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Opportunity identified

08 March 2013

Nigel Burnham at the Ripon & Leeds diocesan synod

THERE was a blue sky outside and "a blue-sky opportunity" inside, the Ripon & Leeds diocesan synod heard, as it met on Saturday at St Aidan's C of E School in Harrogate.

With the slogan "In shape for the future" projected on to the screen behind them, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, and the Bishop of Knaresborough, the Rt Revd James Bell, led the debate, with much emphasis on the "opportunity".

Professor Hilary Russell, of the Dioceses Commission, made the case that the existing diocesan boundaries - created in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and splitting Leeds between four dioceses - were no longer sustainable.

Bishop Bell spoke of his love for the existing diocese. "I cherish it," he said. But the bullet points projected on the screen behind him reinforced, he said, his conclusion that the new diocese would be "an opportunity to rethink, re-imagine, reconfigure, and re-energise" the Church's mission in Yorkshire.

Bishop Bell was aware of risks associated with the creation of the new diocese. "But there's also risk attached to not grasping this remarkable opportunity," he said. "It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvigorate the ministry."

A pre-recorded video contribution from the chairman of the diocese's board of finance, Simon Baldwin - on holiday "somewhere about 15 degrees warmer" - outlined the potential for savings, variously predicted to be between £200,000 and £750,000 a year.

"The need for change is inevitable, whichever way we vote," he said. "This may represent the best opportunity we have to ensure that we are in shape for the future."

The Dean of Ripon, the Very Revd Keith Jukes, spoke in favour of the motion, urging the Synod "to take a leap of faith and look beyond the risk", paraphrasing Luke 5. "Let's put out into the deep, summon the help of partners in other boats, and enhance the Church's mission in partnership with the Lord, and with each other."

Senior figures in the diocese backed the proposal, and the opponents spoke out only later on. The Revd Philip Smith, the Vicar of Aldborough with Boroughbridge and Roecliffe, asked: "Do we need to have a revolution, or can we evolve in a way that involves less risk?"

Others expressed concern that the proposed time-frame for the implementation of the new plans would be hurried, and asked for more time. Others were worried about job losses; that figures had been "plucked out of the air"; that the money promised to create the new diocese would not be delivered; and that there would be no savings at all.

At least two synod members were concerned about "elephants in the room". Another revealed that she had found "little enthusiasm" for the new super-diocese in her parishes.

One delegate's digression into the joys of using the intranet to communicate with colleagues in Bolivia sparked laughter, when Bishop Packer appeared to rule out "bringing Bolivia into the diocese". One synod member urged the consideration of a Plan B scenario, "in which Ripon & Leeds could initially unite with Bradford, with maybe Wakefield joining up later".

After the ballot papers had been counted in the school canteen, Bishop Packer, who voted in favour, said: "I welcome the clear approval of the diocesan synod for the scheme. I am also grateful for the open and honest debate we have had. . . I hope that this will mean that the Archbishop of York can take the scheme to General Synod in July: further delay and indecision would be damaging to the mission of the Church in this region. The votes here and in Bradford send a positive message."

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