New Diocese, New Mission, New Cathedrals?

July 9, 2013 § 1 Comment

Yesterday General Synod decided to create a new diocese. After a long process, the proposals to dissolve the dioceses of Wakefield, Ripon and Leeds, and Bradford, and to create a new Diocese of Leeds (West Yorkshire and the Dales) were approved overwhelmingly. Though I have never served in any of them, I’ve done lots in them, and grew up in Bradford, my sponsoring diocese.

I warmed to the obvious mission emphasis in the proposals. Structures don’t do mission for us, but they can hinder it, and this reshaping will allow deaneries, archdeaconries and episcopal areas in the new diocese to relate more easily to the demographics of the conurbations and the Dales.

I’d like to add a small voice into the debate about what happens to the three cathedrals of the former dioceses. There was understandable concern that one new diocese would need just the one cathedral, and that two of them would therefore lose their status (and the funding they received from the Church Commissioners). Not so, and the fear expressed by the three cathedrals that removing their status would ‘disable their local mission’ has been somewhat allayed. They remain free to pursue their ‘engagement with civil society and with those who are not regular churchgoers’ (both quotations from a background paper – GC 1049B).

The new Diocese of Leeds will have a Diocesan Bishop of Leeds, and Area Bishops of Bradford, Huddersfield, Wakefield and Ripon. It will have three cathedrals – seats of the Bishop’s ministry – in Ripon, Wakefield and Bradford. There is provision for Leeds Minster becoming a ‘pro-cathedral’ if desired. Four of the five areas will therefore have a cathedral or pro cathedral as expressions of episcopal ministry and mission, but Huddersfield won’t. The report talks about the difficulty of deciding on the relative importance of Dewsbury Minster, Halifax Minster and Huddersfield Parish Church, and decides that not having a central church here reveals the diversity of the diocese.

Here’s the thing. I’ve worked in a cathedral, and am now in a massive Minster church, and have been reflecting on the similarities and differences of their ministries. I don’t think that the reasons cathedrals are a success story in mission terms (35% growth in recent years) is because they have complex constitutions and legal structures, Chapters, Colleges of Canons and Councils and orders of precedence. Cathedrals have grown because they have a clear mission, a recognition that their ministry is regional and their mission is to the structures of society, and because the wider church recognises this, gives them money and requires them to have at least three experienced clergy there full time.

All of this can be true of ‘greater’ churches at the heart of their area. Beverley Minster cannot help but engage with the East Riding, just as Holy Trinity Hull does in its city. The Bishops of the Diocese of York, specifically the Bishop of Hull, use us and other larger churches to express that regional mission. Most of the things I did at York in welcoming the region to worship (the Legal Service, Remembrance, civic services, military commemorations, charity services and so on) happen at Beverley. You don’t need a cathedral constitution to do that.

But you do need a vision, resources, and the staffing. A new diocese could have a new vision for those churches of its region which naturally have a ministry beyond the parochial and which can express the mission of the diocese focussed in the ministry of the bishops. It could give them titles – ‘Minster’ – which  express this ministry, and ensure that the lead cleric is recognised as also embodying it. ‘Provost’ was what the lead cleric at Beverley was called until the Reformation. Crucially, it could ensure that such staffing was in place that worship, pastoral, mission, social and educational needs were met.

I have a nightmare that the joint working of the three current cathedrals in relation to each other and to their diocesan and area bishops will be so complex constitutionally that the mission of each disappears into the mire of the re-written statutes. One cathedral, with ‘greater’ Minster churches adequately staffed and with much lighter governance could be a superb and flexible mission resource, as long as the current high regard in which they are held is translated into regard for their ‘Minster’ status.

The Measure which will make the new Diocese is wisely light on what it says about how the cathedrals will work. But the background material says that cathedral ministry should be renewed at some time in the future.

An offering then from me. A church which expresses the ministry of a diocese, focussed in the Bishop’s mission, does not have to have the panoply of a cathedral’s constitution and statutes. But it does need a recognition by the diocese that it is a church of regional influence, and needs to have staffing which enables that influence to bear fruit. It needs the status that titles can bring, and it needs the support of the parishes and deaneries around it. Elements of that work here. I’m looking forward to seeing how a new diocese might find a new way of expressing its local, regional and diocesan life. Exciting times.

§ One Response to New Diocese, New Mission, New Cathedrals?

  • Jonathan Jeninngs says:

    Fascinating stuff. But I’m slightly wary of the ‘growth in Cathedrals’ narrative that underlies some of this.

    First, I think one clue was in your comment ‘requires them to have at least three full-time clergy there.’ A cathedral has a single geographical focus and locus within a community setting and a team of clergy working together in a single building, especially if they have contrasting and complementary gifts, will achieve far more than three individuals working alone, especially when the clergy are freer to be participants amongst a team of individuals.

    Second, in the past few months I have been to a number of cathedral services on a Sunday (unusually) and have not experienced anything other than the kind of provision a thumping good parish would have delivered in the 1960s or 1970s; the main difference being that the music delivered is world class; again, paid for by means simply not available to the parish church.

    Third, the congregations I’ve observed appear (and this is entirely subjective) to include a significant proportion of refugees from parishes in the local area – good people from good parishes, worn a little by the struggle and leaving for a time the parishes who consequently have a dwindling pool of active people to help sustain their mission.

    Fourth, the events organized by cathedrals seem to be – with honourable exceptions – aimed squarely at reinforcing their status as cultural as well as theological guardians; the lectures, talks and musical events tend to be more along the broadsheet agenda and run to the grain of the radio 3 and 4 audience than with broader, cross community appeal. I could be wrong, but look on the average cathedral website diary and event listings and the unease soon mounts.

    So the challenge is to analyse the growth in cathedral and greater church congregations to see where it is coming from, because I for one would like to see allayed the suspicion that what is presented as growth actually represents retrenchment around a sustainable model of churchgoing (and in some respects a more sustainable model of ministry) where the difficult bits – building, maintenance, compliance, stewardship (as opposed to fundraising) and administration – are if not sorted, at least more squarely addressed. Without that evaluation, putting more money into cathedrals may simply enhance their ability to provide a more attractive berth and draw congregants away from their own parish churches.

    Put simply, it may be that cathedrals are experiencing 1950s style growth because they have 1950s style provision, and that parishes are not, because they don’t.

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