Clergy consider the future of the Parochial Ministry

TAKE SOME 60 priests, a handful of Canons, and an Archdeacon – and what do you get? The answer is, a conference organised by the Chapter of our Lady and St Cuthbert held on the 26 January 2001 at Brandon near Durham. Invitations were sent to all the clergy in the Durham diocese. The fact that such a significant number (some 20% of all clergy) attended the conference is encouraging indeed. The conference was organised so that there could be a full discussion by those at the ‘sharp end’ of the proposal by the Bishop’s taskforce for ‘Locality Ministry’.


‘Locality Ministry’ is the solution to the problem the taskforce was set to consider. The problem is the financial crisis faced by the diocese. The taskforce met on two occasions and then felt able to present an answer to the problems that beset us. The paper written by the task force and which contains the solution is entitled ‘Living In God’s Reality’; the reality for all of us is that the solution is to lose 100 priests! So-called consultation meetings have taken place in each Deanery but it seems that the definition of the word ‘consultation’ has been changed! The view of many attending those meetings is that the Locality Ministry juggernaut will drive on, irrespective off any concerns raised.


The chapter of Our Lady and St Cuthbert believe there is another way, and in order for a wider constituency to consider the alternatives the day conference was organised. Three eminent guest speakers accepted the invitation to attend. Two of them, Nicholas Orme, Professor of History at Exeter University, and Dr Anthea Jones, author of the recently published book “A Thousand Years of the English Parish” provided the historical context of the parish. Our third guest, Father Jonathan Redvers Harris gave an insight into the legal aspects of any changes proposed by the Diocesan hierarchy.


The design of the day was to inform and involve so that root causes of the problem could be identified and for meaningful solutions to be found. Working in small groups delegates were first asked to identify the problems that contribute to the financial crisis. In other words, the financial crisis is seen as a symptom of a range of other problems. A whole range of issues was identified and we ended up with more categories than had been expected, such was the effort put into the considerations. Later, delegates were challenged to look at individual categories and all the problems listed under that heading, to identify the causes – real or potential. And the great news is – a wide range of causes were found. The bad news is that to eliminate those causes; there is a great deal of hard work and concentrated effort ahead.

For the first time the very people who understand the situation facing the diocese have been involved. Their views and their opinions have been sought and now the hierarchy must take note.

The objective for the day was to demonstrate there is another way and that, compared to the solution arrived at by the Task Force it is not an easy way. But then, the ancient Fathers of the church did not find it easy.

It is easy to enforce a 12-month interregnum; it is easy to combine parishes; it is easy not to replace priests; it is easy to save £2.8 million in this way; it is easy to reverse the financial crisis in this way. Is that really what God wants us to do?


Surely the task is to save souls, not money. And we can only do that if we make it easy for people to worship God. Living in God’s reality will make it more difficult for people to worship, for the proposal is to combine resources of neighbouring parishes. The Bishop of Durham has said if that means closing churches then so be it! The view is that people will travel to the church in a neighbouring parish. But we all know that just does not happen. Where parishes have been combined and the full range of weekly services is no longer provided at each church, only a handful of people bother to travel to the church where the service is taking place. So the financial crisis becomes deeper. There are will be even fewer people attending Church; fewer people giving.


What were the categories of problems identified during the conference? Morale; Vocations; Buildings; Worship, Mission; Financial; Culture, Society; Leadership; Structure and Organisation. There is no significance in the order of that list. Needless to say, some categories attracted a much larger contribution of problems than others!

The category of leadership was concerned with a number of items. For example, distrust of the hierarchy; over-regulation; What are the qualities of a bishop? What is the role of the bishop? Has the Church lost its nerve? No trust or confidence in the hierarchy; Bishop’s private agenda; sense of goodwill now being enforced by a ‘Curia’; top-heavy management; paradoxes of authority and freedom. The group considering these items suggested that personal likes and dislikes about bishops are unimportant; that vacancies in parishes arise for a number of reasons and suggested that perhaps there is a problem of the perceived independence of clergy, posing the question ‘do we need to reinvent the notion of the Cure?’

Uniquely, this group did not seem to get to grips with the problems on the list. However it would be unreasonable to suggest that the writing on the response paper resembled that of the Archdeacon!


Having been accused of sensationalism, using tabloid techniques, inventing figures, scare-mongering etc, it was time to challenge members of the taskforce who were present at the conference. Their own statements; their own figures were presented back to them. As the advert says, “nothing added, nothing taken ‘owt'”!

We must hesitate from jumping to conclusions, but the silence was deafening and that was in total contrast to the buzz that had been heard throughout the day as 60 plus priests addressed the great issues. A much wider constituency than FIF priests took the opportunity to have their say. They attacked their tasks with gusto, enthusiasm and commitment. Our commitment must be to ensure that what they have said is listened to and acted upon by the decision makers in the diocese of Durham.

David Warren is a Management Consultant, and is PCC Secretary of St. James’s Darlington