Nicholas Turner considers the birth pangs of the new Diocese of Leeds
What is happening in the new mega-diocese? Considering it is the prototype amalgamation for more to come in the following decades across the whole of the Church of England, it is perhaps surprising there is not more interest. It was on Easter Day that the new Diocese of Leeds, which likes to call itself West Yorkshire and the Dales, came into existence, incorporating the former dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon (which had been renamed Ripon & Leeds in preparation for its demise). For a number of reasons, most of them from outside the diocese itself, the timing was rushed. Any hopes of a slow, steady preparation had to be set aside.
Those in charge of building a diocese from the structures of the former three – senior clerics and their officers – have worked hard. The rest of us have got used to travelling enormous distances (two hours’ driving each way is not unusual) to meetings or gatherings. Many of us find ourselves readjusting to parish life in one episcopal area, while holding diocesan responsibilities in another. Politeness is one of the great virtues in Yorkshire, so it has mostly been very good natured, and we are all encountering a whole crowd of new people.
What do I really know, as a member of the inferior clergy, about what is going on? Not much, but I can chat with colleagues as well as anyone, and I do find the whole process fascinating. I would like to share what I believe is potentially an exciting new-way-of-being-church, to take a rather old-fashioned phrase. In my wilder fantasies, I imagine the new mega-diocese sharing something of the energy and drive of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church.
The rushed timetable of the new diocese has been laid over the historic cultures of three dioceses. The differences, so I gather, in style and practice have proved so great in so many cases that any hopes of reaching the goals by discussion, convergence and agreement using organic, democratic means has proved impossible. There is a diocese to be run and decisions to be made. It would appear then that these are being made at the top and passed down as and when necessary, to be implemented through the lays of management.
When I first began to grasp this I was furious. All the accumulated experience of the clergy and laity was being set aside. All the work we had done in preparation for the changes on various aspects of church life (I had given a lot of time and energy to the workings of Deaneries and Chapters, for example; and so had many others in many other areas). All this experience was to count for nothing. Deskilling was the unexpressed watch-word of the new diocese.
I was furious. But I was wrong. Let us put aside the old battles, as to whether the whole mega-merger was a good idea in the first place (I voted in favour). Look at the people at the top, given an impossible job to do. Could they have done it any other way? I think not. If we are dealing with a managerial reorganization of a quasi-public institution, then better to deal with it in a competent managerial manner, top-down. Who cares what a little curate of a rural parish thinks? My desire to be involved now looks like whingeing.
Towards the end of November, we shall have the first diocesan synod, and no doubt we shall vote on something or other (probably about the future structures of the diocesan synod, if secular models are anything to go by). For all that, we and our parishes are essentially spectators of a managerial reorganization.
This means we are free! Let bishops, archdeacons, diocesan secretaries, finance officers get on with the management of the organization. Let them do it as efficiently and effectively as possible. And let them leave us free to get on with the work of the Gospel.
Despite what bishops think, the parochial clergy are not in essence lazy. They have ideas, plans, commitment, vocation. Leave them alone and they’ll get on with the work. And, because most clergy have a vision that extends beyond their own little plot, they will begin to form groups and societies to further those aims and visions. Money, of course, is the perennial problem, and lack of money rarely allows freedom to flourish. No doubt the most probable outcome is a via media compromise, subtly incorporating the worst of all possible worlds. Maybe, but it is worth considering this world of almost anarchic freedom that could emerge from a distant managerial hierarchy.
The sense of vocation is in no way limited to Catholics: it is found across the spectrum. Freed from the guidance of the corporate-industrial diocesan structures, the parochial clergy would not lapse into indolence, but form energetic groups pursuing different callings. Deskilling on a diocesan level would encourage reskilling on a more informal level, perhaps local, perhaps national. The society model, in other words, would become mainstream in the Church of England. ND