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Yorkshire dioceses to be united despite Wakefield protests

12 July 2013

West Yorkshire & Dales

Where the Synod sits in North Yorkshire: the Central Hall at the University of York

Where the Synod sits in North Yorkshire: the Central Hall at the University of York

THE General Synod agreed on Tuesday afternoon to diocesan reorganisation in the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield - even though Wakefield diocesan synod had voted against it.

It was with a sense of "excitement and anticipation" that Professor Michael Clarke (Worcester), who chairs the Dioceses Commission, moved the commission's draft reorganisation scheme. The three dioceses had been created between 1836 and 1919 to "meet the radical social, demographic, economic, and cultural changes which transformed the face of West Yorkshire as a result of industrialisation and massive urban growth". He said that the proposed scheme was driven by "another round of equally profound change". The proposed scheme was not a template for the whole of the C of E, but a solution that came from the bottom up.

He said that the Dioceses Commission believed that the concerns that had led the Wakefield diocesan synod to reject the proposals were "misplaced", and "largely about matters which the other two dioceses have resolved to their satisfaction.

The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, said that the diocese of Wakefield could see the benefits of sharing significant functions, and the sense in tidying up boundaries. But, by a two-thirds majority and a higher majority in the Bishop's Council, they were "clear that this is not the way forward for Wakefield".

First, there would still be five bishops, but just one diocesan bishop, saving money for the Church Commissioners, but not for the dioceses. Second, the diocesan bishop would be more remote. The proposal would also reduce by two-thirds their representation in the national Church, and potentially in the House of Lords. It would "significantly weaken" the Northern province.

Third, the distances for diocesan meetings would be greatly extended. Fourth, the demography in the current diocese of Wakefield was "quite different" from the other two dioceses. Fifth, there were still three cathedrals and "too much uncertainty" about their long-term funding.

Perhaps the issue that most worried them was the model of governance set out in the scheme. The scheme meant that a diocese "can find itself being closed down over its own head". He warned: "We are making this decision without having had a debate across the Church on what sort of diocese and bishops we want."

The Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nicholas Baines, strongly urged the Synod to vote for the scheme, and show the "realism and vision that has been mostly evident up north". If the scheme was approved, he and other diocesan bishops would lose their jobs: "This is not a comfortable place to be, but it is the right place to be."

The scheme offered the benefit of scale with the intimacies of locality, and allowed for area bishops to be close to the ground. It would mean that structure followed vision. It was not, he said, a merger, but an answer to the question regarding "coherent ministry and mission in West Yorkshire and the Dales". This question would not go away. It would lead to a "bright and engaging future".

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, revealed that the Dioceses Commission was now consulting the diocese of York on its delivery of mission, and "is considering whether the structures we have enable that mission to be delivered".

The Commission's scheme was "the best possible solution for these three dioceses in this particular part of God's own county. . . Regionally, the three dioceses cohere."

He defended his decision to refer the scheme to the General Synod despite its rejection by Wakefield diocesan synod. "If it is to have an impact in such a fast-moving world, our Church needs flexibility, mobility, and agility. It needs a readiness to take risks, guided by the Holy Spirit. . . We do not change our message, because that is our faith. But we must explore different ways of delivering that message. . . We cannot and must not assume that the ways which served us well in the past are automatically appropriate now."

The Revd Ruth Hind (Ripon & Leeds), in a maiden speech, explained that she supported the scheme, but had not always done so. She had changed when she heard clergy colleagues in Leeds talk enthusiastically about the mission possibilities that would arise from the city's coming together under one diocese rather than its present four. She had also been "captivated by the vision of a rural archdeaconry with an area bishop who is passionate about rural ministry and with policies and practice specific to the rural context".

Mary Judkins (Wakefield) welcomed the scheme. It provided "opportunities and a challenge", she said. "Wakefield diocese has a lot to share. Yes, we could do it informally, but we don't." Various people in the diocese, from the education department to the "gifted clergy and laity" did brilliant work: "Why keep them to ourselves?" she asked.

Ian Fletcher (Bradford) said that there was always a range of possibilities available in any organisational restructure, and no scheme put forward by the Dioceses Commission would obtain unanimous support. He recalled the voting figures in the Bradford diocesan synod, and said: "We can't get a response like that when we ask what coffee we want."

There were areas of concern in the proposals for West Yorkshire; but there were bigger concerns about the existing structures. A "Yes" vote was needed to provide certainty to the dioceses, going forward.

Nigel Greenwood (Ripon & Leeds) spoke in support of the proposals, and sought to provide "tangible and evidence-based examples of co-operation". These included the appointment across two dioceses (Bradford, and Leeds & Ripon) of one director of education, and the creation of one education team. This was driven by the philosophy that "we only do separately what we can't do more effectively as one."

Canon Maggie McLean (Wakefield) sought to address concerns in Wakefield. There was "real concern" about how training would be affected within such a large diocese. Second, the scheme would mean the loss of two episcopal voices on the national stage and specifically in the Synod. The Synod's provincial voice was "often lost in this chamber and elsewhere in the Church, and I wonder if this is something that needs to be addressed".

The creation of five local episcopal areas had also raised concerns that one episcopal area might become "the exclusive preserve of a single tradition". But, she joked, "I am sure that when the new Bishop of Leeds is appointed, she will make sure that that won't happen." She commended the scheme as a "creative response and freeing of resources . . . and reflects the church structures needed in our Church in the 21st century".

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd John Goddard (Northern Suffragans), reported that his synod was "overwhelmingly supportive" of the reorganisation (144 for and one against).

Clive Scowen (London) suggested that he, like most members of the Synod, lacked the tools to make a judgement about the proposal. He had come to the conclusion that he could not support it, however. First, it was "wrong in principle to abolish a diocese against its will". Second, it was wrong in practice. The successful formation of a new diocese required a "clear vision for the future, shared and embraced across the whole of the new diocese".

If Wakefield was "carried in kicking and screaming, or even mildly resistant", it would be a "disastrous start". Third, it appeared that the Church had "embarked on this exercise without first asking as a Church where we want to go. What sort of model of episcopacy do we want in the future?"

The Dean of St Paul's, the Very Revd Dr David Ison, acknowledged that there was "precious little theology about having three cathedrals in one diocese"; but this was because "there is very little theology that I can find about cathedrals at all."

His view was that there were "real Trinitarian resonances in having three cathedrals in one diocese in a way which will enhance the mission of the Church through the different specialisms in those different cathedrals". The scheme provided "real opportunities to experiment with what it would mean to have one college of canons in three cathedrals knitting together the fabric of the diocese".

He spoke of his concern for cathedral funding, and described cathedrals as a "brand that has been very successful", with a 35-per-cent increase in cathedral worshippers in the past ten years.

He was worried about the risk that cathedral funding would be cut. "It would be disastrous for our mission to reduce our support to poor areas while continuing to support great medieval cathedrals in large villages elsewhere in the country."

The Dean of Portsmouth, the Very Revd David Brindley, said that there was "an assumption that big is beautiful". Portsmouth shared a range of functions with Winchester and Guildford dioceses. "We do together what we can do together. It doesn't save money, but it does create more robust systems," he said.

He challenged the proposal for having three or four cathedrals in one diocese. "It is not the Anglican way," and he was concerned that the scheme "looks like we are demoting Bradford". He said that the inevitable headline would be "Church withdraws from Muslim city".

Canon Joyce Jones (Wakefield) said that she had initially been in favour of the scheme, and had spoken in its favour in the diocesan synod. "A reduction in the number of bishops makes sense . . . and area bishops living amongst their people would better placed to take a lead in mission in their area. The scheme is of necessity only an outline. A lot of work needs to be done on the ground."

She was concerned about the risks involved in a scheme that had to be implemented by people who were so against it. While she remained supportive, she would abstain in the vote because of the feeling in the diocese.

Canon John Sinclair (Newcastle) said that locking people in a darkened room until they agreed might be a useful way of progressing; but only if people agreed to go into the room together. The scheme appeared to be a shotgun wedding, but he was hearing alarm bells rather than wedding bells. "Consent needs to be a foundation for partnership if it is to stand the test of time," he said.

Dr John Beal (Ripon & Leeds) spoke as a resident of Leeds. The fact that the city was in four different dioceses was "a complete nonsense", and to bring those parishes into a single archdeaconry under a single bishop was "very important".

It was important to look at evidence-based policy, and he hoped that the Commission would evaluate to what extent mission objectives had been achieved after a period of three or five years: "We need to learn from this change."

Canon Jonathan Alderton-Ford (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke as a member of the Dioceses Commission, and suggested that a national debate about dioceses had taken place, in 2005. He said: "All we are doing is retaining our historic insights, but reimagining dioceses for the age we live in now . . . If we know the answer already, we do not need further debate."

He gave the illustration of taking children to the seaside. Some would jump right in, and others would be nervous, on the edge, before realising that they were having as much fun as everyone else. He concluded: "Go for it, enjoy it, have fun with it, and let's see what you can do."

The Revd Paul Ayers (Bradford) suggested that a vote against the scheme would be "saying all the work and prayer that has gone in has been waste of time, and everything is fine as it is". He spoke of the saying "Feel the fear and do it anyway," and warned that, otherwise, "the Church would never do anything courageous and creative." God would "honour our risk-taking faith, and open up new possibilities".

Canon James Allison (Wakefield) said that the issue was "emotional" for him, because between him, his father, and his son, the family had clergy in each of the three dioceses concerned. Although he would love to say "Go for it," because it was a good scheme and would be good for the area, he had a "huge problem", because "I am also an Anglican, and have been brought up to consider ourselves both episcopal and synodical." Both his bishop and synod were saying no to the scheme: "It is a basic principle in all marriages, and this is a marriage, that we seek the consent of those who are going to be married." With an "incredibly heavy heart", he would "probably abstain".

The Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, said that there was an "urgency" about this matter. He had been an incumbent in West Yorkshire for 36 years, and since then, people had been talking about "the way in which the dioceses actually fail to cohere with the natural elements of the society in which we live". This scheme was "a real chance to break through that logjam".

It would increase the means available to tackle societal needs. All the other great northern conurbations had a diocese and diocesan bishop at their heart, while West Yorkshire had three diocesan bishops living within 50 miles of each other. Leeds deserved a "united mission", and, although he loved Ripon Cathedral, Wakefield had "more opportunities".

Bishop Packer told the Synod that the Church's ecumenical partners had already moved a long way: "They are looking to us to contribute through our vote today to the work of the Christian Church as a whole across West Yorkshire."

The Draft Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds and Wakefield Reorganisation Scheme was clearly carried by a show of hands.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that he was "very pleased" that the Synod had approved the scheme. He said that a great deal of preparatory work needed to be done, without pre-judging the Order in Council.

A new bishop needed to be found for Leeds, and he proposed the creation of a transitional vacancy-in-see committee for the diocese of Leeds, to ensure that the gap between the coming into force of the scheme and the appointment of a new bishop was not unduly long.

"The formal procedures can only begin when the scheme is in force . . . but this resolution allows us to get on with the less formal processes," he said, and "get on with the task of finding a new bishop right away".

The resolution was carried unanimously.


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