Low Morale in the Pews

We all know good and faithful clergy and parishioners, the kind of people who light up the world with their faith and zeal, whose charity is wide and generous, and whose love of the Lord is infectious. Sadly, we also know clergy and laity whose morale is low; who seem to ‘go through the motions’ without communicating any real sense of personal commitment or joy. I must confess there are times when I too wonder whether the Catholic Church in England is wasting away before my eyes. Depending on whom one talks to, one will get a different explanation for the malaise. ‘Poor liturgy’ says one, ‘Vatican II’ cries another, ‘the return to Tridentinism’ asserts a third. Some accuse the bishops of being out of touch, while others point to the decline in priestly and religious vocations. Church schools with mainly non-Catholic pupils are alleged to be a further reason for the weakening of faith and practice. And of course, there is always that old canard, societal change, which means the laity are not prepared to take ‘what Father says’ for granted. Some of the priests I know seem to be almost at war with their parishioners, or at least, to feel besieged, unvalued. The appalling ignorance of Church teaching many Catholics now display is a matter for genuine concern and leads to yet more dissension in the pews.

Dissent is not the same as poor morale, however; and while I think there are elements of truth in all the above (or I would not have mentioned them), I think there is something more fundamental. The extradition to the UK of Lawrence Soper, once abbot of Ealing and now facing several charges of child abuse, highlights a problem for all Catholics. For years now the spotlight has been, quite correctly, on the suffering of those abused, the allegations of cover-up, and the pathetically inadequate response often made by Church authorities. No matter that the Catholic Church in England now has one of the most robust Safeguarding processes anywhere; no matter that we have all (even cloistered nuns) invested huge amounts of time and money in trying to ensure that potential abusers are stoppped in their tracks, we still have a problem — but it is not necessarily the one people assume. The problem we have is that those who have abused have undermined the morale of those — the great majority — who have not abused, and are sickened by the actions of the abusers.

I have lost count of the number of monks and secular clergy, convicted of abuse, who have administered the sacraments and preached to me and fellow community members. I still have a letter from one of them admonishing me, de haut en bas, which, in the circumstances, would be funny were it not so unbecoming of the writer. I have blogged in the past about nuns in the Boston diocese whose house was sold over their heads to meet compensation claims and similar unintended consequences of the attempt to right wrongs; I have even grumbled (God forgive me) about having to pay an annual fee to the Catholic Safeguarding Service when we have no chaplain, no children and no vulnerable adults to worry about or being called upon by the pope to make acts of reparation for guilty clergy. The custom of sending clergy under a cloud to a religious house for a while has often beeen seen as a good way of dealing with ‘a problem’. No thought seems to have been given to what it meant for the religious house concerned or those who came to it. Even now, there are clergy who insist that the abuse question is a witch-hunt, designed to undermine them.

I would like to suggest that we face up to the fact that abuse has affected us all, and that it is a significant factor in the low morale we often encounter in Church members. This is rather more specific than the charge of clericalism sometimes laid against the clergy, but of course, the two are linked because in both there is an abuse of power and authority. I know many will argue contrariwise and point to lively and flourishing parishes/religious houses where clergy and laity are mutually supportive. That is excellent, but it does not invalidate my question: how do we improve morale for the rest of us? What is needed to reinvigorate Church membership? We pray, we fast, we try to be generous in love and service, but there is still something we lack. Is this a desert experience the Church must go through, along with Islamist violence and hate-filled attacks from some secularist elements — a necessary purification — before the Church can arise, spotless and beautiful, once more? I wish I knew the answer — and I wish the pope and bishops did, too.

I have written quite extensively about the problem of abuse in the Church. Although I confine my remarks here to clergy who have abused, since I consider that to be a major factor in a loss of morale, I am well aware that religious sisters and brothers have also been charged with abuse. I am not aware of any allegations against cloistered nuns. Most people, whether monks, nuns, sisters, brothers, priests or laity are NOT abusers.



20 thoughts on “Low Morale in the Pews”

  1. Dear Sister,
    I believe that many many people have stopped attending Mass because they have felt so let down and so disgusted with the paedophile priests, that they have given up on their faith.
    As a social worker I work with children and adults and I am particularly interested in your writing.
    The cover up by the Church of the paedophile priests has destroyed the faith of many.

    • You are right about people having given up attending Mass or receiving any of the other sacraments because of the scandal of abuse, but what I am addressing in my post is the difficulty faced by those of us who remain and the way in which abuse has affected us all. For example, I attended a number of Masses celebrated by Lawrence Soper and had one or two private conversations with him when he visited my former community. Inevitably, everything he then said is coloured by what we now know of his behaviour. It isn’t just the feeling of betrayal (which can be limited to the individual, i.e. because one person behaves badly or sinfully, it does not mean that everyone does) but more the unease generated by repeated revelations of abusive behaviour. What the Church teaches is not made less true or falsified because individuals fail to live up to its demands; so, for me, it is not a question of my ‘losing’ my faith but of my being profoundly disturbed by the effect/consequences of what has been uncovered. I pray for you and those you serve.

      • Sr Catherine, Thank you for your honest and faith-full thoughts and blog!

        I’m reminded of the random musing I had yesterday at Mass (yes, I wandered off mid-homily while a young child emitted low decibel objections nearby!). I was reflecting on why I, my (now) young adult children or anyone should be a Catholic and go to church regularly or at all. In a few short seconds, my brain negotiated the range of whys and wherefores to find what I hold as my core value of “church”. Can I share it here, in the hope I’m not too far off in my layperson’s thinking?

        To me, I still find my place in the pews because I’m there to *celebrate* the Way, the Truth and the Life of Christ, to be in community and sharing the sacrament with my community of the local parish and if I travel, the international Catholic community. Focusing on this helps me to let the abusers keep their burden for when they meet their God; I look to fulfill my own faith principles to the level I’m able in this world, answerable to Him when “we meet face to face”.

        As I get older, I observe how as a society we now have many distractions (consumerism, competitiveness, perception of a lack of time, individuality rather than mutuality, etc etc) that can be used to deflect our innermost purposefulness to good or ill.

        In facing the “desert”, I wonder if what’s required to contain these “distractions” is the quiet and calm of self reflection and contemplation: a way to rebuild the morale In the pews. Sounds like it could be over to you. We need crucial aspects of your chosen way of life!

        In appreciation of your continued prayers,

  2. Thank you for this post Dame Catherine; you have helped me so much (once again) in putting a name to my feeling of dissatisfaction and, if I am honest, lethargy. You have found one of what is probably a multitude of reasons why so many of us are feeling dispirited… I long for a revival but I cannot see one coming … where are the leaders (and I am not just talking about the Church as in my diocese we are blessed with a vigorous intelligent Bishop and what the Holy Father preaches is right and just although it takes me out of my comfort zone) … of the country? industry? arts? Everything is trivialised in and by the media. I feel I have lost my way. Apologies for so much of this being about me. Please don’t stop praying. Thank you.

  3. This applies to the Anglican Church too. I personally have seven security check certificates (all carried out separately) including an enhanced check for the prison where I do voluntary work. I am a Reader – I preach occasionally – but have no contact with children in church and no one-to-one contact there with vulnerable adults either. However I am being chased to do another safeguarding course. I taught psychology for over forty years – I could probably teach the course. Theree seems to be an emphasis on those of us who are now over-checked, while presumably others slip through the system.

  4. As, relatively speaking, a newcomer to the Catholic Church (2011), I have entered despite what is described here and found myself both surprised and unsurprised by what I have found. I have not penetrated the culture very far and am blessed by those whom I am seeking to serve so I have not really discovered the really problematic places. On the other hand, one of my nonconformist ancestors warned me that Catholic priests ‘were homos’ and the Catholic Church interested only in money and power. I grew up amidst a debate as to whether Catholics were Christians and one Evangelical liturgical scholar wrote that, with Novus Ordo, the Catholic Church had something which resembled the Christian Eucharist. (That remark would be grist to the mill to both fans and foes of Annibale Bugnini). So, no rose-tinted spectacles for me.

    I put all this baldly because I think the Catholic faithful are appalled by the image-problem and the version of anti-popery with which I grew up has been extended and mutated by the abuse crisis and, more recently, by the inability of society to see beyond the oppression of women and gay people which is how they interpret the Church’s teachings on male priesthood and sex.

    It is all further compounded – as with any minority group – by the problem of assimilation. Most Catholic marriages seem to lead to lapsation, and/or unmarried partnerships, and/or ‘marrying out’, leaving bewildered parents, who did their very best, they think, to bring up their young in the Faith.

    The catechetical crisis you describe, in my view, is not least because since the bad old days – when bishops and priests used to bang on about abortion, contraception and divorce and seemed to talk about little else – we have had forty years of simple homilies, which, together with the revised Sunday lectionary, have acquainted more Catholics with bible stories but not given them the basic doctrinal infrastructure. The Catholics of my childhood were thought to be living in darkness and error but they seemed to me – going on holiday with Catholic neighbours, having a friend whose father was an ex-seminarian and headteacher – to have a rather clear understanding of their Faith.

    So, though I am also describing something of a sorry picture, I am describing something which I elected to join and to which I am delighted daily to belong. I have come across the appalling ignorance, doctrine and liturgy lite, don’t ask-don’t tell morality and the rest. But so far I have met only warmth and welcoming acceptance. The priests and religious I have got to know have always been good people and some have them have been doing a magnificent job. I have yet to spot the bad ones. I am also aware of the weighty contribution of Catholics in the caring and teaching professions. We have some real workers for the kingdom.



  5. I am sure that the scandal of child abuse and its cover up is part of the problem, of falling Mass numbers and low spirits in priests and in congregations, but it isn’t the whole reason. We must ensure that justice is done and seen to be done, when there is abuse. I believe that the Church in England and Wales has done its best to put procedures in place to safeguard children and vulnerable people and to deal with abuse should it happen.
    We now have to carry on with hope and confidence for the future. People who dislike the Church will always attack her and use the dreadful child abuse cases as a club, rather than looking at the steps which have been taken to prevent further abuse and make amends for past crimes.
    The Truth will shine through. Vocations will come. The Dominicans in England have a healthy number of vocations for example.

  6. Although I was baptised Catholic, my parents were non-practicing, and I was abused at an Anglican boarding school from the age of 9-13. One was a layman, the other a violent priest who would fly into a rage and beat, sometimes until drawing blood, then ‘kiss and caress’ to make up for it. So it’s not only Catholic. But also, it didn’t rock my faith, just my trust in, and fear of, males (which does have spiritual implications).

    However, I think despite the clamping down on this sort of ‘real’ abuse, since returning to the Church from Evangelicalism as a now convinced Catholic, the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the presence of bullies and gatekeepers, not ‘abusers’ – in the technical sense – in parishes, and who seem to be allowed to thrive. ‘At least they do something’, as a bishop told me recently when I had a meeting with him about the New Evangelisation.

    So sadly, although these people may be pastorally highly toxic, they keep the fabric going, and might even be wanting to evangelise (inasmuch as their own ‘churchmanship’ is allowed to dominate the parish as a result) and are enthusiastic. So, it seems to me, parishes often work against their own best interests in holding onto those who, despite ‘doing something’, are also control freaks and have hissy fits if anyone dares impinge on their domain and so prevent, if not stifle any attempt at change or growth, unless it’s in the direction they want.

    After all, the best way to bully, is to make oneself indispensable, isn’t it?

    In fact, if many of these people I know in parishes were in any secular organisation, they’d have been given a formal warning, if not sacked or had a tribunal slapped on them. (Coincidentally(?), from my observation, teachers/retired teachers feature quite a lot.)

    Most of the lapsed people I listen to in my attempts at the New Evangelisation, often tell me things which amount to some story of becoming sick of being bullied, cajoled, or simply manipulated in some way or other, by control freakery, let alone any fault of the clergy.

    Yet, like the answer of the good bishop (and I believe he is), if you ask why these behaviours (people) are allowed to continue to thrive, doing damage, you get a sort of hyper-spiritualised reply about ‘charity’ and ‘mercy’, and ‘letting the weeds grow’, and ‘who am I to judge’, which sounds more like no-one wanting to grasp the weeds, because they’re thistles and nettles. But is it just short-sighted or cowardly, or really trying to be ‘inclusive’?

    For, the irony seems that the people who get the best treatment and have the most excuses made for them, are the bullies. They are rewarded for it. OK they’re getting their reward in this life, but what about the life of parishes, do our parishioners deserve to be protected from them, rather than seeing people making excuses for them, because they’re ‘linchpins in the parish community’?

    Of course, I accept we should be charitable and merciful, but at what cost, and to whom? These are serious questions for me, yet it seems people just don’t want to answer them, apart from the ‘who am I to judge’ ruse. Yet, if a parishioner is not in one of these powerful positions, then the ‘charity’ or ‘explanations’ (excuses) shown to the bullies, for their ‘weaknesses’, seems to dry up pretty sharpish when it comes to the genuinely weak or struggling… 🙁

  7. Dear Sister Cartherine,

    I think we are in that difficult period you suggest might be ” a desert experience the Church must go through, along with Islamist violence and hate-filled attacks from some secularist elements — a necessary purification”

    I feel (and hope) it reached a peak in 20th Century with the wars and horrors, the scale of which must reverberate for centuries yet. Some natural reaction to it undermined institions and religion for many and in that space our own abuse scandal festered, doubly damaging as it came from within. The laity and much more visible religious must suffer the barbs from this for sometime yet I fear. A purification one hopes.

    However I am encouraged to persevere by a growing appreciation of our shared history, where we have endured numerous catastrophic periods. Through persecution, invasion, civil wars, religious wars and yes even corruption.

    Society for all its championing of equality is a landscape of the lost. We are needed as always to help point the way, to respond as required to allow the Gospel to be heard. Your wonderful blog is an example to us of what that response might be.

    I do worry however that some of our leadership while similarly recognising a desert landscape seem to be waiting, resigned, without a huge amount of joy, so I busy myself looking out for Saints, in the sure knowledge they are out & about doing God’s will.

    God Bless & please pray for me.

  8. This is heart breaking to read. I have sensed a similar sorrow in my beloved priest, who has to cope with guilt by association because he is a priest.

    I am undeterred. I received what I have come to realise was a revelation of the sacred and divine nature of the Church, and that is what is most real to me. By the age of 60 one has seen enough of man’s frailty, and I didn’t expect that to be absent from the Church.

    I never realised, in my many years of joy and inspiration as a Pentecostal believer, that it was nevertheless far short of the intense communion and happiness that is meant for every Christian and which comes from belonging to the Church. Time after time, I’m speechless with gratitude and astonishment – this was what Jesus intended all along, and by missing that one vital requirement, to fall into the arms of the one, true Church, I did not know it.

    Now, I am looking forward so much to what years remain to me! The treasures to discover – hidden in the field which I shall stake everything in my life to possess! How our Saviour Himself is intent upon giving graces and courage and peace and joy to us, unstintingly, far exceeding our expectations or any seemly notions

    We have only to dispose ourselves aright, to put ourselves in the right places and amongst the right people, for God to press His whole holy salvation upon us and to delight Himself in lavishing His love upon us. And we do this by uniting ourselves to the Church, who is inseparable from her Lord so that every aspect of her sacred teaching, liturgy and worship nourishes His life in us.

    These are the truths and sentiments that have taken hold of me, which have brought me near to God now. This will be true however short Catholics fall.

  9. I, too know several of the abusers personally, and it makes me sick. One I knew before he went to seminary, and I had an instinctive hearty dislike and mistrust of him, but I can’t honestly say that of the monks of Ealing whom I knew. Other stories of monks at other monasteries emerged and it upset me greatly.
    In my youth priests were trusted and looked upto by adults and they weren’t worried if their children went to the presbytery for instruction and so on. The same thing could have been said of Scout and Guide Leaders. However, it was also a more innocent time when we were allowed out on our own on our bikes for the day or to go up to London to the museums.

    Later at school (late 1950s) non-swimmers were not allowed to wear swimming costumes until we could swim two lengths. I now wonder whether that was really a school rule or one invented by a swimming instructor, but then it was accepted without question but so many of the abusers have watched changing rooms at schools, sports grounds or campsites or visited dormitories at night. So it was a different era, and now the effects are being felt. I feel for the majority of totally innocent clergy who have been tarred with the same brush. I know how it feels because I was once a Cub Scout Leader who was interviewed by police after an incident at a campsite that I had never visited, and fortunately had an alibi that proved I couldn’t have been there at the time of the incident.

    You rightly raise the issue of the weakening of faith and practice. Our congregation has shrunk by about one third over the past 18 years, but sermons could be used to pass on knowledge of our faith – but often aren’t. Not many come to parish spiritual events, and we haven’t had a mission for many years, but we do have an active Parish Council and they are trying to put on more spiritual events that might appeal to more. How many parishes don’t have a Parish Council though, I wonder.

    My sister in law left the Catholic Church many years ago because she didn’t feel that she or her children were progressing in the knowledge of the faith. She, and two of her three children and their children are still active members of their churches.

    Let us pray for those of us that are left.

  10. I agree that the abuse crisis has had a corrosive effect on the entire Church, but I believe the current liturgy itself compounds the effect of the abuse. In times past, there were abuses of all sorts within the Church. However, the liturgy brought so much powerful healing grace — the wounds caused by abuses had a chance to heal. The Church could and did reform itself. However, I find the new liturgy more of a stumbling block to an awareness of God and Grace. When attending a traditional Latin Mass, I am more focused and more aware of God’s presence. Mass in the Ordinary Form is largely empty in comparison. If I did not have regular access to the Latin Mass in my parish, I probably would not be a practicing Catholic.

  11. This post has evoked a number of deeply personal responses both here on the blog and via email and, as Monday wore on, I began to feel less and less comfortable about replying to any of them. There is, however, one point I need to stress: I am Catholic by conviction, and although I have experienced some of the ‘shadow side’ of the Church, I am absolutely committed to my vocation as a Benedictine nun and pray daily for the grace of perseverance. I love the Church, which is why I wrote this post. I don’t see that as being in any way inconsistent with recognizing that many people are struggling to remain faithful in the light of their own experience, especially the abuse scandal.

  12. I have been away on Jury Service and while I had read the post, I have not had the opportunity to reply until now.

    I don’t know that much about how the problems encountered in terms of abuse by the Catholic Church has affected many, who have lapsed in their practice of their faith, but I can speak as one who left the church as disaffected in the mid-eighties, but returned to faith, albeit as an Anglican some 25 years later. And the Anglican Church is also facing huge scandals, buried in the files or covered up in the past, and we’ve seen most recently a retired Arch Deacon in the diocese of Durham charged with offences which are a scandal and an outrage if proven.

    I haven’t seen many signs in our own Churches of people leaving due to abuse, more like drifting away as their lives move, more and more into secular states, which are unavoidable in today’s worldly climate. There is a great call for an initiative called Reform and Renewal, which has been introduced without much consultation in the pews, and If I am honest, not that many know about or care, as they have more pressing worries with finance, managing old, listed church buildings, which takes the eyes and focus of Jesus’ mission for his body here on earth.

    I am only too aware from my own childhood experience in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Catholic Children’s homes, that abuse existed, whether physical (corporal punishment) or Psychological (fear of sin and hell, without much concentration on God’s grace and forgiveness), while I experienced that kind of abuse, I didn’t understand it as abuse – just a fact of life – If I did something wrong, there were consequences – physical or mental.

    I am now old and wise enough to recognize abuse for what it is – sinful and an abuse of power, where the stronger use their position to abuse others, and instill the feeling in those abused that it must be in some way their fault – which is a huge source of personal angst to the sufferer of the abuse, and can be life long.

    There is something in us (me anyway) which allows me to have put the past into context and to forgive myself and those who dealt out corporal punishment at the end of a cane or worse, through instilling fear of hell fire into us in ways, that it became a living poison in our souls – no wonder I eventually ran away from it all.

    God’s healing power is there for us all – and he bestows it upon us, whether we want it or not -we have to be able to recognize it for what it is – which might be the thing that is missing in those Catholic Congregations where morale is low or those who have drifted away.

    Pope Francis seems to see this quite well, but from the little that I hear from Catholics that I know personally, it doesn’t seem to be reaching further than the house of bishops? Or, am I mistaken?

    I pray for the Church, by which I mean the Universal Church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant and Free Churches that we may combine and unite in mission to sweep away the malaise and be a genuine witness and the light of Christ in the world – perhaps if we all prayed more for that unity, the prayers might be answered.

  13. Dear Sister Catherine,I am from Australia, I live in the Hunter valley, and the number of Priests who have been arrested for Abuse, It makes one feel, very let down in the faith, who can you trust, and who do ypu trust? I am so disalusion, and feel I am losing my faith.
    Although I continue to pray for all priests ,
    God bless you Sister,

  14. Thank you, Sister, for these timely and insightful observations. You bring up a very real problem which we have all experienced it in some way. From the responses of readers to this blog, it is clear that while we all have our personal ideas about our relationships to the Church and within the Church at this time, most are extremely discouraged.

    People are, justifiably, tremendously shocked by the child abuse scandals in the Church. We entrusted the most precious gifts we have, our children, to a church we were entreated to call “Mother,” only to discover the most appalling betrayal imaginable. We now know this betrayal was carried at all levels of the Church: the individual perpetrators, and the systemic perpetrators, popes, bishops, and religious superiors. We are naturally cringing, body and spirit. Our trust was betrayed, and our children were damaged for life.

    This wave of shattered trust naturally continues to crash into our relationship with the Church, its structures, hierarchy, and teachings. Of course, we are dismayed and naturally unwilling to place our trust where it was betrayed. We are deeply disappointed and robbed of our spiritual vitality.

    I think we also must situate the problem of apathy and disappointment within the Church alongside current trends and movements in society at large. Old cultural and societal societal norms, like the systemic inequality of women and their almost total exclusion from positions of authority, the discrimination against and closeting of gay people, and the unquestioned right of men to exercise authority over the economic, political, religious, and family spheres have been changing and continue to change.

    Unfortunately, the Roman Church is often seen by those within and without it as perpetuating these old and superceded norms. It is also seen as having highly authoritarian and hierarchical power structures, which specifically exclude women from any positions of leadership. The Church takes the “moral high ground” while its structures many teachings are rejected as backward and immoral in a society that increasingly values human equality and lack of exclusion.

    So, of course, there is much tension here for us! We want to be members of the Church, indeed, we want to love the Church, but many can no longer accept any amount of moralizing, theologizing, or Scripture quoting (taken out of cultural context) that the Church uses to justify positions which we know, deep in our souls, in our consciences, and in our hearts, run counter to these emerging values of equality and freedom.

    Our parish experiences follow these same patterns: we are faced with priests who abuse authority in many small and large ways. It must be as “Father” wants it. The liturgy, “the summit and fount” of our lives as Catholics, is also subject to the vagaries of individual clerical understanding, taste, and practice, and so is celebrated poorly. The people are not fooled. They know this is not a “summit and fount” experience, and feel immensely let down by the clergy. Some want to return to old liturgical forms because at least they are allowed to experience awe and wonder in the presence of God. But those old forms also exclude and alienate others.

    We have become deeply disillusioned by this crisis, and by the “moral dissonance” of exclusionary, authoritarian, and (supposedly) heterosexual leadership of the Church. We are experiencing the shock of this disillusionment in many profound ways. We feel dis-spirited, lethargic, apathetic, and badly confused. We naturally withdraw our trust. We do not know what to think.

    We are discovering, if we didn’t know before, that the Church is an extremely human institution, subject to all the frailties and sins of our human state. Just as Western society is going through radical change in the moral areas of human equality, of prejudice, discrimination, and abuse of power, so must the Church question itself.

    I am very aware that my analysis relies heavily on the systematic exclusion of women from all authority in the Church. Not all will agree. If we exclude half the human race from the ability to contribute at the highest level of the Church, we have a very impoverished and one-sided Church. We have one that does not reflect the diversity of the human race as God created us, male and female. There is, paradoxically, no “Mother Church,” only “Father Church.” Imagine the riches released if it were otherwise!

  15. One of the thoughts that occurred to me while reading the (Christian) writings of CS Lewis, and for that matter other narratives of the era, is how inevitable subsequent abuse of children by men who went through the boarding school experience of the time probably was. I don’t actually understand how society at large can act suprised. Abuse does breed abuse, though naturally not in every case, and I wonder when subsequent generations will stop being affected. It doesn’t make it excusable, but perhaps more understandable.

    More generally, when faced with a particular ly uninspiring or even demoralizing church experience, I try to remember that even the early Church faced problems, wobbles, and issues that led Paul to write so many letters.
    Similarly, the Old Testament seems to have a lot of instructions on how to do things properly, rather suggesting that the immediate recipients didn’t manage it either. Jesus certainly didn’t seem to think the synagogues of his time quite up to scratch!

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