Monday 23 April 2018

Church has finally seen the light on relentless decline of followers

Pope Francis has hit the Catholic Church like a bolt of lightning; it is as though it has finally realised that there must be change to survive. But is it too late

Pope Francis embraces a girl during a private audience with members of the
Pope Francis embraces a girl during a private audience with members of the "Azione Cattolica" organisation at the Vatican

Andreas Whittam Smith

Has the church got it at last? Do they understand that it will soon be too late to halt the slow yet relentless decline they have experienced across Europe, for many years?

Yes, they are, finally, beginning to face up to reality. For example, Pope Francis has just published a truly remarkable document, 'Evangelii Gaudium' or 'The Joy of the Gospel', in which he asks the Catholic Church to embark upon a fresh chapter of evangelisation, and where he describes in great detail how this should be done. And more quietly, but no less insistently, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is engaged in the same task.

Just a word, first, about where one should direct one's gaze. It is natural to bracket the Pope and the archbishop together, but so great are the structural differences between the two churches that this can mislead. In the Catholic Church, everything flows down from the top, whereas in the Church of England, authority is widely dispersed. So popes issue lengthy documents, often of a high quality, in this case an "apostolic exhortation", and set a new direction. Whereas in the Church of England, archbishops, bishops and the clergy just get on with things. To see what this means in practice, listen to Bishop Stephen Cottrell addressing the Chelmsford Diocesan synod last month. His speech, 'Evangelising Effectively: the next steps', cannot match the breadth, nor the wonderful biblical language of Pope Francis's exhortation, but it is directed at the same purpose in a very effective and practical manner.

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