The Church in England Today: an Overview (Part 1)

Westminster Bishop Speaks On Marriage, Religious Vocation

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, JULY 16, 2012 ( Throughout England, work being done to encourage vocations and promote a fuller understanding of marriage and the priesthood is bearing fruit, says Bishop Arnold of the Archdiocese of Westminster.

Bishop John Arnold is auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Westminster, England, and titular bishop of Lindisfarne. Recently in Rome to preside over the diaconate ordinations for seminarians of the Venerable English College, the bishop sat down with ZENIT and spoke about the Catholic Church in England, and the pastoral concerns within the Archdiocese of Westminster.

ZENIT: At the moment, England is in the midst of a debate over marriage. Specifically, the British government is actively seeking to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, most recently through a government consultation. Could you speak about the role of the Church in this debate, and how is it being addressed pastorally within the diocese?

Bishop Arnold: The Catholic Church has a very important role in that we’ve held very firm to the teaching on the sacrament of marriage – marriage between one man and one woman – which has been the basis of society. What we must do, at the moment, is accept that we are a small minority in our nation, but we have something really to boast about in an understanding of marriage, and we’ve got to promote that. I don’t think there’s any point being aggressive about it because that simply causes arguments.

What we’re looking for is a common understanding, a growth in understanding, and so what we must do is promote that sense of marriage, first of all within our own community, making sure that what as Catholics we understand by marriage and the theology of marriage, and that comes right down into the parishes enhancing marriage preparation, enhancing those celebrations of married couples, lives together, promoting life in whatever way. I think that’s probably the most articulate way in which we can promote marriage.

It’s unfortunate that our government has started a consultation about the best way of introducing same-sex «marriage» rather than whether we should or not introduce same-sex «marriage.» There could be quite a long conversation to be had, but I would hope that the government wouldn’t rush into anything, because I think there are unseen effects that people haven’t fully considered.

There are many people who would understand the Catholic notion of marriage. There are many Catholics who have taken an awful lot for granted, and not reflected on it, and that’s where we’ve got to do some work and make sure that they understand what their Church has taught for so long. Because it hasn’t been questioned so directly before, I think many of us take what we believe about marriage for granted without much reflection within ourselves.

ZENIT: What is the state of religious vocations within England, and what initiatives are being undertaken to promote vocations, particularly within your diocese?

Bishop Arnold: In recent years we’d seen quite a downturn, but just recently, in the last five years or so, there’s been a really quite discernible upturn in vocations: not huge numbers, but a steady growth. In my own diocese we’ve taken nine or 10 students each year into the seminary, which is a very good sign, and also, I think, these are students who are now coming after a better pre-seminary preparation. They’re not just turning up as many of us did 30 years ago saying we wanted to be priests, and being accepted into the seminary without question. There’s more discernment, more preparation, before we allow students into the seminary. I think things are looking better. Practically speaking, every diocese now has a priest who has a dedicated role in promoting vocations. I think that’s very healthy, and this approach is bearing fruit.

We certainly have a great legacy from the papal visit, what some people call the «Benedict bounce,» of people showing a new interest in vocations. This is wonderful to see. But we can’t be complacent about it, and we’re certainly not back at those sorts of numbers as we were in the 1960s, which were the largest ever. We’ve also got to be very sure, I think, about rediscovering, redefining, what priesthood is so that people know what they are being called to, and what they are being prepared for.

ZENIT: You mentioned a rise in the interest in vocations following the Holy Father’s visit to England in 2010. What are some of the other fruits that you have been seeing in England from Pope Benedict’s visit?

Bishop Arnold: Particularly from his address to the politicians and industrialists in Westminster Hall, he invited, very gently, a conversation in society where faiths would have a voice for finding the best way ahead of developing, because that’s in all our interests. He was saying that the Catholic Church has something to contribute, and I think he said it in such a moderate and kindly way that many people who might have dismissed us as a voice thought, well yes, we’re at least worth listening to. So I’m very optimistic that his visit has a very lasting effect in our society.

[Part 2, on the Year of Faith and the Olympics, will be published Tuesday]
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