BISHOP John Crowley has announced far-reaching proposals for the restructuring of Middlesbrough diocese.
The move comes as Shrewsbury diocese considers the lay response to controversial plans recommending the amalgamation of parishes and the sale of 36 church huildings, following strong protests from parishioners last autumn.
In a recent pastoral letter, Bishop Crowley told parishioners in Middlesbrough that some would have already noticed "significant changes in their parish structures" in many areas.
"That is likely to happen quite rapidly in other parts of the diocese also as the reality of our present diminishing number of priests shapes our pastoral arrangements," Bishop Crowley said, adding that every other diocese faced similar problems.
The diocese launched a three-fold pastoral strategy last Easter in consultation with the clergy, with a shorttprm response to close a number of presbyteries "hut tp keep the parishes open". Where maintaining a parish in this way became "an intolerable burden on our already
heavily committed priests" it was recommended that lay ministries be encouraged.
"Parishes and pastoral areas where this is already happening are finding new energy in
shared collaborative ministry," the Bishop added.
A diocesan spokesman told The Catholic Herald: "We haven't yet twinned too many parishes. but the strategy seems to be working. The problem is that it puts a lot more stress on individual priests.
"Once you come away from Teeside, York and Hull, you're dealing with villages in remote areas. Although it's still early days, the response from priests has been very positive.
"It's also a great challenge for the laity. People need to be educated and trained so that they understand the situation."
Fr Derek Turnham, who serves three Middlesbrough parishes said: "Of course there is disappointment among some parishioners with well-loved Mass times being removed, but there is now a greater imperative to involve people.
"1 don't know what will happen in the future. Bishop Crowley is not one to provide blueprints, but we are looking for evolution rather than revolution."
Fr Turnhani added that some parishes would eventually close, but that "they will close themselves".
He said: "If there are few attending, the financial support will drop and so the decision will have to he made as to whether it is worth repairing, say, the leaky roof or having the parishioners attend their 'twin' parish.
"For example, one parish is situated in a community of 600. Only 10 per cent are Catholic, and of that only six regularly attend Mass."
Fr Turnham did not believe that inviting in priests from abroad was a viable option. "It was suggested that we invite priests in from countries like Africa. But in actual fact, if you look at the number of priests per head of the population, we still have vastly more priests than in the developing countries where they say the vocations crisis is over.
"Our vocations director is also beavering away and it is clear that there is a new attitude with younger men coming forward.
As part of the long-term strategy, Bishop Crowley, in his pastoral letter, emphasised the need to pray for and encourage priestly vocations.
However, Fr Turnham believed that people had also to accept the reality of the situation. He said: "We have a block or priests now reaching retirement and we are going through a period of adjustment. The Church is vibrant and the laity is taking the lead."
The plan, like that of Shrewsbury diocese. is expected to be implemented over a 10-year period.