Who has pottered by this way, then?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Yorkshire Diocesan Reorganisation: a view from the fringes.

A reorganisation based on community and mission. Or is it?

Three Cathedrals or one insuperable mound?
Three Dioceses are to be merged, but
 how will this look from the rural fringes?
As Bishop Nick Baines explains in his blog, the West Yorkshire Diocese proposals have been agreed upon in principle. The title of Nick's blog entry is telling, though, as it makes no mention of North Yorkshire, significant parts of which are affected by the proposals.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story so far, the idea is to combine the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds to create a mega-diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, the rationale for which is i) that the current way things are organised are based on historical factors which no longer reflect the communities the Church of England is serving, and ii) combining the Dioceses and restructuring will help mission. These are both reasonable enough grounds for reorganisation, but I am uneasy about whether the proposals, as they stand, will address either issue effectively.

My interest is that I live in the part of North Yorkshire concerned, and I'm commenting as someone who has campaigned on rural issues nationally, has experience as a teacher of working in rural communities whose issues of poverty, lack of social mobility, access to services are largely ignored politically, but where the Church, and notably the Church of England, does a great deal of good. And I'm commenting as someone who lives at the Ripon end of the current Diocese of Ripon & Leeds where I see excellent things going on in the rural parishes, the excellent support given to these by their Archdeacon Rural Officer, Children and Young People's Officer and many others, and a friendly, outward-looking Cathedral engaged in supporting its local community, engaging in moral issues in society and acting as a focus for mission in the Dales already. And, I also have recent experience of life in a rural parish elsewhere in North Yorkshire over in neighbouring York Diocese and can't help worrying that they are another area not really being taken seriously in this re-organisation.

The Rural Fringe - off the map?

The first rationale for change is that current boundaries are historic hangovers, and this is true. Ripon, historically, was a West Riding city and the Bishop of Ripon oversaw a Diocese which took in a lot of the West Riding before the other Dioceses were created (in response to massive social changes in the industrial revolution and beyond). However, the reality for the communities of all the areas under discussion today is different. Ripon is firmly North Yorkshire in feel nowadays with more in common with Helmsley, Northallerton, Richmond or Thirsk than with Leeds, Halifax, Dewsbury or Bradford. As a community, Ripon looks to its north and north-east as much as it does to its south. It is not part of the West Yorkshire industrial conurbation which it is proposed that it remain bolted onto. Ripon is one of those places which gets bolted onto other places in reorganisations. Bizarrely, it shares an MP with Skipton, a town to the north of Halifax which is lovely, West Yorkshire in its architecture and major road links, but with which Ripon has no other link and very little similarity. Rather than wondering what to do with this weird bit of the county which doesn't really fit easily with what the rest of the West Riding to its south has morphed into, the Church of England might well be missing a trick. Why pretend that Ripon and most of the Richmondshire Archdeaconry is the northern fringe of West Yorkshire? By embracing the reality on the ground and using Ripon as a missional centre for the communities it really does resonate with, something far more exciting could emerge.

A less timid re-organisation

Radical shapes often work well.
A more radical and mission-shaped way organising things around the reality of many North Yorkshire communities would be to create a North Yorkshire diocese stretching from pretty much the east coast, across Northern Ryedale, Mowbray and into the eastern Dales. Expertise from across these rural areas could be pooled easily. Communities have a lot in common and share similar challenges, notably from being rural or market towns. Road links run east-west across this area, straddling the A1, A168, A19 and A170 - the railways were taken away from this area (with the exception of those parts which lay on the main North-South links, such as Northallerton and Thirsk)  in the Beeching cuts. Fast rural broadband is (we hope) being rolled out in North Yorkshire, and there is growing expertise across all these rural areas about how to harness social media and the internet for mission and serving the community (including those not online). It is realistic for these areas to support each other in mission and work together from an ecclesiastical base in Ripon and from Diocesan offices created in Northallerton, the county town.

Conversely, the parishes to the north of Bradford in the western Dales would be a long way from a rural centre of mission based in Ripon. The present proposal puts the two together, but that is not how these communities work in practice. For significant amounts of time each year, people in the western Dales cannot drive over to Ripon due to weather and poor road links. And as for those rural parishes on the western fringes of Wakefield diocese, perched on the very edge of Lancashire, they already find getting to Wakefield difficult enough given the road links and rail timetables available to them. Being on the edge of a mega-diocese can make the fringes feel unloved. A reorganisation which doesn't take account of the sheer isolation and relative difficulty of getting around from many of our rural parishes isn't taking them seriously enough as vehicles for mission. I suspect some similar new boundary moving outside familiar Diocesan lines would benefit this area too. So one of my criticisms of the proposed merger is that it does not go far enough: why merely merge existing Dioceses and not consider where the actual boundaries should be based on a mission-centred model for all the communities involved, rural ones included? The shape of churches on the ground is changing, as Archdeacon Janet Henderson notes, and I think that there is a lot to be said for making sure that we think in terms of encouraging effective networks rather than shoring up hubs.

The Numbers Game

One problem - and I may lose one or two friends in saying this - is that the Church of England has got drawn into the numbers game in the way it thinks about resourcing. For example, a while ago, the Bishop of Ripon & Leeds moved house from Ripon (the geographical centre of the current Diocese) to Leeds because "that's where 75% of the population of the Diocese lives". But I question this logic. Our mission is to communities. It is not a numbers game. To "make disciples of all nations" is to minister to communities and preach and live the Gospel there, whether they be densely populated areas of cities, market towns, small villages, or mainly isolated dwellings. Are there actually more communities in Leeds than in the Richmondshire Archdeaconry? I am not convinced.

The rural poor and disadvantaged. They are invisible in the media, electorally insignificant and therefore ignored politically, and the rural church often does very well at being there for them. There is much academic research which shows that life in rural areas is far different from the cosy Vicar of Dibley vision of popular culture. North Yorkshire has long been an area where higher than average numbers of people are in, or on the margins of poverty definitions, but the indicators which create that data only tell part of the story as the 'norms' are all based on urban life. The reality can be quite harsh for many on low incomes in rural areas.

 If we only think in terms of the number of people we serve, we'll get the equation wrong: we are to make disciples of all nations, which means preaching and living out the Gospel in every community where there are people, irrespective of how many people live there.

The trump card which those who support the centralising of power and the subsequent sidelining of rural areas (though this is never how it is actually termed, of course) is, of course, the "stewardship" card. It is surely good stewardship to concentrate resources on where 'the most good can be done'. In other words, put the money, clergy, real-estate and administrative resources in the urban centres where most people live. Organise a diocese around the urban areas and use the relative affluence of some rural parishes to help fund urban ministry. I don't have a problem with a flow of cash from richer areas to poorer, incidentally, but rural parish ministry needs to be valued for its own sake, rather than just as a diocesan cash-cow! Seeking God's Kingdom first is the key... building up our own empires is a real danger.

Putting the cart before the horse?

Are we re-organising around the right things?
Organising resources and centralising decision-making 'where the most good can be done' in the most densely populated areas is a great way to run a business and looks great as far as Diocesan accounts goes, but it can be a lousy way to organise the Church for mission unless it's accompanied by a genuine empowering of churches at the local level throughout the mega-diocese. Pooling administrative and back-office functions is one thing, but if resourcing, personnel and decision-making are too centralised, I can't see that ending well.

The pull of the numbers game and the world's way of measuring success and effectiveness is all-the-more alluring when control is centralised. It's easy to go native and behave like an Empire builder if you... er... build an Empire. Faithfulness to the great commission is a suitable measure of success. Pew numbers is not. No really - you did read that correctly: the number of people attending Church of England services is not our yardstick for doing our jobs as the people of God. Increased numbers in church is often the result, the fruit of our mission being faithful, but, counter-intuitive as it may sound, it shouldn't be what drives our sense of mission. God's grace is the driver of salvation, we are the vehicle and we have to work at it, but let's remember which way round this works: "for the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people"  It's also worth remembering that David counted his followers and was judged for it!

This might seem like I'm just messing around with words: church growth is important, but it is not actually our job to set this as a goal. In faith we believe it will happen. By God's grace, it will happen. By preaching and living out the Gospel wherever God has put us, it will happen. But it isn't a goal, a result to be planned for. A results-led model where we create a bigger, more important edifice is as far from the wonderful, rural potterings of Our Lord, proclaiming the Kingdom of God around a backwater of the Roman Empire as I can imagine.

The Servant of All

The Holy Spirit moves through the people of God. Our job is to allow ourselves to be used in service, in mission and in ministering to communities. If we are to re-organise, please let us not use the world's way of measuring success. We are not primarily after value for money, whatever those who have to deal with Diocesan finances might have to say on the matter (and bless them, their service and work is important and appreciated). We are after God's values being incarnate in our Church structures, in the way we organise ourselves, in the way we resource mission and in our ministry. After all, "anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all." and so our structures should reflect the servant ministry of Jesus and exalt the humblest, less visible, less valued communities, including those rural ones which are, so far as I can see, not entirely on the Dioceses Commission's radar.

My questions are:

  • are we seeking to make disciples of all nations, all communities, or just the ones where it looks like we'll harvest the biggest crops?
  • how will the re-organisation promote mission in the areas on the edges?
  • how will mission in rural areas be enhanced by the changes?
  • is this reordering mistakenly using 'value for money' as a driver rather than mission?


  1. Some interesting discussion on this post seems to have been happening on my FB page! This includes further comments from Nick, and refelctions on the relevance of the recent Church in Wales Review for the process Nick describes above. If your interested follow this at http://www.facebook.com/mwalimurural/posts/493888640635178.

  2. Replied on our facebook Simon....
    Will it make any great change to the way 'things are done'? well we shall see