Thursday 13 October 2016

Closing churches

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.


Tom said...

Yes, this will be an ever more biting problem for the Western Church. Any solution proferred is likely to be short term unless the underlying issue of infidelity is dealt with. The fact that generations of Catholics have rejected the Church's teaching on contraception and chosen smaller families (not without social and economic pressures to do so) have meant a decrease in the number of young Catholics and more to the point in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Add to that poor cathechesis and formation and one gets a Catholic people who are less Catholic by the decade. In the 19th Century at least the Catholic people, like most of their fellow Christians abhorred even the idea of contracepting (apart from the lack of reliable means to do so) but now it is taken as a good. There needs to be a reappropriation of this very much despised part of the Church's teaching if we are to recover. Perhaps only the direct intervention of the Lord will achieve that now. Thanks for returning to the blogosphere!

Pelerin said...

Welcome back Father! I was only wondering the other day whether you were going to return but presumed you no longer had the time in your new parish and I had no right to ask.

However your first post is gloomy is it not? It must be devastating for parishioners when they learn of the closure of their church because of the shortage of Priests.

What I find difficult to understand is why these closures seem to be occurring in rural areas leaving those without transport without a church whereas in towns like mine there are at least six churches all with resident Priests. Public transport locally is a bit sparse on a Sunday but it is not impossible and I could get to any of these by one or two buses if it were necessary. Of course everyone would want 'their' own church to be the one retained but if it were explained that by shrinking the number of active Priests in the town this would help keep open a church elsewhere then surely we would all understand?

When I read of some rural churches in France only having one Mass a year and then enter a church in Paris and see that there are seven Priests listed there despite the fact that another church is only a short walk away, it makes me wonder why they cannot be shared out more.

Some years ago I remember reading that there were proposals in the diocese to link churches together having two Priests to run three parishes here. My own territorial parish, together with the church where I attend Sunday Mass (being on a bus route) and one other were going to be linked under two Priests but I have seen no more about this.

motuproprio said...

At least in France the pre-Revolutionary churches are in the ownership of the local commune, even if they do only get Mass once or twice a year, and so are outside the clutches of diocesan bureaucrats.

Highland Cathedral said...

I think that the church referred to in Aberystwyth was the one I attended from 1965 to 1968 while an undergraduate at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, as it then was (now the University of Aberystwyth). At the time the total student population was only about 1,000. I understand that it is much higher now. Our chaplain was the late Fr John Fitzgerald, a Carmelite friar and priest of Irish parentage, brought up in England, who learned Welsh and became a prominent figure in Welsh literary circles. Sorry to hear that this church has been closed. If it is any consolation, this concrete monstrosity in Glasgow was recently closed and demolished.

Sadie Vacantist said...

The staff list at Oscott seminary is bewildering. Why not send these men to Valladolid? A rector and assistant plus a couple of retired priests as confessors. Sell off these old seminaries instead of shutting down parishes for the money. Spain together with the two in Rome should be enough.

Romulus said...

Father, I'm glad to hear from you, and hope you're well. God bless you.

Fr Jason said...

The Diocese of Menevia is not undergoing a cull as you suggest. You must be mistaken with the most northern Diocese of Wales that of Wrexham where 22 churches are due for closure. Whilst it is true that the present church building at Aberystwyth is closed and the highest authorities in Rome approved and supported the decision of the Bishop and Trustees of the Diocese, money is is now spending to refurbish a previously closed Church in the Aberystwyth parish- Penparcau The Welsh martyrs, and this will be re-opened in time for Christmas.

Pastor in Monte said...

Thanks for the correction, Fr Jason.

data said...

In the US, there are indeed now many dioceses set up as you suggest, where parish property tends to be owned by the parish, rather than the diocese. When the scandal settlements began to hit in the early 2000s, a number of dioceses (run by astute bishops) converted to this model to protect themselves. A great many of the dioceses that did not do this had enormous judgments levied against them by hostile courts, and several of them did in fact face bankruptcy as a result.

Pelerin said...

Sadly a closure was announced from the pulpit today and I think a merger although from where I was sitting I was not able to hear all the details. So far I have seen nothing on the blogosphere - not even the A & B blog - but as it was a message from our Bishop I presume this is true.