William Davage considers the three dioceses option and argues that it looks rather different from the preconceptions of anxious bishops and much less complicated than many have imagined

But nothing has changed. Everything is just the same. Or so it seems. There seems to be a settled consensus that the July Synod satisfied none of the parties, and that matters cannot be left where they are. There is a distinct feeling abroad that the Manchester Group has been given a thankless and impossible task. Traditionalists have argued consistently that a Code of Practice simply will not do: and Fr Jonathan Baker set out those arguments with great clarity in his letter of resignation from that Committee.

Given the almost total disregard that the Manchester Report received – yet another report over which several laboured mightily and which was almost immediately and unceremoniously binned – no one could have blamed the whole of the Working Party if they had resigned for the Synod wasting their time. Those who wanted a one clause Measure with no provision whatsoever for Catholics are not happy with a Code of any kind, however bland.

The Archbishops were markedly and obviously distressed at the ungenerous tone of the Synod debate and its outcome. They could do no better now than by providing the leadership that their position and their intellectual and emotional persuasiveness offers them, by dispelling the anxieties that are clearly in the minds of some about the ‘Three Dioceses Option which looks not dissimilar from the province advocated in Consecrated Women.

The Manchester Report, so clear in so many ways, managed to obscure the nature of the diocesan option. By calling the new arrangements a ‘diocese’ or three dioceses to mirror the provision of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, it inevitably raised the spectre of three more of the same: more expense, more bureaucracy, more top-heavy administration, seats in the House of Lords and all the paraphernalia that goes with civic and national responsibilities. None of that is necessary. Nor did Manchester improve the wider understanding by characterizing the diocesan option as a creation ‘outside existing structures’, which it clearly does not have to be and, in practice, will not be.

If the bishops were to consider the recent past, they would realize that since 1992 those clergy and people who have felt unable in conscience to accept the sacramental ministry of women, and will not be able to accept women’s episcopal jurisdiction, have remained part and parcel of the Church of England, and have made a determined effort to be engaged with the Church in every aspect of its life, ministry and mission.

They have taken the doctrine of reception seriously and with a degree of sincerity that, in the present turn of events, does not seem to have been shared throughout the Church, and were not led to believe that the period would be unilaterally ended. There is no reason to believe that the engagement in the life and witness of the Church will be any different if the necessary jurisdictional arrangements are made. Indeed, there may be an even greater degree of collaboration and co-operation, a greater respect for one another and a greater willingness to engage in the common purpose of the Gospel, precisely because positions are not threatened.

We have said often enough, but it seems it needs saying again, that what we need in order to survive, flourish and participate in the Church of our baptism and our Christian discipleship, is the permanent and sustained assurance of bishops who exercise pastoral and sacramental oversight in their own right and not as delegates or with powers extended by a diocesan bishop, or any similar partial state of affairs. Their pastoral and sacramental integrity can only be assured with ordinary jurisdiction, so that it can be exercised on the same basis as current diocesan bishops and within the current pattern and framework of the diocesan system.

Of course, the three new dioceses would not have the same geographical or territorial integrity and cohesion of existing dioceses, but they would closely accord with the model of episcopal ministry exercised by the present Provincial Episcopal Visitors. They presently bring a sense of corporate identity and self-identification to their areas. They meet at some central venue for worship; the bishops have regular meetings throughout their regions; their central administrative provision has been efficient and accessible. Everyone has become used to travelling a little further than they once did to meet their bishop, and many parishes have seen much more of their bishop than is often possible in existing dioceses. Readers will reach their own conclusion about whether that is a good or a bad thing.

It would certainly not be practical, feasible, economically prudent or desirable to seek to replicate present diocesan structures in any new arrangements. The new dioceses should be as simple, as flexible, as unencumbered as possible. After all, what is the essential and minimum component of a diocese? Surely it is the structure visible at any Chrism Mass: a bishop at the altar surrounded by his priests, his deacons and his people sharing in the great gift of communion and sacramental solidarity, and ready to take the message and the model into the mission field of their communities.

Does this need to occur in a cathedral? Some do already and, no doubt, the courtesies extended by some cathedrals to the PEVs would continue, and continue to be welcomed. What about the new bishop’s seat, the cathedra7. No doubt the ancient cry will go up, ‘Bums on thrones.’ New bishops would wish to be guided by the principle that wherever the bishop is officiating or preaching there is his seat, his cathedra.

Beyond this theologically and ecclesiologically coherent model, there should be the minimum of arrangements and the highest degree of co-operation with the existing, historic dioceses, including joint appointments to some posts, if practical and cost-effective. There is already a trend for dioceses to share administration costs and to work cooperatively across ancient boundaries, and the new arrangements would fit easily and naturally into that model.

Certainly in these financially troubled and dangerous times, there is a moral, as well as an economic, imperative to adopt economies of scale where possible, and it would be scandalous if precious resources were squandered on the duplication of administration. There would probably be a need for one Board of Finance to cover the three new dioceses and to have a relationship with the Church Commissioners no different from that which exists with historic sees.

Legal Officers would be needed, but there is no good reason why those who hold the posts of Chancellor or Registrar in historic sees should not also perform the same function for those parts of the new dioceses that fall within their historic boundaries.

Co-operation and collaboration would be especially required in the sensitive area of pastoral re-organization. The process of re-shaping the Church is not over and there will need to be further adjustments. Where there are parishes of different integrities, the new bishop would co-operate with the bishop of the historic see and would seek the best solution consistent with the mission of the Church in the area.

The process of the amalgamation and unification of parishes, where it needs to happen, could creatively encompass the further development of non-contiguous parishes being brought together. One of the lessons that history shows us is that institutions adapt with surprising ease and facility to new circumstances and situations, and there is no reason to believe that in a short time, given goodwill and understanding, the same cannot be true in the future.

The principles of collaboration and co-operation should also underpin all other areas of Church life and organization. New arrangements, graciously agreed, promises honoured, would undoubtedly bring about an increasing warmth and respect in clergy working together. Although there are many examples of courteous and harmonious co-operation now, there are also examples of a degree of froideur that may well be eliminated with mutual respect and common commitment to local community involvement, missionary initiatives to further the kingdom, pursuing common social causes, tackling social and economic deprivation.

The past few years have shown that it is possible, despite the strains and the difficulties, for a relationship to exist between bishops, between clergy and among the faithful laity that, at its best, is open and honest, fruitful and fulfilling. That should be the template for the future. There are positive benefits to be had from proper, just and coherent arrangements.

Those of us who are persuaded by this model, or one very like it, must realize that there are those who are anxious about such provision. There are also those, of course, who regard the period of reception as finished, that promises do not have to be honoured from one Synod to another, that we ought to pack our bags and go. However, there are many more who want our contribution to continue in the mixed economy of the Church of England and would seek a solution that would enable us to do this, but who nevertheless still harbour some anxieties.

If these anxieties are in some way influenced by the use of the term ‘diocese’ and can only be envisaged in terms of the present creations, and somehow lacking in geographic cohesion and definition, then this may be an anxiety but it should not be a problem. All dioceses have peculiars of one kind or another that do not come under the authority of the diocesan bishop. In Oxford the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the Bishops of Winchester, Lincoln and Exeter, among others, have Visitorial rights in some colleges that trump the Bishop of Oxfords jurisdiction.

Similarly the Bishop of the Armed Forces has pastoral jurisdiction over army camps, naval shore establishments and air force bases beyond those of the diocesan. Westminster Abbey, St Georges, Windsor, the Chapels Royal, all lie beyond the reach of the diocesan. Why should new, territorially disparate dioceses be any different in principle? It does not need a great imaginative leap to see the equivalence with the existing anomalies.

Again, if they think in present terms, there will be a fear that setting up new dioceses will be prohibitively expensive. Not so expensive, however, as providing proper compensation for those constructively dismissed. But, given the modest needs of the new dioceses and with a commitment that they would have to be fiscally responsible and pay their way, this cannot be an insuperable barrier.

Perhaps the most potent anxiety is that which sees a development of this provision into the establishment of two churches, running on parallel lines. If this were to be the case, it would be a genuine concern and would open the Church to the charge of diluting its effect and its purpose; its strength, already weakened, further diminished. Despite bouts of mockery and neglect, the Church has some standing and some authority to speak to the nation, to mission to all in the country and every part of the country, and to be the moral conscience of the country. It is feared this would be lost as we further divide. All should recognize this as a disaster and would work to avoid it.

A Code of Practice would have a more divisive effect than proper and complementary jurisdictional arrangements. A clear and mutually agreed provision would enable energies diverted into arguing and wrangling about the interpretation of the Code to be channelled into positive co-operation in mission: an unprofitable and debilitating war of attrition would sap the strength that we need to fight the forces of secularization and unbelief in the world.

For traditionalists, it would be unthinkable to add to the scandal of disunity by further unnecessary divisions, a further rending of the seamless robe of Christ and of his Body the Church. Our continued active participation in and positive and principled contribution to the Church is not something that should be lost because of false perceptions or a tragic failure of imagination.