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Super-diocese plans voted down

08 March 2013

Paul Wilkinson reports from the Wakefield diocesan synod

IN A rebuff to the plans for a West Yorkshire "super-diocese", the Wakefield diocesan synod voted by almost two to one against the proposals.

A spirited meeting on Saturday produced a general consensus that, while some form of change was required, the suggested merger with the neighbouring dioceses of Bradford and Ripon & Leeds was not the right move.

After a debate that had to be extended beyond its intended two-hour timetable, so that all those who wished to speak could be heard, the meeting voted not to approve the idea of joining a new, larger diocese of Leeds.

The House of Clergy split 38 against and 21 for, while the House of Laity voted 37 against and 18 for. The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, who had already voiced his doubts, voted against. The Bishop of Pontefract, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, supported the plans.

Professor Michael Clarke, the chairman of the Dioceses Commission, which had spent the past three years drawing up the proposals, said that its involvement was now over. "We could return to it after, say, three years or so, to allow passions to cool, but I suspect the Church would want us to look elsewhere instead."

Professor Clarke had opened the debate earlier by telling the Synod that he believed the proposals were designed to "to ensure the diocese was best-placed for the 21st century". It would provide a "clean slate", and would "do away with those things that have got in the way of its main task, which is mission, mission, mission". The plans would provide the new diocese with a basic framework, within which it could create a new structure for its own purpose.

But John Bullimore, from Kirkburton deanery, described the framework as "speculative", and said that establishing the new diocese would be time-consuming and energy-draining. "We do not know how it will turn out in practice." The new diocese would be a "monster creation" - one of the largest in the country, covering 2500 square miles, with a population of 2.5 million. A single diocesan bishop would lose touch with his people, and his commitments at national level would leave him with no time for his diocese.

The Rural Dean of Almondbury, the Revd Richard Steel, said: "Small is beautiful. We need strong local mission and local leadership." But, he said: "We must learn the lessons of HMV, Jessops, and Comet, who failed because they didn't change the way they worked."

The chairman of the diocesan board of finance, the Revd Martin Macdonald, said that the financial aspects of the merger were not a "deal-stopper". It had already been estimated that the merger would save the Church about £800,000 a year in revenue costs. "Most of the risks we face we face already, and those at the coalface will get on with it, whatever we decide."

Bishop Robinson told the synod that the Church had to change. Parishes were being amalgamated: the number of clergy in Wakefield had dropped from 200 to 130 in a very short time, and Bradford diocese had only 80. "We cannot go on as before; something has to be done, or the decline will continue."

Canon Joyce Jones, the Rural Dean of Kirkburton, and a member of the General Synod, said that she would vote for the deal, as the proposal for five area bishops would bring them closer to the people.

The Archdeacon of Pontefract, the Ven. Peter Townley, said that the merger was a move in the right direction, but that he would ab- stain. The merger "was putting the cart before the horse". "There is a need to change, but we need a national debate about the fu- ture, and what the changes should be."

Closing the debate, Bishop Platten said: "I am in no doubt of the need for change, but not this change. We know that the Church needs development; that we need new ideas, new vision. . . We must work for a new vision, and we will do that across the diocese and across Yorkshire. We shall look for porous boundaries, and a new sharing of resources.

"Fewer, larger, dioceses are certainly not likely to convince many. If diocesan bishops are to be effective, then smaller compact dioceses are the answer, probably sharing facilities, each with one cathedral as its bishop's seat.

"Our debate should be about our vision for God's Church in this land and in this locality. It should be about local mission - but that's just what's missing in this scheme," said Bishop Platten.

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