A great idea, says Nick Turner; but who will try it first?

Parishes can be culled, merged, amalgamated, re-ordered. This practice has been going on for so long and become so normal, that in some parts of the country it is the exception rather than the rule for a parish living not to be suspended at the start of an interregnum. Yet mention the same strategy for dioceses and in establishment, careerist or managerial circles, you will be instantly reprimanded.

I give my personal details, so I can be blamed by such people. When deciding to move north last year, we chose Bradford Diocese precisely because it is small and friendly, in contrast to the corporate-industrial complex that is Southwark. Six months into the new parish, and we find that discussion about the inevitable end of this diocese is widespread. Sometime, therefore, we shall be looking to a new cathedral and a new diocesan office. It is a curiously disconcerting prospect, but no doubt it will be ‘challenging’ as well.

Take a diocese like mine

The discussion has been precipitated by the announcement of the retirement of Bishop David Smith of Bradford. As New Directions is not known for being unnecessarily nice to the other side, I am happy to record that Bishop David is an admirable diocesan. In a difficult year, he has maintained a strong ministry in relation to both the foot and mouth crisis and the inner city riots in Bradford. To us, as a C parish, he could hardly have been fairer: he has fulfilled both letter and spirit of the Act of Synod. So it is emphatically not the Bishop who is the problem.

Somehow, up north, we did not expect much more than one man and a dog at the diocesan office. After all, does Bradford punch above its weight in the inter-diocesan bureaucratic Olympics? No; and yet, amazingly the cost of the diocesan organization as a percentage of the quota is higher even than Southwark. The issue is not, ‘Are these tasks, resources, officers, committees really necessary?’ but ‘Can so small a diocese support so proportionally vast a bureaucracy?’ In stipendiary clergy numbers, we are smaller than some southern archdeaconries. Poor little Bradford Diocese; it is friendly and easy going; but is also small, and this makes it vulnerable. For it has hardly any history (it was founded in 1919), not much geography (the Yorkshire Dales do not naturally look to Bradford as a centre and focus of anything), and probably not very many endowments and resources either.

The end of Empire

As we have often lamented before in our constituency, it appears that Diocesan Bishops and their Diocesan Empires have grown into objects of ecclesiological faith in current Anglican discussions. Creeds, orders, tradition, all can be laid aside, so long as the Diocesan is able to rule as Lord in his own Realm. So while it is taken as read that he should have almost autocratic control over his parishes, with the right to suspend clergy and even (in a perfect world) churchwardens, it is hardly ever suggested that it might be his empire that could be down-sized or suspended.

Consider rewording the debate using the same jargon and phrasing that is applied to the re-ordering of parishes. If one diocese/parish were to be suspended, the resources could be spread around the neighbouring dioceses/parishes: each would then be stronger, and the Church’s mission enhanced. Dioceses could be brought together into teams, for mutual support and the sharing of resources. If re-ordering is the order of the day, is there any reason why the arguments applied to parishes should not be extended to dioceses?

It has, after all, happened before. The Church of Ireland is the most obvious example: is there a single diocese in the Province of Dublin that is not an amalgamation (or team) of previously separate dioceses? We do not, however, need to look abroad: the CofE has quite enough examples of its own. My own favourite is the Diocese of Dorchester: 440 years it flourished until it was incorporated into Lincoln; in our terms that is from the Reformation until now. Crediton, Elmham, Dunwich, Ramsbury, Hexham, and so on. Some have re-emerged as suffragan sees. Others simply fail, like Westminster Diocese, founded in 1540. Perhaps most interesting of all, though I do not know the history, the Diocese of Gloucester was united with the Diocese of Bristol for 61 years from 1836; the value of this example is that it shows such ‘pastoral re-organizations’ need not be for ever.

Candidates for termination

I have no desire to pick on my own diocese, though it would be nice to have a lower quota. Why not begin by suspending one of the others? Leicester or Truro: both have been suppressed once already (in the ninth century and eleventh respectively), so why not a second time? Does ‘Hereford & Worcester’ sound convincing? There you hit the problem. Who will make the decision? At what level of Church government will the culling programme be determined? Will bishops be any more willing to vote for the demise of their ‘parishes’ than are vicars their own? We must be fair: it is not in the job description of either to seek to end the institution each has been called to serve. So if it is not the bishops, then who?

Can you imagine General Synod coming up with a solution? Impossible. The Archbishops’ Council? It would certainly raise their public profile, but hardly endear this new animal to the wider church. So who will wield the godly axe? I suspect it will have to be the Archbishops, with all the support, advice and encouragement they can muster. The alternative is surely some form of parish revolt, which is not a happy prospect.

The brighter side of life

As the Saxon poet acknowledged, while the Viking hoards threatened to destroy every last vestige of Christianity in this country, ‘There is no man so strong he does not fear a little whither the Lord shall lead him in the end.’ It may be (we must be open to the possibility) that the massive growth in dioceses and diocesan organizational structures in the twentieth century is no longer the will of God. If we do nothing, money or the lack of money will make the decisions for us, and in so doing condemn our timidity.

Is there anything positive in this tale of gloom? Absolutely. For fifty years, it has been the parishes who have had to bear the brunt of secularization, rising costs and retrenchment, whose identities, confidence and mission has been threatened and questioned, while the central bureaucracies grew fatter. If dioceses were now to join that struggle, if they were now to take upon themselves some part of the burden, what a sign of encouragement that might prove. They talk of journeying-with, of being-alongside, of sharing. Would it not be wonderful if they (at diocesan HQ) actually meant it?

Nicholas Turner is a priest-in-charge serving in Bradford Diocese.