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Booming reform group is still an enigma

Jean Riordan

The rise of A Call to Action (Acta) has been phenomenal. Founded only two years ago, the movement now has 1,500 members, with groups in every diocese in England and Wales. Yet there is a slight confusion about what, precisely, it stands for. Its mission statement says it seeks to create “an atmosphere of openness and dialogue” in which lay and ordained people can “contribute fully to the life of our Church”. Critics, however, see Acta as a dissenting group, and say it wants to change core parts of the Church’s teaching.

The movement was set up in the mould of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative and the Irish Association of Catholic Priests for clergy unhappy with the status quo. Fr Derek Reeve, an 84-year-old priest based in the Diocese of Portsmouth, says he was “fed up” with the state of the Church. The Second Vatican Council had fulfilled all his hopes, he says, but in the decades since he had watched as its reforms – on collegiality, for instance, and the participation of the laity – had been gradually “frittered away”. Campaign groups had been taking off in Europe, but in Britain “nothing seemed to be happening”. He was retired and had “nothing to lose”. So Fr Reeve emailed 50 or so priests, asking them if they shared his concerns. About 20 responded and several months later they met. Seven priests were nominated to form a core group.

In June 2012 a letter signed by this core group was published in a Catholic weekly, the Tablet. (Acta members call these priests “the magnificent seven”.) They wrote that they were “deeply concerned” about the future of the Church. Lay people, they said, were being ignored, especially on the issue of sexuality. They called for a discussion about “married men and the institutional priesthood” and invited priests to gather to form a voice “to which [bishops] can listen”.

Within weeks about 70 priests and deacons had met at an Anglican church in London. (The group’s name, A Call to Action, was taken from the headline the letter was given in the Tablet.) In a departure from the Austrian and Irish groups that Acta sought to emulate, a second gathering was organised a few months later for lay people. This meeting, at Heythrop College in west London, drew a crowd of 400 – four times the expected number. One of those who attended was

Jean Riordan, a retired primary school teacher. She says the meeting created a “burst of enthusiasm” and “a feeling that something’s got to change”. She immediately set up an Acta group in Birmingham, and began by phoning everyone she knew. Its first meeting attracted 40 people; its second, two months later, drew 80. Similar groups were being started in about 10 different dioceses.

Riordan says she had built “a big head of steam” even before Acta came along. She says she was distressed by the new translation of the Mass, which she regards as not being inclusive or accessible. She wrote letters to all the bishops on the subject, but says she only received replies “saying how wonderful everything was and how satisfied people were”.

As groups began meeting all over the country, two Acta priests had a meeting with the then Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster. They reported that he “took on board much of what we said without agreeing or disagreeing”. They said the archbishop asked to be kept informed, and seemed to view Acta as “a positive thing”.

About 10 days later Pope Francis stepped out on to the balcony of St Peter’s. His election provoked a fresh wave of optimism among Acta members. Some, Riordan says, were “even standing up to suggest that Acta disband”. It seemed, she says, “as if the chief member of Acta had been made pope”.

I meet Riordan, now chairwoman of Acta, at her home in Birmingham. She is a dynamo: before I step on her driveway she is already out the front door, explaining that the buzzer is broken. She says that Acta wants to represent Catholics in general, whether they are lay people, priests or religious. The hope is that eventually it will have “many, many thousands of members”, allowing bishops to “feel confident that when they speak to us they will hear something of an average of what people really think”. Some of its groups “might be quite conservative”, she says. She claims Acta already includes some members of the Latin Mass Society, but she does admit that members tend to be “reform-minded”.

Critics, however, say such a stance is disingenuous. Catholic blogger Mark Lambert, for instance, argues that Acta “obfuscate what they’re all about to retain a façade of respectability”. They hide their radicalism, he says, to suggest “a broad support base”.

Acta’s mission statement is cited as just such an attempt at obfuscation. The statement, written by the seven original priests before the first meeting with lay people, does not mention any of the issues – married priests, sexuality, the new translation of the Mass – referred to in the Tablet letter. Instead, it calls for a “climate of trust and respect for all where … dialogue may be fostered”.

Part of Acta’s “big tent” approach involves building relationships with the hierarchy. Riordan says group members have now had meetings with more than a dozen bishops, and even taken one out for a curry. These encounters have caused alarm. Deacon Nick Donnelly, who until recently wrote the Protect the Pope blog, says that they “give the impression to ordinary Catholics that what [Acta] are saying is OK”.

Not everyone is amenable to Acta’s approaches, though. One bishop flatly refused a meeting. Riordan says there are parishes where they cannot put up posters. An assistant priest is reported to have destroyed hundreds of copies of his parish newsletter after realising Acta had an advert in it.

Riordan takes me along to an Acta meeting at the Birmingham University Catholic chaplaincy. There, members express discomfort at their rebel status. John Sullivan, professor emeritus at Liverpool Hope University, says they are not “young revolutionaries” or “extremists”, but a “loyal bunch of Catholics who want the laity to be listened to”. To illustrate his point Prof Sullivan notes that many in Acta are “senior citizens”. Yet, at the Birmingham gathering, this is not universally so – there are a handful of people in their 30s and one girl, a PhD student with tattoos, is in her mid-20s. There is an air of slight mischief.

Prof Sullivan, who gives the main talk, describes his title “professor emeritus” as meaning a “not quite extinct dinosaur”, to which a lady cheerfully responds: “It’s the same with popes!”

Participants I speak to seem disillusioned by the role the laity have in the Church. One thinks that lay people have been “shoved to the bottom”. Another says parishioners should be “treated like adults” and consulted on matters such as church closures and the appointment of priests.

Many Acta members have more radical views. Riordan says that “quite a number of our people are in favour of women’s ordination”. Others, she says, think “the redefinition of the priesthood is the way to go about it”.

What Riordan wants above all is for Catholics to talk about these kinds of issues. If there is more open debate, she thinks, young people are more likely to stay engaged with their faith. She cites her own children, with whom she used to discuss the Sunday homily every week – three out of four still go to Mass, she says. She blames the Church, not secularisation, for the shrinking number of Mass-goers in past decades. “The Church has to look to itself and ask why are people leaving. We have to cast a few motes out of own eyes and see why our children don’t want to come any more.”


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