, unless particular law states otherwise, is to ensure that the acts of the curia are drawn up and dispatched, and that they are kept safe in the archive of the curia.

The Commentary of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland observes:

The Chancellor may, but need not, be a cleric: in principle a lay man or woman may be, and nowadays not infrequently is, appointed.

Canon 766: The laity may be allowed to preach in a church or oratory if in certain circumstances it is necessary, or in particular cases it would be advantageous, according to the provisions of the Bishops’ Conference and without prejudice to Can 767#1.


The latter canon reserves the homily to priest or deacon, but again the Canon Law Society comments:

A lay person could be given permission to preach even at Mass, albeit that his or her address would not constitute the homily of this canon; indeed some Bishops’ Conferences, while allowing this, have specified that it take place not after the Gospel but at some other stage in the course of the Mass.

Canon 1421 #1: In each diocese the Bishop is to appoint diocesan judges, who are to be clerics. #2: The Bishops’ Conference can permit that lay persons also be appointed judges …

These concessions may appear at first sight to be small and a little grudging, but the commentators observe more than once how these canons break new ground in principle by comparison with the restrictions of the previous Code of Canon Law.

On with the dialogue
In 1991 the results of the NBCW’s consultation were published as a booklet entitled Do Not Be Afraid. It was presented to the Bishops’ Conference, who decided, in response, to establish what came to be known as the national ‘Joint Dialogue Group’.

Originally it was to have six members chosen by the Bishops’ Conference and six chosen by the NBCW. It was quickly agreed, however, that all twelve would be joint appointments, acceptable to both parties. In that form it met a couple of times in Birmingham, in somewhat restricted space, which the women soon pointed out inhibited a free-flowing dialogue. We moved to more spacious facilities in London and agreed that the chairing of the meeting should alternate between a woman and a bishop. The urge to produce rapid results in concrete form gave way to the more demanding hope that we could learn better how to listen to and talk to one another.

A further consultation was carried out around the dioceses of England and Wales, and a further report produced, entitled Working Together. We reported our ‘progress’ back to our two sponsoring bodies, and were com-missioned to con-tinue to work, but now more as a Working Party (still under the title ‘Joint Dialogue Group’) consisting of three bishops and six women charged with iden-tifying and helping to spread whatever we judged to be ‘good practice’ in our field.

Structures of dialogue
The nature of the National Board of Catholic Women before this time was that its members came as representatives of Catholic women’s organisations – such as UCM and CWL – and had no machinery to enable it to consult Catholic women who did not belong to any of these groups. In 1995, following the initiative of the Joint Dialogue Group, the NBCW, with the blessing of the Conference as a whole, changed its constitution in order to admit what have come to be called ‘Diocesan Links’ – appointees of the diocesan bishop from among local Catholic women not necessarily belonging to any church organisation. All 23 of the dioceses in England and Wales (including the Bishopric of the Forces) now have such a Link. And one of her charges is to try to mirror within her diocese some form of Joint Dialogue Group – between women and priests. Catholic Woman – the quarterly newspaper of the NBCW – reports in each issue on the activity in the different dioceses, and once every two years the Joint Dialogue Group organises a national conference to bring together the Links and, as far as possible, a priest from each diocese, to share refinements of the vision, and to hear of local steps being taken to achieve it.

Cardinal Hume
Episcopal encouragement continues, not least in the words of Cardinal Hume. His June 1999 paper on ‘Unity and Diversity’ includes the words:

One final comment I would make … concerns decision-making in the Church. The decision makers are men, bishops and priests. Many of the decisions they take directly affect women, who are not always consulted. Theirs is a legitimate complaint. Women should be more closely involved at different levels in the Church with decision-making. How this could be brought about I do not know, but in this area there is work to be done by us all. Dialogue is needed.

So we have dialogued – locally and nationally – about ‘Hearing Women’s Voices’ (Conference 1998) and about ‘What it Means to be a Woman in our Time’ (Conference 2000), and at the time of writing are planning our next Conference for January 2003 under the title ‘Shifting Boundaries: authority and responsibility in the Church’. The dialoguing is essential, but is there anything more?

Beyond dialogue
We recognise that priests and laity must together work out the new patterns of ‘collaborative ministry’ in the Church. It is not simply a matter of some women demanding some rights from some unwilling priests: there is need for mutual assistance in discovering new ways of working together, getting beyond the first hurdle of true dialogue to the proper collaborative exercise of baptismal rights and duties. The experience is spreading – more rapidly in some parts of the country than in others – of dioceses which no longer have a sufficient number of priests to allocate one to each parish. It is no easy task for the priest who then finds himself required to serve two parishes to determine the best use of his time. The new mode of being parish priest forces him and his parishioners – if nothing else has done – to consider how together to foster the communion of the parish and to direct its mission. First steps will be halting and probably superficial, but all members of the local Church are in it together.

Crucially the priest has to learn what he must let go and how; he will do that much more easily at the end of a conversation – and perhaps experiment – in which those who may take on new responsibilities play their full part.

Priests are sometimes uncertain what they may, under Canon Law and Charity Law, let go, and there may not always be crisp answers. A readiness to explore would be a creative stance from which to address such questions.

As a start some seemingly little principles may be helpfully enunciated. For instance, one may note the distinction between ‘decision-making’ and ‘decision-taking’. It may lie upon the priest by law to take certain decisions, but the process leading him towards taking them (the process of decision-making) is certainly one that can be shared. Similarly we may note that the delegation of ‘authority’ does not mean delegation of ‘respon-sibility’. If it is inescapably the priest’s responsibility to see that some service is provided, he may well delegate to a helper the authority to take certain steps towards it. He does not thereby exonerate himself from the responsibility that the law – or the bishop or whoever – lays upon him (nor ultimately does he burden the agent with such responsibility). It may be by such tiny steps that together priests and people come to forge new patterns of working together, to the enrichment of themselves as well as of their tasks.

Whatever such ‘advice’ one conceives, there will be those to whom it comes as enlightenment and those who can say ‘We’ve done that for years.’ The sharing of good practice, the warning of common pitfalls, are ways in which a new culture may slowly be born out of dialogue.

Signs of hope
I am happy to recognise in the diocese in which I work the existence of splendid examples of women who chair their parish committee or pastoral council, and to applaud the recent appointment of a lay woman as Chancellor of the archdiocese. At national level we have women who lead important agencies which act in the name of the Church – the CES (Catholic Education Service), for instance, and the former CASC (Catholic Agency for Social Concern, now ‘Caritas – Social Action’). But I am well aware, too, that a trawl through the diocesan directories a few years ago revealed many more diocesan offices held by priests than were held by women. Perhaps the listings themselves were to blame, only deeming some roles as worthy of mention and others not.

We must avoid two extremes in an assessment of the present situation: one that thinks nothing has happened in the Church in recent years to better express women’s role within it; the other that thinks we’ve now got it about right. Neither is true. We have a long way to go. Sometimes it will be dispiriting to look back 20 years and find we still have to say the same things; sometimes we will be aware of little seedlings of development which we must nurture. But progress will not be regular or steady; it will be fitful and uneven.

It is worth remembering that it was women working together who gave birth to the idea that became CAFOD – now seen to be a major expression of what it means to be the Catholic Church in this country. And a more recent initiative by women may bear fruit in years to come – it is the launching about this time of a new Catholic news-sheet. Catholic Omnibus, as the name implies, is a vehicle for all Catholic organisations and agencies to proclaim themselves and their mission. It has developed from Catholic Woman and the hospitality of its columns for news of the dioceses and of the various Catholic women’s organisations. Catholic Omnibus will incorporate Catholic Woman and perhaps once again indicate that there are other ways of leading the Church than simply the hierarchical way. There is the woman’s way.

Time overdue
Let’s rejoice that the hierarchical voice has the grace to confess that:

We believe the time is overdue for more positive attitudes about your participation in the life of the Church, and we recognise with regret that you have often been permitted to play mainly a limited, and often inferior, part in the Church … You must not be excluded from the process of pastoral planning and decision-making.

Perhaps the bishops of 2003 will find opportunities to reaffirm the words ‘We assure you of our collaboration and support as you achieve your genuine role in the Church’, and will help the Church in our countries to find ways to move further into dialogue and beyond, deeper into real collaboration.

More by Bishop Vincent Malone
Contents Page
 Back to Top

Home Page | Buy this Issue | Subscribe | Contents Page | Archive | The Tablet