How many Catholics do you need for a parish? There is no fixed figure, of course: in a depopulated area, it might be very few; in a built-up area, it would be many more. In the Diocese of Leeds, in England - -an area which includes swathes of rural Yorkshire as well as some big towns -- the bishop has said that a congregation of 200 is "not viable": thus, 12 churches in the diocese are being closed this year, amidst painful scenes of 80-year-old ladies chaining themselves to the railings. The Telegraph has the story.
As an exercise in church communications, this is a textbook case of what not to do. Give what sounds like a cold, corporate reason for closing parishes; then, when people protest, be unavailable and remote.
A delegation of protesting Leeds congregants recently went to Bishop’s House, only to be told (by the press officer) that the bishop was away. Their pleas have fallen on deaf ears: the diocese simply repeats that congregation and priest numbers are too low to keep all the churches open. But this sounds to parishioners as if Bishop Arthur Roche is putting "cash before Christianity", as one of their placards reads: if he cared enough, surely he would find the money? And aren’t priests always available -- why, there are priests from Poland and Africa who have already offered!
The idea that a congregation of 200 is too small to be viable would astonish Anglican vicars, most of whom would regard that many in their pews each week as a sign of revival. But the Anglican model is different. And this is the point that should be made -- but isn’t being made -- by Leeds diocese.
It’s not that 200 congregants isn’t enough, or that there are too few priests. The real issue is how you ensure that a Sunday gathering is a genuine experience of communion -- of the People of God gathered together, from near and far, in all its diversity. The massive programme of church-building in Britain in the 1940s-50s -- at a time when Irish immigrant families turned up to Mass as a cultural duty - has led us to forget this idea. We are used to three or four Masses on a Sunday at churches that are nearby. In other words, we have come to expect what has been nicknamed the "convenience Mass" -- one that can be fitted into our schedule.
But that is not what Mass should be. And it’s not what an ekklesia should be.
The decline in the ratio of priests to people -- together with the slow death of the 1940s Irish ghetto which some conservative Catholics look back at with misplaced nostalgia -- are opportunities to remind people of what is the norm. Having to travel some distance to attend Mass in a crowded church is much more in keeping with the Catholic notion of Church than the streetcorner convenience Mass which some Catholics think is their right.
It is sad when churches close. The building carries memories. Symbolically, it can look as if the guts are being ripped out of a community. It can seem a depressing failure -- the symptom of "decline".
But people can get far too attached to the buildings, confusing ends and means in the process. A church is not a building; nor is Mass a service, like the local post office. A church is the gathered people of God -- the ekklesia -- whose home is a means to an end. A parish is simply a territorial subdivision of the diocese; the people would all gather in the cathedral, if there were room. Just as parishes are created to subdivide an expanding mass of believers, so they must close when the numbers fall. The boundaries of parishes, in other words, are endlessly mutable: what matters is the boundary of the Catholic Church in that place -- which is what a diocese is.
I am amazed that Bishop Roche and his staff are not making these arguments. They should not be saying, "sorry, there aren’t enough of you and there aren’t enough priests to keep your parish going" but rather: "We do not want our Catholic community split into small, self-enclosed units ever more distant from each other. We are one Church, and as many of us should meet together on a Sunday as we can. That is the Catholic understanding of Church. That is why we are redrawing the parish boundaries -- to enable the People of God in this area to come together as one".
It might be derided as spin, but it would be a whole lot more positive than what sounds at the moment like a heartless corporation closing down local branches that have failed to turn in a profit. And it would have the inestimable advantage of being ecclesiologically and theologically sound.