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Leeds: a superdiocese comes of age

19 April 2024

The diocese is ten years old on Friday night. Madeleine Davies reviews its progress

Diocese of Leeds

AT MIDNIGHT on 19 April 2014, a rebirth took place in Yorkshire (News, 17 April 2014). The three dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield ceased to be, and the new diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales (now Leeds) was created. The first new diocese since 1929, it represented the first fruits of a new Dioceses Commission given “teeth” to propose change. The Archbishop of York praised those forming the new diocese as “pioneers”, while the late Queen spoke of a “clear example of how the Church is responding to Christ’s call to proclaim the gospel afresh in a rapidly changing society”.

The diocesan Bishop, Acting, at that point, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, offered a rejoinder to the idea that the Church of England was “incapable or unwilling to change”. “We face many challenges as a consequence of our willingness to take the risk of dying in order to live — but we will face them as people of hope whose hearts and imaginations have been caught by Jesus himself,” he wrote in his blog.

TEN years on, appetite for further large-scale change appears to have waned, at least at the centre. In a letter last year, Dame Caroline Spelman, who chairs the Dioceses Commission, confirmed that, in agreement with the Archbishops, there would be “no ‘big bang’ or centrally-led approach to restructuring or combining dioceses at this time” (News, 4 August 2023). Such a change would, she suggested, serve as a “distraction” from mission and ministry. It would “absorb hard-pressed leadership time” and prove to be “an additional burden on the already constrained resources of the Church at all levels”.

The letter was a change of tune from a confidential paper that surfaced two years earlier, prepared by the Archbishops and the Bishop of London, which had concluded that the Church must be prepared to “surrender much that we have held dear, but which we now believe may well now be hindering our mission” (News, 11 February 2022).

“We suggest that given everything else that is happening we will be moving to having fewer dioceses over time,” they wrote. “The structure and culture of the Church of England, and the proliferation of ‘vested interest’ and diversified decision-making power structures make change difficult. Yet if we are not prepared to change then fruit cannot be produced — this is a gospel truth.”

Does the fact that the Commission has proposed a less radical option (pooling back-office functions was diplomatically described in the 2021 paper as not regarded as “universally successful”), indicate that nerve has been lost?

“They’ll be back here within five to ten years saying, ‘How do we do this?’” Bishop Baines predicts. “But they won’t have learned anything from how we did it.”

THIS frustration — the sense that the Church has failed to learn from one its most radical recent experiments (News, 29 October 2021) — is felt deeply by Bishop Baines.

“Let me be absolutely clear: it was the right thing to do,” he says, of the creation of the diocese. “And we need to do it again. . . But no learning has been done. Now, the Archbishops say, ‘Yes, we have learned.’ Well, you can then say: ‘Well, what have you learned?’ All they’ve learned is that it’s very hard; so we’re not going to do it again. That’s not learning.”

A meeting that he organised in 2017 — seven years after the Commission’s first report on the region — was, he reports, both the first and the last time that “everybody involved had sat around the same table.”

“On the negative side, it’s an unwillingness to face ongoing challenge,” he observes. “It’s the courage thing. The second thing is that the glory of the Church of England is its dispersed authority. And the curse of the Church of England is its dispersed authority. . . If it’s no one’s brief to hold this process together, then no one does it.”

One of the consequences of a “complete neglect of evaluation, monitoring, evaluation, and learning” is, he suggests, that the Church won’t learn from the pain endured by those who lived through the Leeds process — and how to avoid it in future. “You know, there are people who bear the scars, which will never be known.”

WHILE it is now ten years since the diocese of Leeds officially came into being, 15 have elapsed since the Dioceses Commission began a review of boundaries of the five Yorkshire dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield, and York, “to determine whether different boundaries would improve the Church’s mission” (News, 30 January 2009).

Besides proposing the dissolution of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds, and Wakefield, and the establishment of a new diocese of Leeds, the draft scheme of 2012 made the three existing cathedrals — Bradford, Ripon, and Wakefield — cathedrals of the new diocese, and created two new suffragan sees: Bradford and Huddersfield.

Diocese of LeedsThe Dean of Ripon, the Very Revd John Dobson (left), and the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines (centre), at a Walk of Witness, in Ripon, on Boxing Day, 2019

In setting out the case for change, the Commission emphasised how much had changed since the creation of the existing diocesan boundaries in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Leeds, now the third largest English city, was split between four separate dioceses, making it “almost impossible for the Church to speak with a single voice on major issues”.

On the financial side, while the dioceses were “surviving”, they were “severely limited by their lack of resources, and financial flexibility”. Bradford was found to be covering its costs by selling houses and reducing the number of stipendiary clergy, with a deficit predicted for each of the next five years. In Wakefield, a six-figure annual deficit in the years 2010-2014 was forecast.

The new structure would be “more in line with socio-economic realities, civic institutions, and the secular communities that the Church seeks to serve”, and, with five episcopal areas in place, combine “the best of the intimacy of the local church with the advantages of scale”. Benefits listed included “greater flexibility and deployment of clergy”, and an “enlarged financial envelope”.

While emphasising that the scheme was mission- rather than finance-led, the Commission predicted that “significant financial savings” could be made, to the tune of £800,000 a year, against set-up costs of £1.4 million.

FROM the outset, objections were raised about the proposal. In 2013, Wakefield diocesan synod voted by almost two to one against the proposals, in a debate that heard predictions that the new diocese would be a “monster creation”.

During a General Synod debate that culminated in an overwhelming vote in favour of implementation, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, warned: “We are making this decision without having had a debate across the Church on what sort of dioceses and bishops we want” (News, 5 July 2013).

For Stephen Hogg, a General Synod member, chartered accountant, and professional change manager, who retired from London to Settle in 2014, the draft scheme raised alarm bells. “A lot of the issues in the early days were to do with setting it up wrongly to start with,” he says. “Looking at the initial draft, I was thinking, ‘I can see a really good argument to merge dioceses, not to create a new one.’”

Choosing one diocese into which to merge the other two would, he suggests, have saved millions of pounds. The logistics of setting up a new diocese from scratch, including “massive legal costs”, are “monstrous”, he observes. And, while he agrees that there would be huge opposition within the dioceses identified for merger, he believes that “they should have had the nerve to do it. . . I’d have fought for a merger and managed the communication around it.”

Ten years on, however, he reports that the scheme has “worked out much better that I had feared”, to the extent that he believes that the creation of Leeds “might well have saved the Church of England in this part of Yorkshire”. While this is partly a tribute to its financial management — Leeds has “weathered Covid rather better than some”, he suggests — his chief source of pride in the diocese is the relationships that underpin it.

“I don’t know how it’s happened, but it has gelled,” he says. “We work so well together. . . There’s a general kind of atmosphere in the diocese of ‘just getting on with it’. . .The warfare, the difficulties, the tensions between the three old dioceses that were very apparent eight, nine years ago have gone.” A lay worship leader in the Castleberg Benefice, he is full of praise for Bishop Baines, including his vision and appointments, and the staff at Church House, Leeds. “I think it’s been a success,” he concludes. “I wouldn’t have said that six years ago.”

MR HOGG’s colleague on the General Synod, Joyce Hill, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Leeds and former Pro-Vice-Chancellor, echoes his upbeat assessment. A member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral from 2011 until last year, she is particularly positive about the retention and management of three cathedrals, recalling earlier “nervousness” about their fate.

“I know that is somewhat irregular, but it can be made to work,” she says. “I strongly feel that it’s been a success story. Each cathedral is a cathedral for the whole diocese, and that message is always strongly put across. . . But, at the same time, each cathedral has got a defined focus that makes them complementary and set in the geographical and sociocultural position that they’re actually in.”

She shares Bishop Baines’s frustration when it comes to wider learning, identifying “an opportunity lost”, and observing that, as the years pass, “you forget, sometimes, the slightly crooked path by which you’ve got to the position you’re in.”

The Dioceses Commission’s recent recommendation was, she argues, “blinkered, short-sighted, partisan, and characteristic, may I dare say, of the Church of England always favouring the status quo. And I think we’re going to have to square up to reality in another five or ten years.” Its “fudge” recommendation for the sharing of some functions is, she suggests, “unimaginative”.

“People are afraid of change, afraid of being done down, afraid of losing power in some kind of way,” she observes. Such fears — particularly among those who feel that they are fighting a “rear-guard action” — must be acknowledged, she says. “But I just think that it doesn’t have to be that way. And it’s never felt like that to me.”

While she acknowledges that, by definition, a larger organisation will leave people “more remote”, she also emphasises the potential for online communication and meeting, and “a growth of expertise at the centre”.

When it comes to applying lessons from change management in the secular realm, there is a tricky balance to be struck, she suggests. “I do think there are times when the Church hides behind Christianity in order to avoid making difficult decisions. And I do think we can learn and should learn. But the trouble is that we sometimes veer from saying, ‘We can’t learn because we’re Christian, and we’re different,’ to ‘Oh, yes, that’s a good thing to do,’ and then try and import it lock, stock, and barrel. And that doesn’t work. . .

“There’s a lot of knowledge out there, and the Church doesn’t always tap into it. And, sometimes, it tries to to tap into it by trying to adopt some detail. That’s not the end to adopt from; it’s the principle.”

IN 2014, a review of the Leeds scheme by Hilary Russell, Emeritus Professor of Urban Policy at Liverpool John Moores University, and a member of the Dioceses Commission, drew attention to “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”.

This is certainly Bishop Baines’s point of view. Nominated as Bishop of Bradford within days of the Dioceses’ Commissions first proposal for the creation of a new, larger diocese, he accepted the position “knowing that it might lead to me losing it” (News, 31 December 2010).

Diocese of LeedsFrom left: the Bishop of Huddersfield, the Rt Revd Smitha Prasadam; the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson; the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines; the Bishop of Kirkstall, the Rt Revd Arun Arora; the Bishop of Ripon, the Rt Revd Anna Eltringham; and the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Toby Howarth, at a chrism eucharist on 28 March

Still, he observes, “no thought had been given, no contact given, to what happens when you are made redundant.” He recognised from the outset, he says, that preparation was inadequate: “There was no prescription for any accompaniment, for monitoring and evaluation, for resourcing, for support,” and, crucially, “a lack of care for the people involved, lack of leadership, lack of guidance, lack of just looking ahead, you know, even politically, strategically”.

The word he returns to is “incoherent. . . People meant well, but if you have dispersed authority, who has the job of pulling it together, making sure you’ve got the right people in place, dealing with the legal stuff?”

He was also conscious, however, of a tendency in the Church to “find a million reasons why we shouldn’t change things”, concluding that “someone’s got to have the guts, the courage to say, we’re going to do it anyway.” Having contemplated moving on, he realised that, “to be obedient to the call God has given me, I had to leave my name in the hat.”

Having accepted the diocesan bishopric, he found himself having to go to the Archbishop of York to explain that he would have to be made an assistant bishop in the diocese of York in order to be seconded as Acting Bishop of Leeds. He later made the case for reviving the see of Richmond (later Kirkstall) as a means of securing another area bishop in the diocese, having initially been tasked with both leading the Church’s newest diocese and serving as Area Bishop for Leeds.

There was, he says, no template for what was asked of those leading the new diocese, and “a big assumption that a bishop knew how to manage change”. The diocese began with no infrastructure, no governance, no area bishops in three of the episcopal areas, no diocesan bishop in post, and four remote offices. Both legal and financial costs were unforeseen. The cost to the Church of setting up the new diocese was forecast to be £1.4 million; it ended up costing the diocese of Leeds about £10 million.

He recalls now “the sheer cost of the time, the effort, the grief, the criticism that we often got, the misrepresentation that it’s all about money or bums on pews. . . We should never take it for granted that this worked without particular individuals . . . They shed blood to do it.”

In future, he says, there must be “a change-management infrastructure” in place. Among his recommendations in 2017 was that, in future, the Archbishop should take responsibility for such schemes, and that work on legislative change should begin immediately, to create an Enabling Measure “in order to allow this process to be done properly, professionally, humanely”.

BISHOP Baines remains proud of what has been achieved in the diocese, which has, he suggests, achieved a geographical “coherence” that serves the Church’s mission in the region. Like Mr Hogg, he reports a sense of unity. After the recent chrism eucharist, he was told by “someone who’s been around a long time . . . ‘This is not a diocese pulling itself apart’”.

Tasked by a design agency with coming up with three alliterative words for the new diocese’s brand, he and colleagues landed on “loving, living, learning”, and that note of humility has been vital, he says. “If anyone ever said to me, ‘Well, you’ve done this wrong,’ I’d go, ‘You might be right. Because we have to learn.’”

Ten years on, he also remains convinced that “dissolution and creation was the right model”, one in which “everybody lost and everybody then identifies with the new”.

IN 2021, a data-led review of “lessons learned from the creation of the diocese of Leeds”, conducted by Jonathan Neil-Smith, secretary to the Dioceses Commission (2011-21), was published.

The new diocese was in a much better place than the previous three, it concluded. The area system was “proving its worth”; 50 per cent of the parishes in Bradford were growing; and the diocesan Bishop was “free to play a regional role, and to articulate a clear vision for the diocese”.

A review of indices of attendance and giving indicated that “the new diocese has performed worse than the overall national average, but not disastrously so, and there may be a host of factors that should be taken into account.”

Between 2015 and 2020, staff salary costs increased by 0.1 per cent, while numbers of full-time staff increased by five per cent to 90.3. Support costs fell by 1.1 per cent. The report noted the increased investment in safeguarding across the Church, and suggested that “almost by definition a larger diocesan team covering the new combined diocese must have greater depth and resilience than those of the former dioceses.”

Between 2013 and 2018, attendance fell by 15.2 per cent (compared with 11.9 per cent nationally). Usual Sunday attendance fell by 10.8 per cent (more aligned to the national figure), and total giving fell by 2.3 per cent to £16.8 million (compared with a 14.9 per cent increase nationally). The latest figure (for 2022) is £11.1 million.

Today, the diocesan secretary, Jonathan Wood, is keen to put to bed the “myth” that the scheme was has failed to deliver savings. He points to £600,000 stripped from central costs in both of the past two years.

In 2018, he reports, 66 per cent of the overall budget was spent on front-line ministry; today, that figure is 75 per cent — equivalent to an additional £2 million. With 310 clergy (including curates) and a Church House staff of 80, he describes the diocese as “at the lower end of leaner, efficient dioceses”.

While some have pointed to a greater number of bishops than previously, he says that Bradford was unusual in having just one bishop, that there is one fewer archdeacon, and that each of the area bishops covers a relatively large area. The purchase of new diocesan offices in central Leeds for £4 million “raised eyebrows”, he acknowledges. But most of the floors are let to other organisations, and he suspects that buying the property will prove to be a sound investment.

In 2018, his predecessor, Debbie Child, announced plans to close the church workers’ defined-benefit pension schemes at the end of the year, and confirmed that 14 employees would be made redundant, in a bid to address an annual deficit of £3 million, underpinned by a shortfall in parish share of £1.8 million (News, 3 August 2018).

Today, challenges remain. The net deficit stood at £2.26 million in 2022, while the parish-share collection rate was 78 per cent. Had the share stayed at pre-Covid 2019 levels, Mr Wood reports, the diocese would be “financially in the green” this year. It is not expected to be back in surplus until 2028. Nevertheless, the deficit is less than five per cent of overall expenditure.

Creating one larger diocese has delivered “resilience, to manage all of the changes that are coming”, he suggests. It has also, he says, enabled Leeds to invest in areas including safeguarding, property management, and effective use of central funding such as SDF.

“Where I struggle is this idea that it didn’t work,” he says. “I sort of want to go, ‘Well, what didn’t work?’ . . . We’re doing our best in quite difficult circumstances, like everyone else, but we’re doing it with a really good team, and a place where lots of people want to come to work.”

When it comes to more such schemes, he struggles to see “any reason not to do it. . . Why wouldn’t we look to maximise our strength in capacity and therefore be more resilient as a result?”


THE Revd Gary Waddington, Team Rector of St Wilfrid’s, Harrogate, arrived in the diocese of Ripon & Leeds in 2010 from the diocese of Portsmouth, where there “always seemed to be speculation about mergers”. The proposal to create a “super-diocese” came as something of a surprise. “Day to day, it had little effect, yet in other ways it was really very unsettling,” he recalls.

During the transition, he sensed “a great deal of flux — sometimes it became almost impossible to know who you now needed to contact if you needed assistance.” Initially, it felt “less like one new diocese and more like three dioceses in a perichoretic dance. Equally, with a large churn in central staff, there was a sense that context had to be continually re-explained to a new audience where a repository of knowledge had been lost: we were sometimes starting from scratch.”

Diocese of LeedsThe Revd Ludia Shokai leads an act of lament at a vigil for the situation in Sudan, on 28 April 2023

Today, he believes that the diocese has adjusted well, while he is conscious of a “more profound impact on central staff”. He also draws attention to the sheer size of the diocese, 2425 square miles. “It still feels like parts of the diocese are like a distant country,” he says, and only in the past few years has the process of rationalising three sets of processes into one “begun to feel comfortable”.

A central question, he suggests, is whether any future proposal constitutes “a merger or a takeover. Handling that is incredibly tricky.”

Forty miles south, in Huddersfield, Canon Joyce Jones, Associate Priest of Clayton West, Scissett and Skelmanthorpe, recalls looking favourably on the Dioceses Commission scheme, as an incumbent in the diocese of Wakefield, where many opposed it.

While agreeing that implementation was challenging — “working at scale proved much more difficult to implement and cost more than anyone imagined” — she praises the leadership of Bishop Baines and senior staff. “It now feels that we have a diocese which works efficiently and consistently in matters such as appointments, finance, and discipline, and has its own distinct character.” She regards the movement of clergy within the diocese — an early hope of the Commission — as contributing “to a sense of being part of the whole”.

“I can understand the reluctance to start on something like this again when dioceses are struggling for people and resources, but I feel sorry that other dioceses won’t have that opportunity to rethink everything and build more robust systems for the future,” she concludes.

WHILE the Dioceses Commission has backed away from centrally led restructuring, last year’s letter also acknowledged “views that our structures can prevent mission and ministry, and lead to resources being deployed in the wrong places”. A Diocesan Finances Review, carried out in partnership with an accountancy firm, BDO, is expected to report significant financial deficits in many dioceses, running into eight figures in total (News, 1 March 2024). The Archbishops’ own observations about the disparity between the Church’s structures and population patterns, but also with regard to dioceses’ comparative size and wealth, hold true.

Among those who share the view that fundamental reform is needed is the Revd Gareth Miller, Rector of the Akeman Benefice, and Area Dean of Bicester and Islip. It is now 21 years since he set out proposals in the Church Times — much debated — for smaller dioceses, grouped into provinces, with a large amount of administrative work done at provincial rather than diocesan level (News, 28 March 2003).

Today, he describes himself as “disappointed and perplexed that the C of E has not had the courage or foresight to tackle what seems to me a fairly obvious problem — namely, a national Church with a footprint in every part of the land, struggling financially and strategically to maintain the large number of churches with fewer and fewer priests. Surely a radical overhaul is needed.”

In Leeds, there is a sense in the new diocese of nettles grasped, at no small cost; but a pride, too, in having dared to venture beyond the status quo.

In response, Dame Caroline Spelman, the present chair of the Dioceses Commission, said on Wednesday: “The Commission’s recommendation last year that there should be no centrally-led or ‘big bang’ approach to restructuring or combining dioceses at present was a carefully considered view drawing from two separate consultations and soundings from people from across the Church of England and from a wide range of experiences.

“The Commission continues to keep diocesan structures under review and is undertaking work to explore how dioceses can be encouraged and facilitated to collaborate and share services more.

“The formation of what became the diocese of Leeds, from the former dioceses of Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon & Leeds, was a major undertaking, and the lessons from that process have been at the forefront of the Commission’s work and considerations since then, and will continue to be so. The Commission was pleased to welcome the Bishop of Leeds to one of its meetings last year where they invited him to share his reflections. The Commission is hugely grateful to all who worked so hard.”

Read more on this story in this week’s Leader comment

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