Following on from my last post – which was sparked by a visit to Sudan and the reading of Walter Brueggemann (again) – it is important to move on from the phenomenon of how we face potential change to addressing the content of those changes. Objections to change often appear in two forms: (a) a natural, but false, comparison between the status quo (arrived at after years of development) and the potential birth of something new (which, by definition, can only be imagined or envisaged) arising from it; and (b) a natural and right caution that we should never engage in change for the mere sake of change itself.

Since coming to Bradford in May 2011 I have deliberately not instigated any great change. I might be wrong, but it seemed silly to initiate necessary change in some areas when a greater, more wholesale, change might be coming down the line with the Dioceses Commission proposals – if agreed in March 2013 – kicking in relatively soon. So, I have paid attention to structural clarity, missional encouragement and confidence building among clergy and lay people. I cannot be the judge of whether that policy has been effective or not. Nevertheless, the point is that I do not believe in wasting time changing things that do not need to be changed. I seriously resist that old recourse of fantasists or the fearful: to avoid the serious challenge by simply re-engineering or re-ordering the furniture. At the heart of any change worth doing lies the fundamental question of vision: what is the end that this means is intended to achieve?

So, objections to the scheme before us are not trivial and, indeed, are necessary if we are to effectively (but realistically) stress-test the proposals for an alternative way of being. That is to say, any proposals for change need to be poked, pulled, prodded and stretched in order to identify where they are sound, where they lack, or where they open up potential that cannot yet be measured. Yet, going back to the point of my last post on this, objection should always be on the basis of an imaginative engagement with the proposals and not simply a reactive resistance arising from pique or fear.

A number of objections to the Dioceses Scheme are obvious and I will look at some of them in turn here.

'Big is not always beautiful'

The objection is that a larger diocese must be remote, unwieldy and unfamiliar – a far cry from the 'family-like' nature of the existing three smaller dioceses. Well, yes, a large diocese does feel different and brings certain challenges (as well as opportunities) not faced by smaller ones. But, sometimes big is beautiful – in the sense that it provides a wider canvas on which to paint a bigger picture.

I think I am the only senior staff member of any of the three dioceses who has direct and long experience of such a large diocese working with an area system. I spent eleven years in the Diocese of Southwark, three as Archdeacon of Lambeth and eight as (area) Bishop of Croydon. I learned a huge amount about communication, coherence, 'brand identification', structural identity and effective use of resources. The particular model of an area system worked well, but was under constant review – as will any shape emerging, if approved, in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

The suggestion that the current scheme should put in place a structure that must work completely on day one and be guaranteed to remain successfully intact for the next ten years is a complete nonsense: any shape devised will need to be re-thought as time goes by and as change happens around us. What we have to focus on is the potential of a larger diocese, broken down into an area system, to enable a larger vision for the resourcing and encouragement of parish mission and ministry, better development potential for clergy, a more coherent engagement with the area covered by the new diocese (civic, political, social, economic, etc.), and clear profiling of the Church of England in its unique vocation (working with ecumenical partners, who, incidentally, support this scheme).

Ecclesiology and area bishops

The scheme proposes a diocesan bishop (who would also be the Area Bishop of Leeds – a mistake, in my view) and four other area bishops (Bradford, Ripon, Wakefield and Huddersfield). How would the diocesan bishop know and be known by the people in his parishes?

Well, that is an interesting one. Of course, it begs the question how well known are the diocesan bishops by the parishes in the existing dioceses – and the judges of this should not be the diocesan bishops themselves! If I have 165 churches in around 130 parishes and aim to be in at least one of them every week,… work it out. Yet, we speak of 'knowing' and 'being known'. We need a bit of realism here: the diocesan bishop needs to 'order' the diocese in such a way that (a) clergy are properly appointed and pastorally resourced – and let's not romanticise the limitations of that, (b) communicate effectively with all parts of the diocese, using all the resources available judiciously and adventurously, (c) be out and about in the parishes and institutions – listening, learning, questioning, encouraging, challenging, articulating the good news and inspiring (which comes down to more than just role, office and structure). This involves systematic and realistic prioritising – nothing new there, then.

Currently, the diocesan bishop cannot be everywhere and, so, exercises his episkope through colleagues such as suffragan bishops (except in Bradford where I don't have one), archdeacons, area deans, diocesan secretaries, and so on. Indeed, the parish system assumes that a 'vicar' is exercising in the particular parish the ministry that belongs essentially to the bishop. So, how would the area system proposed be any different in kind?

In a larger diocese the ordering of these matters is done through having smaller episcopal areas, each led by an area bishop (who is as much a bishop as the diocesan bishop!) working with a cathedral dean/minster vicar and an archdeacon. If the right people are appointed to these posts (and the same question applies if we retain three dioceses), this offers clergy and parishes a strategic and pastoral leadership team that is closer to the ground, oversees a smaller territory and number, can apply itself to the particularities of that (more homogeneous) area, offer more accessible pastoral care of clergy, and inspire mission at a more local level. In practice, this means that one episcopal area might drive initiatives that would not be as applicable or effective in others… but would bring that experience and drive to the wider diocese. Such cross-fertilisation is challenging and inspiring when you work in such a context.

Of course, this allows a larger diocese to deploy people in areas who bring to the diocese as a whole their particular expertise – thus allowing the whole diocese to benefit from the particular spread of gifts and experience deployed in the areas.

There are two other elements of an area system that are worth mentioning: (a) area bishops are not automatically on the General Synod, are not in the House of Bishops, do not find themselves committed to work beyond the diocese in the same way as diocesan bishops, and, can, therefore, be more present in their area and diocese. In other words, the clergy and parishes get a better deal; (b) the bishops work as an episcopal team, ensuring both stronger mutual support/challenge and imposing a check on wild ideas, plans or judgements.

So, parishes and civic areas get two bishops: one local and one 'regional' who gain an intimate and informed understanding of life on the ground. One can be a check on the other.

Of course, as I keep saying, no structure of itself achieves anything; it all depends on how the structure is populated, led and exploited… and that comes down to the nature and abilities of the people you appoint to do it. Which, of course, is no different from the challenge we have if we remain as three separate dioceses.

Practicalities

That said, a large diocese (and before thinking this proposal is dangerously radical and untested, we need to look at the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Lichfield, Oxford… to name a few) means further to travel for diocesan meetings, and so on. Well, potentially, yes, of course it might. But this is hardly unique and is an odd objection. People are different – some won't travel more than to the next-door parish for a deanery meeting and others will travel further because they believe in the importance of what they are doing. There seems to be an assumption around that all diocesan meetings would be held in Leeds – but it is unclear where that assumption comes from. In other dioceses with area systems, 'central' meetings move around – partly in order to acquaint the decision-makers, both clergy and lay, of the nature of the parts of the whole diocese.

This of all other practical objections is the one that seems to me to be clutching at 'resistance straws'. How these things will work out will depend simply on the breadth of vision, sense of adventure, creative imagination and visionary energy of those who lead the new diocese. And that can't be laid down in detail before the thing comes to be.

Enough now. Change is inevitable. If the scheme does not go through, it will not be 'business as usual' in any of the three dioceses. And the (in some people's minds)'reserve option' of Bradford and Ripon& Leeds going ahead together without Wakefield is a non-starter – it does not answer in any way the question addressed by the Dioceses Commission in bringing their proposals in the first place. Going forward the questions will not go away and the need for change will not evaporate in a cloud of safety, imagined certainty or wishful thinking.

As I have kept saying, we either see ourselves as victims of change (compelled by the decisions of other people) or we shape our future by choosing change. And that means having the sort of courage to recognise that choosing anything new will bring problems, challenges, unforeseen difficulties and the perpetual pain of those people who look for opportunities to say “I told you so”. But, courageous leadership arising from vision has to be big enough to handle all that, bracket the personal stuff, press on, take responsibility… and take the incalculable risk of inspiring both church and society that we can do what Jesus always invited people to do: leave something behind in order to walk in a different direction in order to go somewhere unpredicted… and to do it all with some sense of adventure as well s attention to detail.

More anon.

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