Bigger is not Beautiful

An article by Stephen Platten, the Bishop of Wakefield about diocesan reorganisation which appeared in last Saturday's edition of The Times newspaper.

There was a time when even the finer points of Christian doctrine were debated at length in both Houses of Parliament.  The Book of Common Prayer whose anniversary we celebrate this year is one example.  Shades of belief were hot issues.  Such debates would be unthinkable now, but a couple of months ago the Lords Temporal and Spiritual spent nearly three hours debating the importance of our English cathedrals.  Peers from every political hue acclaimed their significance culturally, spiritually and even economically. Several warning notes were struck – finance, VAT on developmental work, and an incipient danger from within the Church of England itself.  What might be the impact of the work of the Dioceses’ Commission?  Already this Commission is looking at the shape and number of dioceses.  Some recommendations would mean the loss of dioceses and cathedrals cannot exist without dioceses.  Cathedrals are the places where diocesan bishops have their teaching chair – their cathedra.

The origins of the dioceses in England go back effectively to the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury, sent by Pope Gregory the Great in the dying years of the sixth century.  Mainland Europe already had an embryonic pattern of dioceses; eventually every major city would be the focus of a diocese with its own bishop.  In England, it was St Theodore, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the seventh century,  who helped to develop further the system of dioceses in the pattern already known elsewhere in Europe.  The logic was simple.  The bishop was the focus of unity for a particular place; by showing allegiance to their bishop the faithful indicated that they were part of the church catholic, that is, the church universal.  By the time of Henry VIII and the Reformation there was a clear pattern of dioceses to which the king added more, including Oxford, Chester, Peterborough and Gloucester.

Often people are puzzled by why there are forty three dioceses (including Sodor and Man) but only twenty six bishops in the House of Lords.  The answer is relatively simple.  Excluding the Isle of Man, there were just twenty six dioceses in the Church of England until the nineteenth century.  The Industrial Revolution, with the accompanying vast migration of people from the country to cities and urban areas presented the Church with a considerable challenge.  How could it minister to the huge populations of expanding conurbations?  London, South Lancashire, West Yorkshire, Bristol and the North East were just some of the areas most affected by such migration.  The Church of England was slow to act.  So, for example in West Yorkshire, often the Methodist and Congregationalists were quicker off the mark; their churches are frequently older than their Church of England neighbours.

Eventually new dioceses were formed in the 1840s, 1880s and in the early twentieth century: Ripon, Manchester, Wakefield, Newcastle, Liverpool, Bradford, Sheffield, Chelmsford and so on.  It would be unfair to call this new growth a random response, but we would probably not have set the boundaries, or even the see cities where they now are, if we had begun with a blank sheet of paper or indeed a blank map of England.  It is for this reason that the Dioceses’ Commission has now been given teeth - to suggest and help effect change.  So, part of the see city of Peterborough is in the diocese of Ely.  King’s Lynn is nearer to Peterborough or Ely than it is to Norwich in whose diocese it stands.  These are anomalies the Commission has begun to address. The Yorkshire dioceses as a whole are oddly put together.  Indeed West Yorkshire (but only West Yorkshire) is the first area in which an experiment in diocesan reorganisation is being considered.   It is proposed that three dioceses would become one, with a number of area bishops and three cathedrals.

It is far from clear, however, that what we need is fewer, larger dioceses.  The aim of creating dioceses from the very beginning was to give proper local pastoral care and identity with one bishop as the focus.  His seat, his cathedra, was placed in the diocesan church, the cathedral.  Although it is important for the Dioceses Commission to be proactive, to allow them to change this local focus before there has been any debate nationally about how bishops should be placed and how they should minister seems bizarre.  There are parallels in local government where in the past half century there has been almost continuous revolution.  The creation of camel-like counties including Humberside, Avon and Merseyside proved to be ineffective.  Such areas had no sense of integral identity.  Subsequent history has now proved this to be the case: even little Rutland has reclaimed its identity! That the Church of England would benefit from a review of its diocesan structures is almost self-evident.  But there does need to be proper debate first.  Happily the Diocese of Wakefield has asked precisely for this to happen – the General Synod will be asked to debate it.  What sort of principles might emerge from such a debate?  Several come to mind.  Ought the reflection not to be an integrated analysis?  Why restructure West Yorkshire and not see this in the wider context of the whole of Yorkshire?  Might we not benefit from more smaller dioceses, albeit without replicating new diocesan organisation?  So dioceses would be encouraged to share resources across diocesan boundaries in different functions: finance, education, social responsibility, mission, property.  Is it not vital to take account of loyalties which have developed over decades and even centuries?  Loyalty is something that grows slowly and with trust.  Ought we not also to cherish our cathedrals as key churches in a variety of ways?  They remain places where people come for so many and various reasons.  They are visited by people of any religion or none.  They are the fastest growing churches in most parts of the Church of England.  They are key holders of the cultural and spiritual (and even perhaps moral) identity of our nation. Imaginative reflections with real depth could certainly give new life and energy to our dioceses - and our cathedrals will also play a key part in this.

Stephen Platten

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