It was to Gateshead that we travelled in May 2007 to attend the annual Conference of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. We were going to graduate in Gateshead!
The “we” in question were the most recent participants in the Jurisprudential Course run by the Society. Eleven of us (4 ladies, 6 priests and a deacon) successfully completed the course in February 2007, having honed our skills in writing sentences on the various grounds for nullity. We were the last group to experience the hospitality of the Selly Park Sisters at Teddington (Photo above) and the first to experience a warm welcome North of the border at the Gilllis Centre in Edinburgh.
Seven of the group arrived at The Swallow Hotel for the Conference; only two of us had attended a conference before. Very soon we were clutching conference papers and wearing our name badges suspended on their fine Golden Jubilee ribbons. There were smiles and laughter as we met up again and across the crowded room we saw, here and there, the familiar faces of those who had taught us. If for some of us the prospect of attending the Conference was a bit daunting, then we need not have worried because friendliness was the hallmark of the week. Beyond the obvious seriousness of the papers presented each day, which were often thought-provoking and sometimes provocative, it was clear to more than the casual observer that this Society was not just concerned with the minutiae of Canon Law. Animated conversations and the sound of laughter in the restaurant and around the bar bore witness to old friends reunited and new friendship being forged.
Bishop Kevin Dunn, himself a Canon Lawyer, formally welcomed us to the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle. He reminded us of the significance of Lindisfarne and Durham to the English Church, and of the important contributions of Aidan, Cuthbert and Bede. Paul Zielinski sought to counter the its-grim-up-North view of Gateshead by reminding us of the Angel of the North, the new Sage Centre and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. However, we might say that he rather hedged his bets by including Bede’s World on the itinerary for the optional trip on the Wednesday afternoon.
During the course of the week we were presented with papers on a range of topics. The week was topped and tailed by papers on priestly formation, delivered by Anthony Randazzo and James Conn respectively. Frank Morrisey shared his thoughts on the situation about rights in the Church and Mark Chopko gave us a fascinating insight into the interface between Civil and Canon Law in the United States with regard to the abuse of children by clergy. Evelyn Mann spoke on the subject of gender dysphoria, giving a thought-provoking, and at times, uncomfortably detailed presentation. Perhaps the most provocative paper of the week was presented by Brendan Killeen, who spoke on the role of love within marriage. At first sight this topic does not appear to be remotely controversial. However, Brendan, drawing on the fruits of his recently completed doctoral thesis, suggested some possible canonical developments, not least in the canonical understanding of non-consummation. If Brendan did not convince all the audience with his arguments, he did at least demonstrate that love and Canon Law were not mutually exclusive terms.
During the week there were also two question and answer sessions: one on Canon Law relating to marriage, the other on more general canonical issues. A panel of experts, drawn from the Society’s membership, answered questions submitted in advance. The questions were answered with a lovely mix of wisdom and wit, and there were also some interesting interventions from the floor. These sessions were amongst the most engaging and enjoyable of the week, allowing experts and audience to interact much more directly. Needless to say the session on marriage was particularly pertinent for those of us working in Marriage Tribunals.
The Annual General Meeting of any Society can be a rather tedious, if necessary affair: due in part to an almost unvarying agenda year after year. There was, however, something different about this year’s AGM. John Conneely, having served two terms as President, stood down. As members we had the opportunity to thank him for his tremendous work on behalf of the Society. Those of us who had recently completed the Jurisprudential Course had particular reason to thank John for his wisdom, kindness and helpfulness. Members were also able to express their gratitude to Margaret Foster and Clare Pearce, standing down as General Secretary and Administrative Secretary respectively.
One of John Conneely’s last tasks, as President, was to present seven of us with certificates to show that we had successfully completed the Society’s Jurisprudential Course. Beforehand, this ceremony had jokingly been referred to as our graduation. There may not have been a cap or gown in sight, but there was a generous and warm applause from the distinguished gathering of Canon Lawyers.
The last big event of the week was the gala dinner. We had a thoroughly enjoyable evening with good company and a pleasant meal. A number of speeches followed, including one by Bishop John Cunningham, who fascinated us with his witty observations of Conferences past, not least the tales of Spartan accommodation and indifferent food, together with other funny stories. On a more serious note, it was clear that the Society could be very proud of its achievements over the past fifty years and the significant contribution its members have made to the Church in our countries.
Friday dawned, another conference drew to a close and we headed for home. We were glad to have graduated in Gateshead. We experienced a warm welcome in the North East, not least from fellow members of the Canon Law Society of Great Britain and Ireland. I suspect that we will be attending many more Conferences in the years to come. Here’s to next year in Rome. Now that does have a ring about it!
18 September 2007 Reverend Aidan Prescott