JOHN WARHURST. Church Governance Review Project Team Opportunity

May 28, 2019

The church governance review now underway has garnered considerable national and international interest as a forward step in church reform. This opportunity should not be over-sold as taking control of church reform, because of the considerable constraints under which the review team is working, but the balance of skills and experience in this group means that Australian Catholics can look forward to a challenging, creative yet practical report drawing on mapping, consultation and research both within Australia and more broadly.

What a delight and an education it is for me to work with my six fellow Governance Review Project Team (GRPT) members on such an important topic for the future of the church as parish and diocesan governance and management. My hope is that this review, while it has been conducted out of the limelight so far, will now engage many more church members.

That is already happening; since it was made public I have already been contacted with stories from the parish level about frustrating failures of church governance, which put flesh on the general principles of the need for better governance at all levels, including greater accountability, transparency and inclusiveness. My colleagues and I would welcome many more, both from diocesan and parish perspectives.

Many senior church leaders already deeply sense the organisational crisis. One former Vicar-General with vast experience commented to me that “There has to be a better way. It does seem strange that a bishop is the legislator, administrator and the judge, often acting in secret with no seeming appeal process, no transparency, nor accountability”.

Another current Vicar-General advised me, however, that: “The task before you is a large one and will require a change of consciousness for many, but more significantly a change in culture”. The GRPT is conscious of the enormity of this task of bringing about lasting cultural change understanding that it includes attitudinal, behavioural and institutional dimensions of change.

There are at least two necessary starting points for the review. One is to reach some working theological consensus about the nature of the church and its governance and leadership. Priests and bishops are central under Canon Law to church leadership with the power of governance reserved to members of the clergy to the exclusion of the laity. Governance reform will be inhibited unless these church laws change. Retired Melbourne priest Eric Hodgens believes that the review team must therefore address the theology of the church and the theology of the priesthood. Certainly, unless there is some agreement about the nature of the institution being reviewed specific proposals will be hamstrung. The church has special organisational qualities, but it is no help just to say that it is mysterious or its characteristics divine. It is a human institution despite having divine inspiration.

The second starting point is to learn much more about existing church governance structures, operations and cultural styles in Australia. What we do know, or at least have strong grounds to suspect, is that there exists huge variety across parishes and dioceses, determined respectively by the historical and current leadership of priests and bishops. Beyond that our ignorance is extensive. In the past no one has been interested in accumulating the data. The GRPT is seeking to address that void by commissioning the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) National Pastoral Research Office (NPRO) in Canberra to survey dioceses about their governance structures and practises both at a diocesan and parish level. This will address how dioceses and parishes operate, what agencies and councils have been set up, with what authority, who takes part in them and how they ensure accountability.

There is already no shortage of reform proposals, many emanating from the church reform movement. This includes a stock-pile of recommendations from previous church enquiries, such as the bishops’ enquiry into women’s participation in the church 20 years ago. Most of these proposals have been put to the Plenary Council already and some, like the submission by Catholics for Renewal, have found a commercial publisher and will shortly be much more widely available.

Some reforms are already underway in dioceses and parishes too, where there must be many examples of good governance practice which evidence cultural change inclusive of transparency, accountability and meaningful participation by lay women and men. There should be much greater transparency about these steps and a willingness to share. Hopefully those dioceses and parishes with a strong story to tell will come forward. The GRPT knows it must come to grips with all of these, a large task in itself, even if there is some repetition.

A crucial source of information are the submissions made to the Plenary Council 2020. Rather than re-inventing the wheel the GRPT must take advantage of the wisdom on governance contained in many of these submissions, both those from dioceses, peak organisations and prominent reformers but also those from unheralded individuals and parishes with street-level personal experience.

This means there are now two parallel national reform processes underway which need to be sensitively brought together. One way is set out in the GRPT terms of reference. It will report to the ACBC and Catholic Religious Australia by March 2020 in time for its recommendations to find a place on the agenda of the Plenary Council meeting in October 2020. That timetable is incredibly tight because to be useful recommendations not only have to be put forward but explained and widely discussed at diocesan and parish level.

The other is set out in the plans of the Plenary Council team itself to take the consultation process further by sorting and weighing the key submissions in order to formulate agenda proposals. But even before then the two processes may be melded in the national working parties to be set up shortly by the Plenary Council Facilitation Team. Governance questions will probably feature in several of these working parties and individuals from both processes will doubtless get together well before any report is received from the GRPT.

The GRPT is setting out in several other directions too, so as to make the most of national and international expertise. Dr Brendan Reed, parish priest of Our Lady of Good Counsel, Deepdene, Melbourne, has been engaged to develop a paper on good governance from the parish perspective. Similar engagements may be made with leading ecclesial governance experts across Australia and the world, all seeking a swift injection of available wisdom and practical ideas.

A memorandum of understanding has also been agreed for collaboration with the Leadership Roundtable in the United States, a registered non-profit organisation which involves key figures right across the American Church, from prominent Cardinals to lay leaders. The roundtable’s aim is to advise their church on how to introduce public performance standards and how to develop the next generation of leaders, lay and ordained, to embed such understandings in the fabric of the church. We have mutual interests and can learn from each other.

There are many avenues to church reform and there will be many pit-stops along the way. This church governance review could turn out to a most important element of such reform and the work it undertakes will probably not even be fully completed by next March. That report will in many ways only be a first instalment on a longer journey.

While the bishops may have let the governance reform genie out of the bottle, they still hold the levers of reform in their hands, both individually and collectively. The same is true of parish priests within the local parish context. There is so much that they can do already.

The pace and scope of future reform will be determined ultimately by the way the Governance Review, the Plenary Council 2020, the reform movement, and individual leaders and church communities combine their faith and talents and their energy and determination, for the common good.

Emeritus Professor John Warhurst is Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn and a member of the Governance Review Project Team set up by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and Catholic Religious Australia through their Implementation Advisory Group

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