Bishop Mervyn Alexander of Clifton examines changing structures in the parishes
I LOVE to see the banners that are carried in the processions at Lourdes. It is not just the splash of colour that they create, but the history and geography that they signify. They are a graphic reminder of the Universal Church deployed in lime and space.
For the most part 'hey are diocesan banners. The Diocese of Rome may be followed by Santa Rosa, California, or Elphin. Here and there a parish banner raises its head rather shyly: Parrocchia Salesiana, Verona or Our Lady of Lourdes, Milton. Occasionally now one sees a banner representing a deanery.
Some years ago I attended a course for Church Leaders. During this course politicians, businessmen, academics and industrialists gave us their advice. A businessman said: "I must say, you have a very good Company Chairman in Pope John Paul!" The industrialist said: You must concentrate on your middle management in order to be effective, that would mean, on your deans." One may reasonably ask whether we want effectiveness in his sense, but it is a point to consider.
Deans and deaneries have grown in importance in recent years. Twenty' years ago, in this diocese at least, it made little or no difference to the people to be in a deanery. To the clergy it only meant that there was a deanery clergy conference six limes a year. The dean presided at this conference and That was seen as the extent of his responsibility.
What has changed? The parish used to be able to meet the needs of its members. Why add another structure? In fact, the parishes themselves have changed, particularly the city centre parishes. One parish priest described his parish as having had the heart torn out of it by demolition and by the movement of people to housing estates on the outskirts. Already in some parts of the country it has been necessary to close parishes or amalgamate them.
Then the shortage of clergy has to be taken into account. Many parishes now have to manage with fewer priests than were thought necessary in the past. Parishes that used to have two assistant priests now have one or none.
This in turn leads to fewer Masses in the parish and so parishioners may go elsewhere. In any case, people do not always feel the same loyally' to their parish and they may go to other parishes for Mass for various reasons.
All these circumstances call for greater co-operation between the parishes. Some people believe that the whole parish system is out of date, a survival from a settled, stable society that no longer exists. Why have these territorial divisions within the Church? Why not follow a free, congregational method? Does it make sense to have one parish struggling under a huge debt while the neighbouring parishes offer no assistance?
Personally I believe that the parish system should stay. The boundaries indicate that the parish has a responsibility for everyone within that area. A parish can be a strong living community, although it needs smaller groups within it to provide the actual experience of close relationships and sharing in faith and prayer. The basic communities of South America have something to teach us here but one would hope that the parish could be a "communion of these communitites." The parish offers the experience of worshipping with a crosssection of the People of God.
It seems to me that the deanery, a grouping of parishes, can meet some of the problems mentioned above. It could provide for the greater cooperation between parishes that will be even more important in the future. It could pave the way to a sharing of personnel and resources, avoiding some of the duplication and making organisations more effective.
So much for the possibilities. What about the reality? Naturally there are problems! For one thing a rural deanery is going to be large and scattered, with difficulties in communication or in building up a sense of belonging. What is the best size for a deanery? In this diocese we have tried seven deaneries, ten deaneries, seventeen deaneries and are now down to thirteen, spread over five counties. The number of parishes in a deanery varies from five to twelve.
Every deanery' has a Lenten Station Mass each year, and some deaneries have other combined services, such as Corpus Christi Processions. Most deaneries have a deanery pastoral council and some are very active in organising activities through their various committees. There have been "Know Your Faith" talks, Marriage Preparation courses and shared work with young people. One deanery took on the responsibility of providing meals over Christmas for all those who normally depend on the "Meals on Wheels" service.
Some deaneries have social gatherings of one kind or another. Deaneries may combine in having a mission in all the constituent parishes so that the whole area is involved. Some deaneries make a special point of supporting the Third World or various local causes. Education is a special item of interest and concern. The deanery can arrange a supply for a priest during his holidays or in any emergency. This is taking place in many parts of the country.
ll may not be spectacular but it has made progress and it does. give hope of improved cooperation between parishes, better use of resources and wider scope for all available talent. The Gospel expects us to make the best use of our talents so that the Kingdom may grow.