Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Birmingham Oratory

Colophon blog - Holy Trinity Monastery, East Hendred
A monastery of Roman Catholic Benedictine nuns in the Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire

Recently the blogosphere has been awash with comment on events at the Birmingham Oratory, most notably the removal of Fr Philip Cleevely, Fr Dermot Fenlon and Br Lewis Berry for an indefinite period of prayer and reflection at various monasteries in Britain and France. Colophon does not wish to comment on the specifics of the case but will certainly be praying for all concerned, especially the three exiles, of whom one, Fr Dermot, is remembered with great respect from Cambridge days.

What we do want to comment on, however, is the way in which the Church often deals with "internal disputes" within its religious communities and priestly congregations. It is no secret that we ourselves know something of the pressures which can be brought to bear, especially on those who wish to be loyal and obedient but who do not form a majority/find themselves conscientiously holding views at odds with those of the superior or other members of the community. Sanctions only work if they are applied to people who acknowledge the authority of those applying them and desire to continue as priests, monks, nuns or whatever, despite the injustices or difficulties to which they may be subject. The alternative is what might be called the Milingo approach: shake the dust of the Church from one's feet and do one's own thing (the eccentric and excommunicate former archbishop is now the Ecumenical Catholic Apostolic Church of Peace's patriarch of South Africa).

Internal investigations, by definition, rarely make sense to outsiders but what we know of the Birmingham case makes uncomfortable reading. The sexual abuse of children and vulnerable adults is not the only form of abuse: there can be an abuse of authority in other areas which is countenanced because it is (mistakenly) linked to religious obedience, with the result that people who have done nothing wrong can be made to pay a high price for their integrity. Everyone has a right to their good name, and it would be sad indeed if the Church were to allow any suspicion to attach to those who have committed no sin and broken no law. It is troubling that the three members of the Oratory are left with a cloud hanging over them. One hopes that, like Newman's, it will soon be lifted for ever (though perhaps not by the gift of a cardinal's hat!)

Again, we stress that we have no inside knowledge regarding events in Birmingham and trust that we are not sniffing sulphur where there is none. The fact remains that what has happened and even more the way in which it has happened are disturbing. This is surely a case where Church authority needs to be a little more transparent if it is not to appear harsh and authoritarian. Fifteen hundred years ago Benedict foresaw the need for "neighbouring abbots and Christians" to keep an eye on the local monastery and act promptly if need be (RB 64.6). That means trying to put things right when they go wrong, of course; but it also means standing up for truth and justice in the face of any official desire for "tidy solutions" or "quick fixes". In the language of today, it means that every Christian has a duty of care towards every other member of the Church.