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A case of episcopal hyperinflation

03 September 2008

Radical changes could be made to the present diocesan structure, says Ted Harrison

IT HAS been strongly hinted in our diocese that when our Vicar retires, he will not be replaced. Already we are one of four parishes in a benefice. In future, we may be one of five or six. We might even be looked after by a deanery-based ministry team.

There is a willingness to explore new patterns of minis­try — but there is also a certain question that gets asked again and again: if we have to make sacrifices at the grass roots, what is happening at the top? Why do we need so many bishops, so many diocesan synods, so many salaried officers?

It set me looking up some statistics. In 1835, there were 22 dioceses. Today there are twice as many. There has been episcopal hyperinflation. Furthermore, most of the 42 mainland diocesan bishops are supported by suffragan bishops. From Aston and Barking to Wolverhampton and Wool­wich, that list is more than 70 long. In addition, there are diocesan posts that were never thought of back in Victorian times — press officers, youth officers, stewardship advisers, and so on.

I had thought that the newly created Dioceses Commission might be looking at rationalising the diocesan structure as a top priority, but when I checked, I found that it is not going to look at this at all; that is not its current brief.

There is a strong case for returning to the 1835 model of 22 dioceses. First, dioceses would be forced to amalgamate administrative functions, and rethink what work was essential and what was merely peripheral or trendy. That could lead to substantial financial savings.

Second, if each diocese had one senior bishop and two suffragans, it would be possible to ensure, when appointments were made, that one of the three was acceptable to parishes with conscientious difficulties concerning women’s ministry.

Third, there are now fewer clerics than there were 150 years ago, and fewer troops on the ground, yet significantly more generals in charge. Today, most bishops can drive across their diocese in a couple of hours, whereas in the mid-19th century the journey to the farthest-flung parish might have involved two days on horseback.

In practical terms, it would mean that diocesan boundaries could be redrawn with consideration to their geography. I once lived on the eastern edge of the diocese of Chichester. I could get to four other cathedrals faster, and more conveniently, than I could to Chichester.

But we are already overworked, I hear the bishops chorus. Yes, but the 19th-century bishops managed without admininstrative staffs, IT, and telephones. What do bishops do today that their predecessors felt no need to do? Amalgamation of dioceses would be a useful opportunity to address priorities.

To make this proposal, it is not as if I am ditching years of history. No buildings would be knocked down. Dioceses such as Portsmouth, Black­burn, Guildford, and Chelmsford are less than a century old. Their cathedrals could remain as centres of liturgical excellence, and the nominal seats of suffragans. If Coventry rejoined Lichfield as a single diocese, the new cathedral would remain as an important symbol of peace and reconcilia­tion.

Halving the number of dioceses would save money, help bishops reassess their pastoral priorities, and reassure congregations that it is not only at parish level that changes are being made.

Ted Harrison is a radio and television producer, and writer on religious affairs.

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