Well, it's been over a year since my last post, so I don't know who will read this, but it's something I want to get off my chest.
The shortage of priestly vocations is something which has now really begun to bite; the worst effect was delayed to some extent by the Church of England's decision to ordain women to their priesthood in 1992 and the consequent influx of refugee clergy. But now the chickens are coming home to roost and we are facing hard times.
The first bishop to close churches was Bishop Arthur Roche at Leeds, satirized unmercifully for it by Damian Thompson. Others have followed. In my own diocese there have been few closures, but many mergers of parishes: my last posting, in the Valle Adurni, was the fruit of one such merger. Mergers can work in a diocese such as this one, where population, including Catholic population, is concentrated in a relatively small area.
This won't work so well where substantial distances and small populations are concerned. So the Diocese of Wrexham (not Menevia, as I previously wrote) has embarked on a savage cull of churches, such as in Aberystwyth, where the shocked parishioners took their appeal to Rome, only to have it denied.
How could this happen?
Well, in the past, most parishes were in the trusteeship of a few senior parishioners. This meant that the parishioners 'owned' their parish property, which is just what Canon Law legislates, designating the parish as a 'juridical person'. During the 1970s, and perhaps before and after, the dioceses went through a process of persuading these parochial trustees to resign their trusteeships in favour of the diocesan bishop and a few other senior clergy. They were clearly not aware of the principle of subsidiarity. A similar process had been gone through in the Church of England, whereby all locally owned assets were acquired by the newly-established Church Commissioners, who proceeded to place all its new eggs in one basket—with the proverbial result a few years later.
In the Catholic Church of England and Wales too, the outcome is that now all diocesan property, including the church buildings, is an asset of what is in effect a large corporation; not national in our case, but diocesan. It means that what is perceived to be a failing church within a diocese can be sold in order to finance another project; anything from employing a new Health and Safety officer or Renewal Coach to (not a frequently chosen option, this) building a new church in some needy area.
When a church is closed, especially where there is resident and still relatively flourishing congregation, as would seem to be the case at Aberystwyth, anguish is the result, and no demonstrable benefit to those who have lost the place where they, their parents and their grandparents were baptised, first Communicated, wed and buried. And quite possibly their great-grandparents had made extraordinary sacrifices to build the place. It is hard to persuade them that a concrete bunker a few miles away would be a lovely place to go to Mass, and that a new secretary in the Safeguarding Office would be an important resource for the Diocese.
I think that Rome should not have supported the bishop. Canon Law is clear that the parish owns the property, even in civil law says that the diocesan trustees do so.
What should have happened is that the bishop simply would withdraw the priest, leaving the parish to make what it could of the buildings. The bishop should have said 'over to you; the diocese can't pay for this; if you want it, it's yours.' The parishioners could have maintained the place and arranged for Mass as and when they could find a willing priest. Somewhere like Aberystwyth, a pleasant seaside town, could well arrange for visiting priests who would say Mass in return for a week's free accommodation. I know enclosed convents who operate this system most effectively. Everybody wins.
As for pastoral care; well isn't this the age of the laity? The universal Church has plenty of experience of running parishes that only have Mass once or twice a year. I have a parishioner here from Guyana where she was the dedicated baptizer for her priestless parish. There are the offices of Lauds and Vespers. There are devotions: surely this is the time to recover some of this stuff and let the parish operate as it did in the past, and yes, we have been here in this country before.
In his autobiography, (variously titled), Archbishop Ullathorne described how in the early 19th Century, Catholic parishes in the north of England carried on without a priest; there would be litanies, rosaries, a sermon read from a book… but the community survived. Not by any means ideal, but once you close the church, you lose the people. Nearly all of them.
But on the plus side, if you close the church, you may have gained a secretary to type the letters to the people who are no longer there.
And, one last thought— I know very little about American law, but if each parish had owned its own property, could dioceses have been driven bankrupt by those punishing fines following on the disgraceful child abuse scandal?
I have been recently corrected on two points by Rev Dr Stephen Morgan, Financial Secretary of the Portsmouth Diocese (who, if anyone, is in a position to know). He observes that parish lay trusteeships were mainly confined to historic parishes, such as the ones I was familiar with when I made my assertion, assuming them to be the norm. Most trusteeships were transferred to dioceses in the 1930s. In the case of the Church of England, property conveyed to the Church Commissioners were glebelands and parsonages, not churches themselves.