ARE we nearly there yet? Yorkshire has a history of courageous innovation and creative determination. If you want evidence, just look around you at the industrial past and the mutating present – or the fantastic enthusiasm for Le Grand Départ of the Tour de France last weekend. We are up for the challenge of changing the world and defying the miseries who see only the downsides of change.
Well, just over a year ago the Church of England entrusted West Yorkshire and the Dales with another challenge: to create a single diocese from three historic dioceses and, with a bizarre process and a pile of trust, to let us get on with all the complexities involved in doing it. And we are rising to that challenge.
It’s a bit slow, though. Almost six months to the day after the General Synod voted to do the deed, I was interviewed for the post of diocesan bishop and asked to take it on. Just over three months later the new diocese came into being and I went into episcopal purdah for six weeks. Then, 11 months to the day after the vote to do all this, I legally became the Bishop of Leeds in the Confirmation of Election at York Minster. Last week I went to London to see the Queen at Buckingham Palace for a brief private ceremony and next week I’ll be enthroned in the three cathedrals of Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon.
So, yet another ‘first’ in English history for Yorkshire: a bishop being enthroned in three cathedrals in a single diocese. And, in between these three services, I will also appear at Leeds Minster and Halifax Minster in order to be present in the two episcopal areas without a cathedral per se.
In other words, whatever the challenges of the process, we are now nearly there. My office has been in Leeds since before Easter, and my wife and I will now move house from Bradford to Leeds the week after the enthronements. Two new area bishops (for Bradford and Huddersfield) will be appointed in the autumn and this will allow for coherent leadership across the new diocese.
OK, the use of the word ‘enthronement’ sounds grand and anachronistic and just a little bit pompous? But it is what is actually happening: the bishop is being put into the seat of teaching, discipline and pastoral responsibility. (In the olden days teachers and preachers used to sit while the people stood.) So, what I feel when being enthroned is the weight of the office, its demands and responsibilities. Nothing grand, but a certain heaviness and fear (in the proper sense of the word).
Why do it, anyway? Well, having a single diocese for the region will give us a coherent voice. Dividing it into five ‘episcopal areas’ (five areas each served by a nominated bishop) allows us to pay attention to the particularities of localities – distinctive social, economic and cultural communities.
I will have oversight of the whole diocese whilst also being the area bishop for Leeds. For the first time in our history, the Church will match the urban realities (until Easter this year Leeds was in four different dioceses) and allow particular and integral attention to rural communities. I will be working for the good of Leeds, engaging with civic, business and cultural communities as well as faith leaders. There is work to be done and relationships to establish. And, when I enter the House of Lords in the late autumn, I will consciously be advocating for the city and region.
And for the Church? The point of it all is to enable us better to live out our discipleship of Jesus, to give ourselves for the common good of our communities and region, to grow in confidence in outreach and apologetics, to re-shape the Church so as to enable us to get our priorities right. We face hard decisions and there are nettles to be grasped; the risks are there, but they are not to be feared.
So, the popular notion that the Church of England is interested only in the gender of bishops (and other controversial matters) is nonsense. In fact, the seriousness with which such matters are debated and wrestled with demonstrates the power of working hard to hold people together. In a culture that sees fragmentation at every level, we try to do it differently – not always with evident success. And our adventurous creation of this new diocese is further evidence of our commitment to keep all sorts of people together. We are not a single-dish restaurant, but seek to offer a rich menu to everyone in our area.
We’re nearly there now. At last.
• The Right Reverend Nicholas Baines is the Bishop of Leeds