The Right Revd Edwin Barnes defends the creation of’additional dioceses’ as a means of solving some of the problems facing the Church of England

The Manchester Commission resists the easiest solution to retaining the breadth of the Church of England while permitting the ordination of women to the episcopate chiefly because it fears Balkanization. ‘Someone has likened the outcome as something akin to a ‘Gruyere cheese? Whoever said this can have little knowledge of the present situation of the Church of England. It is not the solid block of Cheddar of his or her imagining, caring without exception for every soul who lives in England. It is already pierced through and through with holes of its own devising.

First, many dioceses only survive by keeping a number of parishes in vacancy. They still expect the parish to pay its diocesan share, or ‘Quota’, but the stipends of the priests do not have to be paid, and so the diocese can balance the books. Some dioceses have insisted that a minimal interregnum shall last twelve months; others keep vacancies going far longer than this. In those vacant parishes, skeleton services are maintained by retired clergy, but there is no provision for them to do more than conduct worship. Visiting, the care of the sick, the maintenance of links with schools and other institutions are neglected. This is not pastoral care, and at any one time perhaps a twentieth of England’s population is treated in this way. The cheese is not just Gruyere; it is already mouldy.

Lack of pastoral care

So the fabric of the Church of England, to change the analogy, is stretched very thin, and in places just does not exist. No longer a comforting duvet, it offers England only a thing of shreds and patches. Besides vacancies, there is the great number of parishes held in plurality. Without a resident priest, congregations see themselves as, at best, second class. When the incumbent (or more often priest-in-charge) is non-stipendiary, or when he/she has responsibility for six and more communities, then the cover, such as it is, offers precious little warmth.

So where is the ‘geographical integrity’ to which the Report refers? Perhaps ‘Manchester’ supposes that even if the parochial system is falling apart, at least the bishop’s pastoral care is intact. Not so. If there are prisons or military establishments in his fief-dom, he has no rights in them. These powers are exercised by a Bishop to the Forces, or a Bishop to Prisons, appointed not by him but by an Archbishop. In many schools and universities, the position is even more strange. In Oxford the bishop is more often the Bishop of Lincoln, or Winchester, or the Archbishop of Canterbury than the Bishop of Oxford. The notion of universal geographical care exercised by diocesan bishops in non-overlapping areas is a myth – and all this even before considering the Roman Catholic hierarchy, to say nothing of Orthodoxy or Nonconformity.

A positive step

Far from the creation of ‘additional dioceses’ making the holey status of the Church of England worse, it would improve matters greatly. There are many priests now in office whose skills and capabilities have been overlooked because they have not toed the line favoured by their bishop. The PEVs have found there are many who respond to challenge – so priests in ‘resolution’ parishes have grown enthusiastic for evangelism, teaching and communication (the websites of the Church Union and Reform, and New Directions itself, are evidence of this).

Parishes in the ‘additional dioceses’ would have more priestly resources. Retired priests would take on responsibility; many clergy labouring under the old dispensation would gladly move into other parishes where they could be involved in helping the church to grow, rather than participating in its funeral. Priests who resigned after 1992 could return to active ministry. Moreover, Catholic and Evangelical ordinands are still offering themselves for selection. Their numbers might increase greatly. At present, all too often they are told ‘change your opinions or you will get nowhere’.

‘Gather up the pieces that are left, that nothing may be lost,’ said the Lord. That is a far better analogy for the additional dioceses than any cheesy myth of Manchester’s imagining.