As many of you will know, Father Frank Daly, Parish Priest of St. Peter’s, Hinckley, has refused to pay a parking ticket issued to him for parking an ambulance for the disabled, with the disabled sign displayed, in a loading bay on Good Friday. He has repeatedly said that he will go to jail rather than pay the fine, and has asked Leicestershire County Council to exercise discretion and common sense.
Why has Father Frank taken this stand over a parking ticket? There is certainly a matter of principle involved: it should be possible to enable disabled people to take part in an ecumenical Church service on a Good Friday. But I think we can see a more fundamental issue involved here: I would say that Father Frank feels called by the Holy Spirit to take this stand, and that in doing so he is witnessing to Christ, not only to his passion and death (since the incident occurred on Good Friday) but more generally to a christian way of life. Certainly, if someone who was involved – whether traffic wardens, County Council officers, or members of the adjudication panel which might be convened, or even the Magistrates if the matter gets that far – was to act in a Christian manner, then the problem would undoubtedly be resolved. That might still happen – but I have to say that I am not holding my breath over it.
Our Lord tells the disciples in today’s Gospel reading that when the Spirit of Truth comes from our heavenly Father it will be to witness to Christ, and the disciples themselves will be witnesses to him. He doesn’t say how they are to be witnesses – there are very many different ways in which the disciples were his witnesses, and there mare also many ways in which we may witness to Our Lord in our own time. But some of these ways could well bring us into conflict with the customs and practices of the people of our time, and some ways of witnessing could even bring us into conflict with the law, as Father Frank has found.
If we are truly led by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul tells us, we need not fear the law. We might be fined or imprisoned, as the St. Paul and the other apostles were, but we can be glad in the knowledge that we are following in the footsteps of Christ. For the Holy Spirit brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and although these may indeed fall foul of the law of the land, they cannot be in conflict with the law of God.
But it is not just that each of us as an individual follower of Our Lord is called to be his witness; the whole group of believers were inspired by the Holy Spirit in the first reading, and they were witnesses to the whole world. So what sort of witness do we wish the diocese to give in our part of England in the 21 century? What role do we think the diocese should play in ensuring that the Christian message – the message of the gospel – is heard throughout the world?
The disciples of Our Lord, as we know, proclaimed that he was Lord and Saviour, Risen from the dead, and that in him we could all look forward to eternal life. This is the kernel of the teaching of the Church. So it is really a question of how we feel the Diocese could and should proclaim the teaching of Christ – the teaching of the Catholic Church – so that the message will be heard clearly. How should the diocese offer to us all the chance to know and understand the teachings of Our Lord better? How should the Diocese be proclaiming the Gospel message of Christ to our young people? How should the Diocese be ensuring that the teaching of the Church is heard in the public arena, and that others, members of other christian communities, of other faiths, and of no faith at all, start to take notice of what the Church has to say? What is most important about the teaching of the Church which should be proclaimed most clearly and insistently? Who should the message be most aimed at?
Then there is another set of questions which we need to think about. Who is to proclaim the message? Can it just be left to the Bishop? Or to the Bishop and the priests and deacons? What can lay people do to proclaim the Gospel message of Christ? How can lay people be better formed in the teaching of the Church so that they can be confident in their witness? What can the Diocese do to help and support lay people in their witness?
These are all important questions, which all people in the Diocese do need to consider. Bishop Malcolm must make his decisions about the future of the Diocese, and he will want to know that he has the people of the Diocese withhim when he does so.