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Leader comment: Diocesan ‘deficiencies’, then and now

19 April 2024

READERS of the Church Times of 4 May 1877 were presented with a very matter-of-fact account of a debate in the Lower House of Convocation about the increase of the “home episcopate”. The proposal, which was carried, was that “this House approves the proposed additional Sees recommended in the report . . . of the committee on the deficiencies of spiritual ministrations”. What look now to be revolutionary changes were dealt with in half of one paragraph: “that the diocese of Durham should be divided, and Northumberland formed into an independent diocese, having the seat of its bishop at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. . . The diocese of Newcastle would consist of Northumberland, having a population of 330,619, and an area of 1,290,312 acres. The second new See would be constituted in the southern part of Yorkshire, taken partly out of the archdiocese of York and partly out of the diocese of Ripon. . . Sheffield or Wakefield would be most convenient for the residence of the bishop. The third proposal was to construct a new See at Liverpool, and so relieve the Bishop of Chester from all responsibility for any portion of the county of Lancaster. . . The next proposal was to relieve the very extensive diocese of Lincoln by detaching from it Nottinghamshire to form a diocese, with the see town at Nottingham. Some of the clergy and laity of Derbyshire thought it would be desirable to detach the county of Derby from Lichfield, and to unite it with Nottinghamshire if a new see at Derby could not be constituted. The fifth proposal was a new see for Warwickshire with a bishop of Birmingham, and the sixth proposal was to establish a new diocese of Southwark. All those schemes the committee had examined into and approved of.”

We quote at length to show the breathtaking scope of the proposals, which came to fruition in subsequent years as funds were raised for the new dioceses. (Church Times readers were kept up to date: “The people of Liverpool and the neighbourhood raised about £100,000 in a comparatively short time. . . This result was achieved mainly by the direct personal canvass of a few zealous laymen whose heart was in the work.”) The point to observe is the confidence and boldness with which these changes were embraced, in many instances the first since medieval times.

Cut to the present time — though perhaps “cut” is an unfortunate word here — and we see no corresponding willingness to adapt existing diocesan structures. The story of the creation of the diocese of Leeds, ten years old today, appears to have discouraged others from considering similar moves, however parlous their finances. It is true that the labour pains in Yorkshire were described in graphic detail; but it is now possible to view the end-result — which could be replicated, the diocese says, with far less pain if only people were willing to learn from their example. We see no sign that they are.

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