Standing on a garage forecourt filling my ageing Peugeot with diesel and contemplating nothing in particular, a voice broke into the moment of reverie. “Do you not have a sign for that?”
I turned to see a middle aged, well dressed man carrying a pile of books stepping into the passenger door of a car stopped at a nearby pump. I was baffled by the question, “Sorry?”
“Do you not have a sign you can make, like the sign of the cross or something, so that the car fills itself automatically?”
Realizing he assumed me to be a Catholic priest and realizing he expected something by the way of witty repartee, the best I could manage was, “they abolished that with Vatican II.”
He laughed. “Nice one”, he smiled, and closed the car door before it drove off.
It seemed an odd encounter, at once a demonstration that the deference of former times was past while at the same time an engagement which, if not affectionate, was far from hostile. Perhaps it pointed to the sort of relationship with which the church needs to engage in a post-Christian society.
The Marriage Equality referendum on 22nd May was a declaration that the majority of people would no longer listen to the bidding of the leadership of the church; the times when pastoral letters would have determined the outcome of any vote are part of an irretrievable past. The emergence of conservative pressure groups attempting to retain the former dispensation only serves to underline how marginal has become ecclesiastical influence. In the days of John Charles McQuaid a prominent role for such groups would not have been contemplated, for what purpose would they have served in a society where the hierarchy took all the decisions?
If the church has lost its power to determine the results of referendums, the opportunity remains of new conversations, conversations based not on one person stating propositions while the other person listens, but on real dialogues where there is listening on both sides.
It is the sort of relationship which may seem disturbing to those who feel more secure with the old authoritarian ways, those who believe that to simply continue reasserting the old doctrines will somehow change reality, but it offers the church the opportunity to play the sort of role played by the church in the First Century, where without power and on the margins, it enjoyed a dynamism and life that would disappear in the ensuing centuries.
The church will, of course, reject the First Century option, to abandon power and influence will not be contemplated by its leadership, but when that change is going to happen anyway, choosing the new conversations might not seem so radical.