It now seems that the reorganisation scheme planned for the dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon is to go ahead. For those disinclined to read the whole thing, it is a merger of the three dioceses into one, although for secret reasons it is very important that we do not say so.
While some readers may be dismayed at the prospect of such a sweeping change, at Plumstead Rectory we find ourselves in agreement with the Commissioners. And we do not doubt that readers who love the tradition of the Church of England will find familiarly comforting the gargantuan unwieldiness of the proposed new diocese, and admire the way in which it will be created without saving any significant sums.
We urge the Commissioners to go further. The time is right for a radical reduction in the number of dioceses, modern communications and expanding regional identities having made the current patchwork of dioceses redundant. Strong diocesan bishops could speak more effectively for different parts of the country, and because fewer in number could more easily capture the attention of a national media.
We suggest the following outline proposals:
Far from excluding the Diocese of Sheffield from their current proposals, the Commissioners should include the dioceses of Sheffield, York, and Blackburn, along with the three already included, in a single super-diocese. This could only be headed by the Archbishop of York in person, and would give a single strong voice to speak for the north. This is vital in these economic times. Culturally and economically the present Diocese of Southwell (Nottinghamshire) belongs here, too, and should be transferred (across the provincial boundary) in the new diocese.Three areas of the North of England should be excluded because of their own strong regional identities.The North East (County Durham, Tyne and Wear, and Northumberland – less the area around Hexham) forms a single cultural unit, and should be its own diocese, with a cathedral in Durham and offices, perhaps, in Newcastle. Meanwhile the area north of Carlisle has been largely untouched by the modern communications mentioned, and is best left to its own devices as before, with a diocese based on that city.The two great cities of the North West pose a different problem. Culturally distinct from Yorkshire and the hinterland of Lancashire, industrial and geographical factors mean they are heavily interlinked with the counties to the south. We propose, therefore, that the dioceses of Liverpool and Manchester, along with Cheshire and Staffordshire and the northern half of the West Midlands conurbation, should form a second super-diocese. This area, although large and populous, could be easily served from a centre in, say, Lichfield, and with the coming High Speed 2 rail link is likely to be drawn even more closely together. The present diocese of Derby also fits most naturally into this new diocese, and the whole should form part of the southern province, in which the bulk of its component parts now lie.The southern part of the West Midlands conurbation, along with the present dioceses of Worcester, Gloucester, and the city of Bristol form a third West of England super-diocese. For reasons similar to those at Carlisle we propose that the remoter areas to the west remain a separate Hereford Diocese.In the West Country, we considered a fourth super-diocese, but rejected in on the grounds of excessive travelling distance. Bath and Wells therefore remains much at present under our proposals, only taking in some country parts of the present Bristol Diocese, and Exeter and Truro merge.In the south of England less change is needed. Salisbury is made viable by taking in parts of Oxford north to the Thames, while Winchester, Guildford and Portsmouth merge with parts of Southwark to produce a diocese more socially balanced. The rest of Southwark merges with Rochester to form a populous but compact diocese recognising the continuous development of the South London-North Kent region.Two dioceses continue to exist, but without any extra territory: Canterbury in recognition of the extra responsibilities of the Archbishop (if one can be appointed) and Chichester because apparently they can’t be trusted.North of the Thames the increasing reach of the capital is recognised by ending the anomalous separate existence of St Albans and Chelmsford Dioceses, bringing them both into London. The remainder of East Anglia goes to Norwich Diocese, with the exception of Cambridgeshire, which retains its own bishop of Ely.The remainder of the south of England (comprising the current Lincoln, Leicester and Peterbrorough dioceses, and the diocese of Oxford north of the Thames) forms the last of the super-dioceses. Where the other super-dioceses provided unified voices speaking for the interests of the north of England, and of its manufacturing and commercial centres, the intention of this super-diocese is to provide a single voice speaking for rural interests. This diocese should have its centre at Lincoln, in the most rural county of the nine covered.This reduction to sixteen dioceses would mean not only an increased effectiveness of diocesan bishops as advocates in national and regional affairs, but also significant savings in financial and other resources, more efficient central services, and diocesan structures that made rational sense of the modern social, geographical and economic realities of the nation we serve.
It is important to be clear that despite the reduction in diocesan establishments there is no proposal for the abolition or downgrading of any of our beloved cathedrals. Cathedral congregations have been places of growth in recent years, and our missional agenda requires that we have more, not fewer of them. Clearly if we had twice the number of cathedrals we would have twice the amount of church growth.
We propose, therefore, that every benefice should have its own cathedral, pro-cathedral or minster. Growth will inevitably follow, and the accompanying coloured cassocks and grandiloquent titles should improve low clergy morale, even in the Diocese of Lincoln.
Nor, despite the reduction in diocesan bishops, will there be any less need for episcopal ministry. Great crowds of suffragans will still be needed for confirming all the new Christians and making them OLMs (this can conveniently be combined into one service). This will provid ample employment for ambitious clergy who (because the few diocesans will have the decision-making powers) will not need to have any particular ability, thus easing a great strain on our human resources.
It will be necessary to differentiate the suffragan bishops from the diocesan more clearly, so as to make it obvious who really counts. This will be best done by reverting to the practice of naming suffragan sees in partis infidelium. We suggest that the first women bishops regard the sees of Beverley, Ebbsfleet and Richborough as such, and take those titles; and vice versa, of course.