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Parish on the edge

09 June 2017


“There but for. . .”: Grace Dent presented a profile of a Roman Catholic parish facing the diocesan axe, in The Untold (Radio 4 FM, Monday of last week)

“There but for. . .”: Grace Dent presented a profile of a Roman Catholic parish facing the diocesan axe, in The Untold (Radio 4 FM, Monday of last wee...

FAITHFUL churchgoers listening last week to The Untold (Radio 4 FM, Monday of last week) will have been intoning the mantra, “There but for the grace of God. . .”, just as the main figures featured in this documentary about a church in Oldham under threat of closure must have been saying to themselves, “There but for Grace Dent . . .”. For this profile of a loving, nurturing, and successful Roman Catholic parish could hardly have received better advocates than the presenter, Grace Dent, and the producer, Neil McCarthy, as the diocesan axe swung over its head.

We were not party to the strategic planning of Salford diocese which had brought Corpus Christi, Chadderton, to this fearful pass. Something to do with “pruning for growth”; although, with a weekly congregation reportedly of “several hundred”, this would, by most standards, be regarded as a healthy branch.

Parishioners had no idea where they would go; and plan­gent notes on the piano suggested that their world would be ending with a whimper.

Yet there was a great deal of vitality here as well, much of it radiating from the parish priest, Fr Dermot Heakin, whose unsentimental, straightforward engagement with ministry — after all, he has “sworn an oath” to do what he is told — seems to work with the very young and the very old, who make up the majority of his congregation. Tribute should be paid also to the sound engineer, who captured the timbre of cheap parish-hall tea-cups and the distant clamour of school­children echoing in an empty church.

The sense of jeopardy inevitably diffused, particular­ly when we dis­covered that the decision to close was being delayed. Notwithstanding the stupidity of ecclesiastical institutions, this was, and is, hardly a failing parish; but the verdict comes with a sting: Fr Heakin is ordered to move on to another parish. He is 67, and is given eight days’ notice. That is some oath that he swore.

While he faces a challenging end to his ministry, the subject of Witness (World Service, Friday) can look back from a position of comfort and stability at a career that has been anything but. Rabbi Sally Priesand was the first female to be appointed rabbi in the United States, in June 1972. The only woman in a class of 35 men, she was the last person in her cohort to find a job; and it took many more years before she got to run her own synagogue.

For a lone pioneer, the challenges were considerable, and her remi­nis­cences, given to the interviewer, Zeinab Dabaa, suggest that they were met only with some pretty stubborn behaviour on the part of her and certain patrons. If you don’t want her officiating, you can’t have your funeral, was the line taken during her New York posting by the senior rabbi.

Brief mention must be made of a beguiling story by Jess Kidd, broad­cast as part of the Short Works strand (Radio 4, Friday). Beautifully read by Tadhg Murphy, Relic is the tale of a monk who is lured to his and his community’s destruction by the old gods of their island. It is a beautiful story of the seduction of storytelling, told with all the seductive charm of the Irish.

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