Nick Baines: Fear of change shouldn’t obscure our mission

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THE Anglican Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon & Leeds and Wakefield will vote on proposals on March 2 that they be dissolved and a new single diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales be created in their place.

It was in November 2010 that the Dioceses Commission did what it had been asked to do and published proposals for reorganising the Church of England in West Yorkshire and the Dales.

Having taken soundings from people across church, civic life and wider society, it proposed the dissolution of the Dioceses of Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon & Leeds, and the creation of a completely new diocese to cover (with a bit of tidying up around the edges) the same region more effectively.

This wasn’t an indictment of the past, but a “getting ahead of the game” as we look to the future – and how the Church can best serve the communities we are called to.

Now, this might seem like a bit of arcane private chit-chat, to be confined to the inner conversations of the Church itself. But as well as being established by law, the Church of England is defined by how it gives itself to the flourishing of the communities in which it is set, so how it organises itself has significant impact on the region.

The proposal to have one large diocese, organised in five episcopal areas (each with their own bishop who would work together as a team), offers the benefits of scale together with the intimacy of smaller, more homogenous areas. Clergy get better care and parishes get better attention. Area bishops are closer to the ground, offer better pastoral care and strategic leadership more locally, whilst forming a wider and more coherent diocesan team with the potential for a greater spread of gifts and experience. It’s a win-win.

After two years of thorough consultation and debate, a final 
scheme was produced, on which the dioceses (in synods) will vote on March 2. Then (depending on the vote), it might go to the General Synod in July before kicking in during 2014-15.

Responses to the proposals have varied – as we should expect. Some have looked into the future and seen an opportunity; others have found it hard to look beyond the “heritage” and, therefore, struggled to imagine a different future.

What’s been interesting, however, is how when one set of objections 
is addressed, another lot emerges – which suggests that some resistance might have something more to 
do with the phenomenon of change rather than the content of the 
specific proposals.

For example, we heard loud complaints that the three cathedrals would be sidelined and that this would be disastrous for them – but we have now been given written commitments about the future status and funding of all three cathedrals.

Then we were warned that central funding towards dioceses would be cut… until we were told that this wouldn’t be the case. Or the job of the Diocesan Bishop would be impossible because the diocese would be too big – which begs the question of how the dioceses of London, Southwark, Chelmsford, Oxford, Lichfield (to name but a few) manage. Or are we saying that only southerners can handle complexity?

Then we heard that people would have to travel too far to get to meetings – as if that isn’t already the case in the existing dioceses. Anyway, the objections point up matters to be addressed; they hardly constitute serious objections to proposals for change.

It seems to me that an opportunity to change is one to be seized. It will demand serious creative thinking, organisational reconfiguration and energetic communication and re-creation. It offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create something new and to take responsibility for making it work.

Of course, change for the sake of change is ridiculous. But our dioceses were created out of others in the last century or so precisely in order to
meet changes in the wider world: in that case, industrialisation and urbanisation. Any institution that wants to have an impact needs the imagination and courage to adapt to a changing world.

In a downturn, organisations are often advised, conversely, that now is the time to make a bigger investment in the future, not a smaller one.

Those who merely hope for the best, in the end see confidence lost and morale destroyed as inevitable decline takes place.

And the Church of England, believe it or not, should be even more ready to change than other organisations. Because the church is not an institution that exists for the sake of itself: it exists for the sake of the world we are called to serve. Fundamental to Christian theology is the call to give up your life for the sake of others.

So I hope we won’t be limited by fear, nostalgia or protection of our 
own comfort, but that we’ll have the vision to take faith seriously and vote 
for change.