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No lessons learned from creation of Leeds diocese, says Baines

29 October 2021

Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2013

ELEVEN years since the scheme that led to it was launched, and as further possible diocesan reorganisations are being considered, there has still been no learning nationally from the creation of the diocese of Leeds, the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has said.

In an address to the diocesan synod on 16 October, Bishop Baines noted that the Dioceses Commission had “invited bishops thinking about possible ‘mergers’ with other dioceses to have a conversation with the Commission. This is hardly a strategic approach.”

It was in 2010 that the Dioceses Commission first published a report relating to the dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, Sheffield, and Wakefield, proposing the creation of a single larger diocese (with the diocese of Sheffield remaining in place). A scheme was approved by the General Synod in 2013 (News, 12 July 2013), and the new diocese of Leeds (known at first as West Yorkshire & the Dales) was created on 20 April 2014 (News, 17 April 2014).

Two attempts to initiate national learning from the process have been at the instigation of Bishop Baines: a 2017 roundtable meeting of all the bodies involved, and a data-led review by Jonathan Neil-Smith, secretary to the Dioceses Commission (2011-21).

“Nothing has been instigated by the Dioceses Commission or the Archbishops,” Bishop Baines told the diocesan synod. “Consequently, there has been, and continues to be, no learning nationally as a very unstrategic process of considering possible diocesan reorganisations apparently begins. I cannot conceal my frustration at this.”

A 2014 review, written by Professor Hilary Russell, Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy at Liverpool John Moores University and a member of the Dioceses Commission, was described as a “focus on the process” rather than an evaluation of the substance or outcome of the Dioceses Commission’s review. It noted that no one had dissolved a diocese since Henry VIII in 1540, and that the last creation of a mainland diocese had been in 1927.

Professor Russell observed that, “given that this was wholly uncharted territory, it is remarkable that so much has been achieved, thanks to the commitment, hard work, and imagination of a great many people.” The scheme was “the largest, most complex and most wide-ranging sort of reorganisation scheme that it is possible to envisage being made under the Dioceses, Pastoral and Mission Measure”.

Among the reflections documented was “the failure to take into account the human implications of the scheme and the lack of care shown to affected individuals at different stages of the process”, and the need for “some person or body with the authority to lead and to co-ordinate dispersed authority”.

The 2020 note by Mr Neil-Smith, commissioned by Bishop Baines, was aimed at “identifying key lessons to inform consideration of any further diocesan reorganisation proposals elsewhere”. Among its conclusions was that “without dedicated additional resources it was palpably beyond the capacity of the dioceses to manage such a big change while still keeping day-to-day operations going, particularly as no one diocese was in a lead role.”

It looked at indices of attendance and giving, which indicated that “the new diocese has performed worse than the overall national pattern, but not disastrously so, and there may be a host of factors that should be taken into account.” It also observed that “the experience of the last few years suggests that while there may be some scope for greater cross-border co-operation between dioceses, this area is unlikely to deliver huge benefits: if this had been the case, there would have been more energy behind this agenda.”

Diocesan reorganisation was “not a quick fix”, and further schemes “should ‘not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly’,” it warned. But the Leeds experience had “surely shown that such schemes can bear fruit, and may warrant the intentional commitment to making them work”.

Speaking on Wednesday of last week, Bishop Baines noted that the diocese of Leeds was now a “robust, resilient diocese, but that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and, if there are going to be moves towards other diocesan reorganisations . . . surely we should start by learning from what we’ve already done, both for good and ill”. Positive aspects had included a coherent area system, and the benefit of scale.

Further reorganisations should not be done “as a reaction to circumstances”, he advised. “We should be looking at it proactively and strategically, saying ‘Is this a good thing to do?’” Evaluation must go beyond analysis of data: “How you get three dioceses to accept a new identity or new identities is not obvious. You don’t get it from saying ‘It took this much money to do the reordering.’ There’s a whole element that is still missing.”

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