SOME years ago, a bishop told us his principal task in the diocese was to reform the structures to enable mission. It was not an idea that appealed to me, but now that the crisis in the CofE has bitten further, he was probably wiser than I gave him credit for.
One of the structures most obviously in need of reform is the diocese itself, and I am interested in others’ response to that suggestion. By reform I do not in many cases mean tinkering, but suppression, amalgamation or (euphemistically) pastoral re-organization. ‘But I don’t want to go down as the last Bishop of X’ was one forceful reply I received. What I should have replied if my wits had been quick enough, ‘And I don’t want to be remembered as the last Rector of Y.’
Yet when an interregnum occurs, it is as widely presumed that a parish might be re-ordered as that a diocese could not possibly be. Fair enough, we give our loyalty to our own institution, we fight our own corner; and diocesan bishops, being bigger and better than parochial incumbents, tend to win, while we tend to lose.
We can tolerate bishops defending their empires, if only because we might well do the same if elevated to diocesan purple, but why are clergy so obsequious? Why, in chapters, synods and ordinary inter-parochial gatherings, is the suggestion that the diocese should be amalgamated with the one next door, the biggest social gaffe one can make? To be received in embarrassed silence. Why is ‘The Diocese’ accorded the honour and respect usually given to royalty?
This recent Anglican obsession with the rights and autonomy of the diocese is not merely a foreign aberration, found in such out of the way places as New Westminster, but a way of life and deference that has found its way into the CofE, even when never made explicit.
It may be that parishes, and their rectors, really are a stumbling block, to be removed before the ‘different ways of being church’ are fully realized, with their new forms of ‘ministry for mission’; but it may also be that dioceses, and their structures, must be ‘open to change’. If parishes can be removed from the map, then so too can dioceses.