The Townsville experiment: next stage in the evolution of an Australian Church?

The Townsville experiment: next stage in the evolution of an Australian Church?


An extraordinary 'experiment' which appears to fly in the face of accepted Catholic doctrine and practice is now envisaged by the Townsville diocese. That, at least, is the burden of a newsletter, clearly from an official source, which purports to summarise a new diocesan document, 'Never Ending Story.'

'AD2000' publishes the newsletter in full to ensure that its arguments are fully stated and that it cannot be said that they are taken out of context. The claim that this planned new form of ecclesiastical organisation has arisen from the 'grass roots' and that it is a work of the 'Spirit' is the usual theological gobbledegook, when the exercise is in fact the work of one or two nuns influential in the affairs of the diocese, plus one or two salaried officials.

The document, which proposes the ultimate abolition of Catholic parishes, does not regard any shortage of priests as the central concern and grounds for such a move when 'lay-presidents' are proposed as substitutes. Coyly unsaid is the question of who will pronounce the words of consecration. Since this experiment is envisaged in an Australian Catholic diocese - a part of the universal Church - it would be interesting to know what the Holy See thinks of the exercise.

Back in January 1992 we were alerted by one of our readers in the Townsville area that something significant, radical and pioneering was happening in the cities of Townsville/Thuringowa in the Catholic diocese of Townsville. The reader stressed that this "restructuring" project was undergirded by prayer at every stage as well as a keen discernment of the "signs of the times."

The story is contained in a 140-page Report called Never-Ending Story ..., dated September 1991. It reflects more than 12 months hard work by a small Task Force of eight people: five lay, one priest and two Religious.

This Task Force, led by Sr Mary Lowcock RSM, had a capable facilitator in Sr Cath Fitzgerald RSM from Brisbane. It was grassroots-oriented, receiving feedback through a consultative process of questionnaires from and discussions with ordinary lay people. In fact, it could be called a theological interpretation of the practical desires of the lay people - the People of God. The work has received enthusiastic encouragement from their Bishop, Raymond Benjamin; the co-operation and assistance of the diocesan staff, and its Interim Report was read by a list of eminent Australian theologians from Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

When asked for the inside story about key personalities in the diocese, who were instrumental in bringing this initiative to fruition over the last few years, Sr Mary replied, "It is the Spirit at work in many people from all walks of life."

The heading "Parish to Community" could also be [expressed as] something like "Moving from the First Centuries into the Twentieth Century." The Townsville initiative represents a break-through for the whole Australian Church. The plan is to move away from the geographical parish system. It is likely that the term "parish" will gradually be dropped from diocesan usage. The proposal is to make the new basic unit a network of Small Christian Communities.

The people have said "No" to any kind of amalgamation of parishes that is currently taking place in many parts of this country due to the shortage of priests. Again and again in the consultative process the people were saying, "We want to retain our small communities, we want to participate in Christ's mission" (Introduction, p.5). In response to this demand from the grassroots the Small Christian Community (SCC) has been made the basis of the whole scheme.

The Report expresses a fresh and lively ecclesiology, on the one hand incorporating the model of the first few centuries of the Church's existence and on the other hand using the communal concepts expressed in the Vatican II documents in the 20th century. This is clearly stated with many quotations, footnotes and bibliography. It is both a practical and theological statement.

However, the Task Force predicted that the 17 odd centuries of ecclesiology in between these two models, mainly influenced by the mind-set of the parish system, meant that it will be a colossal task to change the thinking and understanding of Church by ordinary Christians today.

It is reported that a Commission for implementation includes a working team, and it has already commenced this colossal task. As a first priority it has arranged a series of meetings with the people based on what is at the very centre of the Report, "The Church: Communion and Mission" (pp. 25-35). The course is now called "The Communion and Mission in the Townsville Church."

Basic Ecclesial Communities

Sr Mary writes, "We have in mind Basic Ecclesial Communities." Already the International Jose Marins Team have completed a workshop in Townsville this year. During the weekend of September 11-13 Art Baranowski will be there and during the weekend of October 30-November 1, Jim O'Halloran will be there.

The Townsville diocese means business. A determined course of implementation is planned. All eyes in Australia will be looking in that direction with expectation in the next years. It will mean "time, energy, expertise, personnel for detailed research, planning, consultation and [most of all] communication".

The first question that comes to mind is: "Why out of all Australia did such a radical venture emerge from Townsville - thousands of miles north of Sydney"? The Report discusses this in the Introduction (pp. 4-5).

It can't be the shortage of priests for this is the same everywhere. The Report is critical of this blockage today, noting that "we are saying to our people - sorry but you cannot have Eucharist just at the moment. In other words the Eucharist is summit and source only in theory. In practice a specific theology of ministry holds supreme sway" (p. 130). In any case the prediction is that Townsville diocese will soon have no more shortage as many young priests in Australia will opt to serve where such a venture has begun.

According to the diocesan historian, John Maguire, as early as 1930 Townsville has been "a place worth risking as an experiment in major change." He hints that Townsville diocese has been prepared for an experiment "for the next stage in the evolution of the Australian Church."

There is another aspect. On arrival in Townsville in 1984 the Bishop spoke about the willingness and readiness of lay people to accept responsibility for the Church.

The Task Force identified the key reason as "a willingness to let go of some of our self-control and open ourselves to the mystery - to listen to God present within this Church" and to accept the Pauline experience that "it is when I am weak that I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10).

With this background in the Townsville diocese the Task Force was inspired to recognise the basic baptismal vocation of the People of God (pp. 27-29) and to base their whole venture on the phrase, "That all Christ's faithful share the responsibility for the life and mission of the Church" (p. 55).

There is so much in this Report. Space dictates that we can't cover everything in one edition. At the heart there is the section on "Church: Communion and Mission" (pp. 26-35).

It deals with several important considerations, including the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the SCC. It is there that the Lord Jesus makes the Community (creates a communal consciousness), sustains it, and leads it into action in the world. This part of the Report relies heavily on a seminal article by John Haughey, "The Eucharist and Intentional Communities," Bernard Lee (ed): Alternative Futures for Worship, Vol. 3, The Eucharist (p. 34).

Communion Services

The Task Force is not happy about "Communion Services", the liturgy of the Word with Holy Communion (p. 35), a rite that is liturgically and theologically unsustainable, providing the People of God with a misleading understanding of the Sunday Eucharist. Their only advantage is that "it is forcing our Communities to question the significance of the Eucharistic celebration; encouraging us to depth our understanding of Eucharist and Eucharist community; and compelling us to alternatives" (p. 35).

The scheme in Townsville proposes that each SCC has a servant-leader/coordinator appointed by the Bishop, sometimes a lay person, sometimes a priest; and later, a person emerging from the Community concerned (p. 64).

Because of the essential need for each SCC to have its own celebration of Eucharist, it is observed that we are being forced to explore alternatives to the present stalemate in the theology of priestly ministry. The Task Force points to the most likely way ahead by accepting early Church practice that the leader of the Community is also the person who will naturally preside over the celebration of the Communal Eucharist. This is supported by quotations from Schillebeeckx, E., Ministry: Leadership in the Community of Jesus Christ, p. 49; and from Cooke, B., "The People Must be Enlisted to Meet Eucharistic Crisis," National Catholic Reporter, 26, 29, (1990): 12.

The Task Force specifically calls the basic unit of the plan: "Small Catholic Communities," and in so doing complicates our abbreviation arrangements! [See: p.2]. The use of Small Christian Community (SCC) has become common around the world to cover a great variety of grassroots communities. This means that the second "C" can now mean either "Christian" or "Church" or "Catholic". However, the main concern is that this phenomenon is an ecclesial community.

"The Church of the future will be one built from below by basic communities as a result of free initiative and association. We should make every effort not to hold up this development but rather to promote it..." (Karl Rahner: The Shape of the Church to Come.)

Copies of Never-Ending Story ... can be obtained from Len Horner, Diocesan Secretary, Catholic Diocesan Centre.

What Canon Law says

Can. 515 §1 A parish is a certain community of Christ's faithful stably established within a particular Church, whose pastoral care, under the authority of the diocesan Bishop, is entrusted to a parish priest as its proper pastor.

Can. 518 As a general rule, a parish is to be territorial, that is, it is to embrace all Christ's faithful of a given territory. Where it is useful, however, personal parishes are to be established, determined by reason of the rite, language or nationality of the faithful of a certain territory, or on some other basis.

Can. 521 §1 To be validly appointed a parish priest, one must be in the sacred order of priesthood.

§2 He is also to be outstanding in sound doctrine and uprightness of character, endowed with zeal for souls and other virtues, and possessed of those qualities which by universal or particular law are required for the care of the parish in question.

Can. 528 §1 The parish priest has the obligation of ensuring that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish. He is therefore to see to it that the lay members of Christ's faithful are instructed in the truths of faith, especially by means of the homily on Sundays and holydays of obligation and by catechetical formation ...

§2 The parish priest is to take care that the blessed Eucharist is the centre of the parish assembly of the faithful. He is to strive to ensure that the faithful are nourished by the devout celebration of the sacraments, and in particular that they frequently approach the sacraments of the blessed Eucharist and penance ...

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