August 2003

Suddenly everyone’s a priest

Kieran Conry

Kieran Conry was consecrated bishop for the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton in 2001. Here he describes the challenges that face him in the diocese with a decreasing number of priests. He notes that the people are willing to respond to these challenges and say, ‘Give us the tools and we’ll do the job.’

At a public meeting in a parish in East Sussex in October 2001, the people were asked to form small groups and come up with three points that would help the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton address the question of a shortage of priests in the future. The question did not come out of the blue nor was it simply a hypothesis to fill time and occupy the people that had turned up that evening.

The gloomy predictions
A report prepared by Canon Jim McConnon in 1994 had suggested, rather alarmingly, that by the year 2020 there would be only 27 priests under the age of 75 in the diocese. His prediction for 2000 was that there would be 124 active priests in the diocese: the actual figure was 119. This suggested that his sums had been done carefully and even optimistically. If this were the case, then it painted a very gloomy picture. But some of his figures turned out to be pessimistic.

He had predicted ten ordinations to the priesthood for the period 1995-2000, but the actual figure was 20 (a significant number of them former Anglican priests, something unforeseen by Jim McConnon) and ordinations since that time have exceeded his estimations. More recent estimates have put the 2020 figure nearer 60 than 27, but nonetheless it is still half of the present priestly workforce in the diocese. Jim did admit that he was painting something of a worst-case scenario.

Canon Jim McConnon’s report was very important but perhaps not sufficiently examined at the time. The Renew programme had been implemented some years earlier and had generated much enthusiasm in parishes. It may not have been the moment to cast any pall of gloom over the proceedings. The report (Planning for the Future) had been published, but not widely circulated.

A letter was sent to all parishes in October 2001, making it clear that the idea of a parish without a resident priest was no longer just a threat, but an imminent reality. Things were spelled out more clearly in another letter the following February. Jim McConnon’s predictions for 2020 were published and a number of principles suggested as a basis for looking towards the future.

The first solutions
The parish meeting in October looked at the situation and came up very quickly with a set of proposals to meet the perceived crisis. The meeting had split into fourteen smaller groups and all but one group came up with the same three suggestions (but not always in the same order). The suggestions were simple. They were that we should ordain women as priests, ordain married men, and give more responsibility to the laity.

Given that time was short, it was perhaps inevitable that the solutions proposed were rather simple and radical. It was pointed out that time spent on the first two proposals would not be time well spent, and that the Pope’s ban on the ordination of women had also forbidden discussion on the matter. What was interesting was that the two suggestions (ordaining whole new sets of people on the one hand and empowering the laity on the other) were almost contradictory: the one was looking for almost any way to support a clerical model of Church, whereas the other was looking for a lay-led model. It must be said again, however, that there was little time to reflect on the future in one evening meeting, and that solutions were bound to be of the ‘quick-fix’ variety.

Sitting down to talk
Over the past year, parishes, deanery groups and individuals have reflected on the challenges facing them and have worked towards a vision that offers some reassurance. Many individuals have remained quite rooted in the clerical model, and have suggested what might appear desperate measures. These usually contain the suggestion of importing priests from abroad (based on the myth that in places where the seminaries are reportedly bursting at the seams, there is a surplus of priests). It is worth noting that the Holy See itself does not favour this sort of suggestion, but urges that priests should be trained in the context in which they will work.

So, have we got anywhere in a year?
A first notion that had to be grasped was that this will mean change, and change for everybody. It was no good thinking that there would be ‘safe’ parishes where things would remain the same – the big parishes that would always have at least two priests. The October letter referred to a process of bereavement, and there was some degree of anger initially. There was also a degree of denial, often coupled with suggestions about vocations, that the whole crisis could be averted if we simply prayed harder for vocations. We could push the problem back onto God and relieve ourselves of this unwelcome burden.

The anger was often rooted in anxiety and fear, and tapped into many other anxieties. One group wrote an open letter ascribing all the Church’s ills to the Second Vatican Council (including, inexplicably, the horror of clerical child-abuse). It was recognised quite early on that there would be a great deal of anxiety, and that something quite clear had to be said. The ad hoc ‘clustering’ of parishes was rejected; this would not offer much reassurance if it was not clear when the process might end and where your local priest would be.

And this, of course, was the first question: ‘Will we still have Mass?’ By that was meant the usual Sunday Mass to which we are accustomed.

A process begun: buildings and times
The process the diocese embarked on had two separate but related strands. The first was a very practical question to do with buildings, priests and people. If we have six priests in this area at present, and they are ministering in five or seven churches, what would it be best to do if, in ten years’ time, there are only three priests in the area?

This process was begun by the local clergy first. Although this might not seem particularly ‘collaborative’ it was just a reflection on their more comprehensive knowledge of the area. Many people would not know much of the detail outside their own parishes. This review looked at the location of churches and things like access by public transport, the seating capacity, even the size of the car park, and numbers in the present Sunday congregation. The clergy were asked to ignore existing deanery boundaries, since these might have to be redrawn. In some cases local housing, road and other developments had made the original deanery boundaries less practical. Some unusual deanery boundaries were explained historically as the result of disagreements between priests 30 years ago. Parts of this process have gone more smoothly in some places than others. The places that posed the biggest headaches were either the sprawling conurbations or the thinly-populated rural areas. In the former, it is often difficult to know where to draw dividing lines – does the parish of St James bond more naturally with St Jude to the east or St John to the west? In the middle of West Sussex, can we assume that all people have access to cars and would be able to drive some miles to Mass, or do we have enough priests to leave all these parishes with a resident priest?

This process very soon involved lay people, when the initial proposals could be made by clergy, regarding the crucial question of where and when Mass would be said. It is encouraging, in one way, that the first fear that surfaced was the thought of losing access to Sunday Mass. On the other hand it could easily appear that people’s only concern was access to Sunday Mass, as if this were the only function of a parish and its priest. One of the points stressed early on in the February 2002 letter was that the impact of the shortage of priests would be felt most acutely by the priests themselves. They will be faced not just with the immediate suggestion that they should say more Masses on a Sunday, but will also have the pastoral care of a much larger area and congregation. It was not always easy to convince people that saying three Masses on a Sunday was not good for a priest, week after week. Some saw Mass simply as taking up an hour or so of a priest’s time, and one letter even suggested that a priest might forgo Mass on a Thursday morning so that he could say an extra Mass on a Sunday.

A year on
A year later, progress on this front has been made. Some groups of parishes (the word ‘cluster’ has generally been avoided) have rationalised their Mass times on the basis of a reduced number of priests in the future. What was said at the beginning was that if schemes are put in place now, they might seem extravagant at first, because they might be working with what will appear to be an excess of priests. This was felt to be better than schemes that would have to change almost from year to year as the number of priests gradually dropped. Again the change from year to year could easily set up the same fears as the ad hoc clustering – where will it all end?

The response generally has been generous. Most people do understand that their priests are under pressure and that things will be different from now on. The parish priest in one of the largest churches in the diocese prepared for a verbal battering when the changes that were announced included the disappearance of the Sunday Mass regarded as the most ‘traditional’. Only two people remarked on it at all that Sunday.

The process continued: Preparing Together Alongside the practical process of counting seats and people, there was developing a programme that would look at how it might be for a parish community that found itself without a resident priest. The obvious thing to do was to see if anyone else had done work on this already, and the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh very kindly offered material they had worked on.

The material was examined by the pastoral resource centre in Crawley (DABCEC is the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton Christian Education Centre). At this early stage it would have been less accurate to say the pastoral team at Crawley, since one of the fruits of the process has been the creation of a more coherent pastoral team under a pastoral co-ordinator. This team worked on a programme to be presented to parishes for reflection in the autumn of 2002. It consisted of three papers for reflection in groups. The programme (Preparing Together) asked people three fundamental questions:

l What does my faith mean to me?
l What are the pastoral priorities of my parish?
l What do we need to prepare for the future?

The programme was carefully prepared, with material sent to parish priests and deans to ensure that the groups that finally met were properly briefed, well led and that their work was passed back to Crawley. Most parishes recorded a high turnout and good levels of participation – 96 per cent of parishes took part in the discussions and 94 per cent sent back their reports.

Voices from the parish
The responses from the parishes were collated and published early in 2003. Three things stood out:

l the appreciation of and gratitude for the work of parish clergy (including deacons);
l the importance of Sunday Mass as central to the life of the community;
l the desire for opportunities to pray, reflect and learn more about the faith.

As one would hope, this consultation produced no great surprises but confirmed what had been suspected, that there is a great need for more adult education. It also confirmed what had been expressed in different ways at other parish meetings, that liturgy was at the core of the parish experience (although it is important to distinguish between a desire for access to Sunday Mass and an awareness of the significance of good liturgy).

One suggestion that continued to appear early on in the process after October 2001 concerned the use of Services of the Word with Eucharist. It seemed almost instinctive to people to suggest that if there was not going to be Mass on a regular basis in one particular place, then it would seem logical to substitute a eucharistic service. The letter of February 2002 suggested that this was not necessarily a good idea.

What next?
The next stage of the process was again twofold. Parishes had retained some of the material from the original consultation, since it was recognised that the needs and potential of each parish were distinct. The last of the three sessions had asked people what skills they could bring to their local community’s evangelising mission, what developments were possible within that community and what training was needed to enable that to happen. The second part of this stage was a commitment on the part of the diocesan pastoral team to offer training and formation in the areas that had been identified. The first was liturgical formation. A year-long programme of liturgical formation will begin in parishes and deaneries in Advent 2003.

Has anything really changed?
It would be quite easy to assume that this had been just another consultation that would eventually fade and be forgotten. What is different in this case is that it was not the result of one person’s enthusiasm or imagination. In some ways it was forced on people by inevitable changes. The fact that there will be half the number of priests in fifteen years’ time is not something that can be wished away or ignored, and if we do not prepare for it now then there will be a real crisis.

It is unfortunate that, rather than having embraced it before now as a gift, we are being forced into a more collaborative style of ministry, that the priesthood of the people is being thrust on us by circumstances.

The future
It would be rash to try to predict what any parish community will look like in 2020, but the least we can hope for is that there will be parish communities, and that they will be true Christian communities, responding to the Lord’s call to ‘go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News’. The first instinct of many people was simply to look to the survival of the parish community, but this is not enough.

There are many problems to be ironed out as these communities take on a new shape, and some of them are quite mundane, though nonetheless important. Who is responsible for the finances, for instance? It seems fairly obvious that a community will only raise money if it has the largest say in how that money is spent.

One aspect that cannot be ignored is the status of any community in Canon Law. The Preparing Together programme helped people to see how much is already being done in each parish, and it is a surprising amount. It also helped people to see more clearly in many cases that this does not depend on the priest. It identified what needed to be put in place to ensure that these activities not only continue but develop. For that to happen, training is needed, in management skills, planning, delegation, finance and, perhaps most basic of all, in collaborative ministry. And this is a skill that all need to learn or improve, priests and people (and bishops).

The problem of a shortage of priests is real enough. In comparative terms England and Wales do not have a shortage: the ratio of priests to people is fairly high – just over 5,000 priests (including religious) to just under one million at Mass on Sunday. What creates the apparent problem is that we have too many small churches and therefore too many Masses. And to preserve the existing provision of Sunday Mass would place an intolerable burden on a dwindling number of priests. The picture in Arundel and Brighton will probably replicate itself in many other dioceses and some plans will have to be made to operate with perhaps half the existing number of priests.

There is time to do it, and there is plenty of energy, enthusiasm and resources to do it. People want to relieve the priest of many of the burdens he carries unnecessarily, and allow him to be a true minister and pastor, praying and celebrating the sacraments properly. This will demand first of all that the priest allow people to take burdens from him. It will demand that burdens are taken only by people who are able to carry them, and therefore they must be equipped to carry them and be given support.

Every effort must be made to develop ways in which this mutual support and true collaboration can be rendered more effective, especially in the many problems arising today from the fall in the number of priests.

This was not said recently. It comes from The Easter People, the message from the National Pastoral Congress in 1980. The challenge is not new, and the Bishops’ Conference document The Sign We Give addressed it again in 1995.

Now it seems that there is no choice in the matter, and the people are saying, ‘Give us the tools and we’ll do the job.’

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