Saturday, 21 May 2011

Rocking The Boat

Many people I know are very dissatisfied with their parish or equivalent Church community. Most of the time the priest is apparently the central problem. He may be nasty, or a heretic, or a wet blanket who stifles everything, or simply dull and ineffective. Occasionally the priest is quite good, but can't do anything with an intransigent community who've 'always done it this way'. But the question is, what is the faithful disciple of Christ to do in such circumstances? There are three main options: 1. hunker down and wait for things to change (e.g. for the parish priest to die or move on); 2. move to another parish or church (Catholic, of course); 3. do something to change the situation.

Option 1 is not really acceptable, although it's a very common approach. When I first started thinking about this post, I was inclined to recommend option 2 as a ruthless but worthwhile way of dealing with problem parishes - vote with your feet and let the parish die. But I've had something of a change of mind, partly because I've heard of what can happen if people try option 3.

Changing the situation isn't easy, of course. Even if you have the nerve to speak to your priest, priests are notoriously bad at listening. Convinced as we are of our superiority to the laity, we blithely carry on as before. And that's why I think that option 2 isn't much of a goer, because the priest won't even get the message if people emigrate from the parish, and he'll just end up going to another parish and doing the same there. 
Of course, you could write to the bishop. But the bishop will probably only intervene if things are very bad indeed. And even then he doesn't have much power, if the priest is intransigent. So what can one do? I can't speak from experience, but I can share what I've mentioned above - that I've heard good things about what happens if people take some initiative.
There are two things that are important, it seems. The first, unsurprisingly, is prayer. Pray for the priest, for the parish, for whatever or whoever seems to be the problem (not forgetting, of course, to pray for yourself, knowing what a problem you are). But to be effective, the prayer has to be communal - a group of the faithful must get together to pray, and perhaps also to fast. I have heard of converted clergy resulting from this. In one striking case, however, when a community of sisters started to fast and pray for their parish priest, he was dead within the week!
The second important aspect is summed up in the well-known phrase, 'Be the change you wish to see'. Again, the 'you' in this case is plural. If your priest is teaching heresy, get together to study the Bible and/or the Catechism, or other worthy material. If he's dull and uninspiring, get together to share and do things that inspire you. If he's uncaring, form a group to provide help and care to those in the parish community who've been neglected. If the liturgy's as dull as ditchwater, then meet together to praise God in more enjoyable ways. You don't need the priest's permission to do these things if you meet in your homes or at non-parish venues.

All of the above assumes the priest is the major problem; but as I said at the beginning, he may be fine and the parish be the problem. In which case you (plural 'you' again) can form for the priest the nucleus of a new community.

Most success, it seems, is to be had if the group of loyal disciples aims to be evangelistic. Only thus does it impact on the wider parish. Moreover, if you're going to evangelise, that necessarily means you have to put all the other elements in place: prayer, community, teaching, and care. Once new members start to come into the parish as a result, this inspires and re-energises the whole community, including the priest – although the process is not without its challenges, of course.

As I said, I don't speak from experience, only from hearsay. So I'll be interested to learn from you, dear reader, especially from your experience. But I do believe there has to be a way to revitalise parishes. The new movements and other lay communities are essential to the Church, and may well be the nourishment and support for those who would renew their parishes. But these parishes remain important for 'incarnating' the Gospel in particular places. Believing this to be the Lord's aim, it must be that He will provide His people with the gifts necessary to bring it about.

Don't abandon ship. Rock the boat.


  1. As an Anglican vicar, I find it quite interesting what you say. I would always say - support your church, no matter which denomination - and actions speak louder than words. The five marks of mission are a good way to rate your church community and see ways you could change - To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
    To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
    To respond to human need by loving service
    To seek to transform unjust structures of society
    To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth


    for an Anglican perspective

  2. Maybe you could suggest some helpful changes to the priest and if you receive no encouragement from him mention that you know a certain community of sisters who if necessary can start to fast and pray for him!

    I am blessed to be a member of a strong parish with a good priest thanks be to God. I do agree with you about evangelising being the way to go, not just for change to a struggling parish but for all parishes. Even if we are struggling fishermen and haven't caught anything all night long He still comes along and says "Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch".

    When this happens Father and many parishioners will have to start working muscles they forgot they even had to drag in the haul and we will all become better disciples and fishers of men by responding to this invitation from the Lord.