For the foreseeable future, the Catholic Church in England and Wales faces a double decline: in the number of priests available and in the number of active lay members. By global standards, we enjoy a high number of priests for every Catholic: according to current data (May 2017) we have 1.18 priests for every thousand Catholics, which ranks us 24th out of the 157 territories tabulated.
This doesn’t seem so bad, but we have a structural problem. The 1960s and 70s were marked by a surge in the number of men coming forward for the priesthood and a period of urban expansion in many British cities. (On the same statistical table we have 1.82 priests per parish, ranking us 88th in the world, but the statistics hide the ratio of “able” to “non-working” priests) The same period was also marked by the post-Vatican-II relaxations which allowed Sunday Mass on a Saturday evening, and only an hour’s fast before communion, making Sunday evening Masses viable.
We now find ourselves in a position where we have built an unsustainable network of small parishes with many Sunday* Masses. As the number of priests falls back to a more typical historical level, we cannot sustain all of these Masses (nor indeed the current pattern of daily Masses). Each scheduled Sunday Mass in a given location has its own “regulars”, not all of whom will transfer to another Mass if that slot is removed or merged. When a Mass venue is closed, even more regulars are likely to be lost. Many Catholics have a strong emotional attachment to the building they see as their “family church” and only a weak attachment to “the mission of the church” as a whole, so closing a building can have devastating consequences.
As the number of worshipping Catholics falls, coupled with demographic trends that mean more women are in employment, elderly people work to a greater age, and grandparents face increasing pressure to assist with child care, the volunteer force of lay people able to sustain parish activity is also being squeezed. Since each parish seeks to maintain a basic minimum level of service for the sacraments – baptism of infants, first communion, confirmation, adult instruction, care of the sick and housebound – the dwindling pool of volunteers will face increasing pressure to deliver these services at the expense of other tasks which are intrinsically important but more likely to be viewed as “optional” – adult religious education, evangelistic activities, dialogue with members of other faiths, and work with poor and needy members of the community.
In some places, team ministry has been tried. Anecdotal evidence suggests this only works effectively when a group of priests voluntarily comes together and embraces a deep level of co-operation; most diocesan priests work in a highly individualistic way. The promise of obedience is lived out mainly when the bishop gives a priest a new assignment, not in day-to-day matters; and without spare manpower, a bishop has few strategies with which to sanction an uncooperative priest. Few parishes have the benefit of a curate, so in most parishes one priest is responsible for everything. Cover priests are not easy to find, so priests may have difficulty taking their allowed holidays of one month per year, and without resident help, many priests may also struggle to preserve a meaningful day off.
Permanent deacons can assist with the load of baptisms, weddings and funerals, but problems can occur when a new parish priest moves into a parish with a deacon and for some reason fails to establish a good working relationship with that deacon. This may be due to personality clashes, or a lack of openness on the priest’s part to the ministry of deacons.
When one priest alone is responsible for a parish, carrying all the sick calls and funerals, this inevitably limits that priest’s capacity to be strategic and to offer more to the parish than the basics. Priests may also have diocesan responsibilities which further eat into their time. The famous Revd James Mallon, whose parish in Halifax, Canada, is a beacon of good parish ministry, is on record as saying he was only able to be strategic because he had an associate pastor carrying the load of funerals and sick visiting.
Bishops face structural problems of how to manage their dioceses with dwindling resources. One approach is to spread the priests as thinly as possible, with every priest carrying a full load of Sunday Masses, usually in several different locations, sometimes responsible for two or three canonical parishes. This strains still further the ability of the priest to be strategic. The other approach is to impose radical closures of buildings and parishes; this relieves the pressure on priests but demoralises the people.
Buildings themselves also cause difficulties. The Church exists, in theory, to spread the Gospel and enable people to become effective disciples of Christ. In practice, many Catholics have a strong sense of “belonging” to an institution and will work hard to preserve cherished buildings and Mass arrangements. When mergers take place, what happens when a parish in debt is merged with one with a huge surplus? Should the assets of St Peter’s be used to pay the parish debt of St Paul’s, or does that offend a sense of natural justice? We are also not good at making hard decisions about buildings in the face of declining parish revenue, meaning a higher and higher proportion of income ends up being used to sustain property.
Is there a kind of solution we haven’t tried yet? Perhaps there is…
Imagine that a diocese were totally restructured in the following way. I will refer to the new structures as Mparishes and Mdeaneries. The M stands for “mission”, and allows us to distinguish the Mparishes of the new structure from the pre-existing parishes which would make way for them.
Any workable strategy must be based on the following principles:
1. We cannot sustain every existing Sunday Mass, which is a distinct congregation meeting at a particular place and time. Fewer priests means this is physically impossible.
2. We probably can plan for every existing church and Mass centre to retain one Sunday Mass. In a given diocese this will depend on the projected number of priests, and the current number of venues, but in many local circumstances will be doable.
3. Each venue shall have ONLY one Sunday Mass, unless the bishop recognises a genuine need for more than one. But each venue must explore all possible ways of fitting everyone into a single Sunday celebration, e.g. by using a video relay into its hall or hiring a larger building on Sundays. Gathering everyone together at ONE Mass is not only a way of using a priest’s time more efficiently, but also of unifying the local Catholic population and making the most efficient use of volunteers.
4. Each venue shall have a designated parish priest. Team ministry experiments show that other arrangements are generally unpopular and ineffective.
5. In order to ensure that missionary priorities are not lost under the burden of parish management, a significant number of diocesan priests will be appointed Deans and will not be assigned to parishes, but to the missionary development of their deaneries.
What would happen in practice when we apply these principles?
Three or four existing parishes will be gathered into one Mparish, sharing a parish priest. While there may be a short term need to allow the distinct parishes to retain their canonical identities, and independent bank accounts, the aim will be that the Mparish becomes the canonical parish in due course. There is a working presumption that activities (e.g. first communion course, social events) are to be held jointly between parishes insofar as the geography allows this. Priests should not duplicate administrative structures more than necessary. However, each worshipping assembly may need its own liturgy planning group.
Five or six Mparishes are constituted as an Mdeanery. A senior priest is appointed as dean, and key to this strategy is that the dean is NOT a parish priest of any of the parishes, but has faculties to act in all of them.
The Dean’s inalienable responsibilities are:
- Welfare of the clergy – sharing a meal with each cleric in the deanery individually at least once a month
- Liaison with the bishop – meeting the bishop corporately or individually once or twice each month
- Co-ordination of weekday Mass times, at least in urban areas, to ensure the widest choice during the whole day
- Co-ordinating clergy holidays and himself covering Sunday Masses when one of the other priests is away
- Covering for each other priest on one weekday in turn, so each priest can have a day off free of all public duties
- Possibly Baptism Preparation, and baptism for families not actively worshipping in any church
The Dean is also responsible for the following, unless it seems appropriate to delegate them to another priest in the deanery:
- Chaplain to Secondary Schools and other institutions spanning several parishes in the deanery
- Adult Religious Education and evangelistic outreach (Alpha or similar events)
- Retreats for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
- The Confirmation programme across the whole deanery
- Arrangements for Christmas Vigil Masses and Easter Morning Masses using the biggest possible venues, even borrowed ones
By giving these duties to the Dean, the parish priests experience the same kind of relief that might come of having a curate; and it ensures that important ministries which cannot be the highest priority in individual parishes are nevertheless prioritised.
When the restructure takes place, each permanent deacon can choose to be associated with a particular Mparish priest or to be at the direct service of the Dean, allowing a workaround for personality clashes.
The Dean can choose to be “in residence” with one of the parish priests or live independently in another presbytery; this will depend on the dean’s personal relationship with the available priests.
There will be a deanery bank account, funded by fees paid by each parish for the Dean’s supply work.
New Mass times must be chosen in such a way that in case of necessity, the Mdeanery can cover all its services with two priests absent (since for half the year at least the Dean will be covering for one priest’s planned absence). This means that in a group of a Dean plus five priests there can be at most 12 Masses on Sunday itself, and 8 on Saturday evening, in such a way that the priests can do 2 each on Saturday evening and 3 each on the Sunday. Each of the five Mparishes has either one Saturday evening Mass and three on Sunday, or two Saturday evening Masses with only two on Sunday. When all priests are at work, the Dean can assist with a couple of Sunday Masses for each parish in turn, prioritising situations where a parish priest would otherwise have to develop two different sermons for a given weekend (e.g. where one Mass includes some sacrament of initiation).
The second key to this strategy is that each church building has its own internal account with the diocesan finance office. Already, in English law, a parish is “owned” by the trustees of the diocese, though canon law protects the right of each parish to manage its own assets. When a parish merger takes place, buildings from a parish in debt accrue an internal debt to the diocese; parishes with a healthy bank account have part of that balance lodged against each building. All major expenses relating to that building (insurance, major repairs, safety inspections, interest on building loans etc.) are paid directly by the diocese from that account. In return, each Mparish pays a “rent” to the diocese each year to use each of its buildings. This creates an “internal market” which can force parishes to look at whether using its existing buildings is the most affordable method; each building will have designated “amber flag” and “red flag” percentages of parish income. When the proportion reaches “amber” the parish has two years to find a cheaper way of celebrating Mass. When it reaches red, the diocese denies permission to use the building, forcing use of a cheaper, if less fitting, venue. This stick is coupled with the carrot of promoting a missionary ethos which sees the purpose of the church to make disciples, not maintain buildings.
Choosing to adopt this new structure of Mparishes and Mdeaneries offers a third option falling between the radical closure of parishes and the usual tensions of parish mergers. It seeks to avoid the cessation of worship in any given locations, though may require use of a non-traditional space for worship (overflow or hired large hall) in that location. It will force most of the diocesan priests to spread themselves even thinner than if some of their number did not become Mdeans but at the same time offers significant relief from the pressures of being priest across several parishes, with guaranteed cover for holidays, weekly days off, and support for local ministry. I offer this to the Church as a possible solution which, to my knowledge, has not been tried.
* A “Sunday Mass” in this context includes any Mass from 4 pm onward on a Saturday evening celebrated with the intent of letting worshippers fulfil their Sunday obligation.