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Austen IvereighAugust 24, 2008

How many Catholics do you need for a parish? There is no fixed figure, of course: in a depopulated area, it might be very few; in a built-up area, it would be many more. In the Diocese of Leeds, in England - -an area which includes swathes of rural Yorkshire as well as some big towns -- the bishop has said that a congregation of 200 is "not viable": thus, 12 churches in the diocese are being closed this year, amidst painful scenes of 80-year-old ladies chaining themselves to the railings. The Telegraph has the story.

As an exercise in church communications, this is a textbook case of what not to do. Give what sounds like a cold, corporate reason for closing parishes; then, when people protest, be unavailable and remote.

A delegation of protesting Leeds congregants recently went to Bishop’s House, only to be told (by the press officer) that the bishop was away. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears: the diocese simply repeats that congregation and priest numbers are too low to keep all the churches open. But this sounds to parishioners as if Bishop Arthur Roche is putting "cash before Christianity", as one of their placards reads: if he cared enough, surely he would find the money? And aren’t priests always available -- why, there are priests from Poland and Africa who have already offered!

The idea that a congregation of 200 is too small to be viable would astonish Anglican vicars, most of whom would regard that many in their pews each week as a sign of revival. But the Anglican model is different. And this is the point that should be made  -- but isn’t being made -- by Leeds diocese.

It’s not that 200 congregants isn’t enough, or that there are too few priests. The real issue is how you ensure that a Sunday gathering is a genuine experience of communion -- of the People of God gathered together, from near and far, in all its diversity. The massive programme of church-building in Britain in the 1940s-50s -- at a time when Irish immigrant families turned up to Mass as a cultural duty - has led us to forget this idea. We are used to three or four Masses on a Sunday at churches that are nearby. In other words, we have come to expect what has been nicknamed the "convenience Mass" -- one that can be fitted into our schedule.

But that is not what Mass should be. And it’s not what an ekklesia should be.

The decline in the ratio of priests to people -- together with the slow death of the 1940s Irish ghetto which some conservative Catholics look back at with misplaced nostalgia -- are opportunities to remind people of what is the norm.  Having to travel some distance to attend Mass in a crowded church is much more in keeping with the Catholic notion of Church than the streetcorner convenience Mass which some Catholics think is their right.

It is sad when churches close. The building carries memories. Symbolically, it can look as if the guts are being ripped out of a community. It can seem a depressing failure -- the symptom of "decline".

But people can get far too attached to the buildings, confusing ends and means in the process. A church is not a building; nor is Mass a service, like the local post office. A church is the gathered people of God -- the ekklesia -- whose home is a means to an end. A parish is simply a territorial subdivision of the diocese; the people would all gather in the cathedral, if there were room. Just as parishes are created to subdivide an expanding mass of believers, so they must close when the numbers fall. The boundaries of parishes, in other words, are endlessly mutable: what matters is the boundary of the Catholic Church in that place -- which is what a diocese is. 

I am amazed that Bishop Roche and his staff are not making these arguments. They should not be saying, "sorry, there aren’t enough of you and there aren’t enough priests to keep your parish going" but rather: "We do not want our Catholic community split into small, self-enclosed units ever more distant from each other. We are one Church, and as many of us should meet together on a Sunday as we can. That is the Catholic understanding of Church. That is why we are redrawing the parish boundaries  -- to enable the People of God in this area to come together as one".

It might be derided as spin, but it would be a whole lot more positive than what sounds at the moment like a heartless corporation closing down local branches that have failed to turn in a profit. And it would have the inestimable advantage of being ecclesiologically and theologically sound.

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15 years 3 months ago
Over on this side of the pond, the Camden (New Jersey) Diocese is undergoing the same painful process of parish consolidation. As in Leeds, the Bishop of Camden is the target of protest and complaint. It’s really a no win situation. Even when people rationally accept that consolidation is necessary, they don’t accept that their own parish should be impacted. However Bishop Galante has made the need for the remaining parishes to be vibrant active parishes the primary focus of the parish reorganization, He has clearly reduced the number of parishes more then is required simply by the projected number of future priests or a current list of insolvent parishes. It has not reduced the criticism. And arguments persist in our diocese on what is and is not a vibrant parish. In the end, I agree with the author that an appeal to parish life, and not an appeal to money or a priest shortage, is the way to approach this difficult process.
15 years 3 months ago
Thank you for your interest in this story but you have misunderstood a few key points. No one is campaigning for '' street corner convenience.'' The thriving, financially viable churches whose doors have been locked without proper adherence to canon law are in the centre of communities. Geography and lack of transport means that it is impossible for elderly people (some of whom have devoted 70 years to the same church)to attend the newly designated venues. Because of the shortage of buses they would have to leave at 9am to attend 11 am mass and would be home for 2pm. Many excellent suggestions were put forward by communities keen to support the church,but NOT A SINGLE ONE was answered during the so called consultation period. However, as the bishop has never visited any of these churches, is this surprising?
15 years 3 months ago
Thank you Austen for your excellent observations and suggestions. Also for your reasonable semi-defense of what the bishops could say. I always feel sad when I hear of parish closings here in the USA. In the Southwest area of the USA there is a tradition of "mission churches" - small churches or communities with a visiting priest weekly or monthly for Mass/liturgy. Is this an option in England or could it be?
15 years 3 months ago
The point about creating ekklesia-- whatever that really means even to those of us who studied our Greek -- is lost in the process of homogenization that is taking place as parishes are suppressed and liturgies reduced. Not every parish needs the quiet Mass, the teen Mass, the family Mass, and the latecomers Mass, but to ignore the diversity of needs and tastes in styles of worship under the guise of crating some larger critical mass (no pun intended!) for community is often an excuse for ignoring the obvious. That is, the Church's restrictions on wo may become ordained clergy is the most significant factor in creating a 'manpower' (sic) shortage that has propelled this present retrenchment. Obviously, that is not the only factor and the diminished interest in organized religion in general and in new clergy for for other denominations also shows that this is not a uniquely Catholic problem. But let's not ignore the half-empty glass of aging and overstretched clergy while attempting to focus on the half-full one that hopes for renewed 'ekklesia' in larger parish factories. One need not live in nostalgia for the church every few corners to see that money and power also play a role, but that is another subject!
15 years 3 months ago
Again, the point that you are missing is that by closing these churches there is nowhere for non-car drivers to attend mass. Hundreds of devout people are being denied any form of ekklesia. The affected parishes have many suggestions to keep their well attended churches alive.None of these suggestions has been recognised. A polish bishop has offered to send priests-- again no answer from the bishop. And the church in Pontefract to which many are being shepherded, cannot accommodate these new people. Why close well-attended, cared-for churches to push people onto the roads. Aren't we in any case supposed to be driving less and saving the planet?
15 years 3 months ago
Good job of articulating the experience of ekklesia in today's church. Too often we Lutherans offer multiple services on a Sunday morning in our parishes out of sake of convenience-oriented scheduling - creating two or three smaller worship gatherings - even though our parking lots and sanctuaries could accomodate everyone in one gathering. Yet when we do gather together for festival services or for our condensed one-service summer schedule, the larger gathering provides for a richer experience of communion and fellowship. Yet the "convenience" factor of multiple worship services and larger number of parishes also has an evangelical upside. More services in more places gives more people an opportunity to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament. I am sensitive to the evangelical initiative to offer multiple worship services at various times, recognizing that a large percentage of our country's workforce labors on Sunday mornings. But the call to come to the Lord's Table, to follow Him where he leads, is a call that includes some sacrifice and commitment. We in the church are not called to turn the church into an easily-consumed spiritual product, with drive-thru liturgies, market-tested music, or worship schedules designed around ever-shrinking attention spans and/or football schedules. But neither should we make the ministry of Word and Sacrament unnecessarily difficult to access. Thank you for this piece, reminding us of the value of church as the gathered ekklesia rather than simply as the receiving of a personal spiritual commodity.

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