BY MURRAY WHITE
PLANS FOR A NEW DIOCESE for the Thames Valley were revealed this week.
The creation of the diocese, which would serve an estimated 90,000 Catholics in the counties of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, would mark the biggest shake-up of a regional Catholic population within England and Wales for more than a decade.
Two existing dioceses, Birmingham and Portsmouth, would give up oversight for the two counties under the plans. Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, in a letter to his clergy this week, said that is was "right that we should give serious consideration to this proposition".
Thames Valley only a working title at present would be the first new diocese to be created in England and Wales since Wrexham in north Wales was formed eight years ago. Debate over the plans is likely to centre on where a cathedral for the new diocese would be founded.
Key locations being considered are thought to be Reading or Oxford, although many clergy in the region feel there is no existing church large enough to make a suitable cathedral.
Bishop Hollis told the Catholic Herald that he would prefer if the eventual bishop of the new diocese were to make a decision about where to place a cathedral.
The eventual name of the diocese, he said, "may be taken from Abingdon, and St Edmund" for a link with a local spiritual tradition.
Mgr James Joyce, Dean in Reading which is the largest town in the region, said that the establishment of a temporary pro-cathedral would avoid rushing into a hasty longer-term decision. "We have one fine. and large church in Douai Abbey, which would be suitable," he suggested.
Mgr Joyce thought a new diocese would provide a focus in an area "which has been one of the fastest growing in the country in the past 20 years. There is a high proportion of young and educated people; it is like our Silicon Valley."
At the moment the river Thames, which passes through the heart of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, forms the border between the Birmingham and Portsmouth dioceses, whose Cathedrals are separated by almost 150 miles. This geographical gulf has left the frustrated prelates of the two dioceses, Bishop Hollis and Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville of Birmingham, unable to provide adequate pastoral support to the Thames Valley area.
Bishop Hollis explained that he was "acutely aware that, because of distance, I am not present to our people and parishes in Berkshire as I am in Hampshire, or even the Islands."
It is the third time that the move has been considered. The last, more complex plan in 1984 floundered over negotiations over the eastern edge of Berkshire, which belongs to Northampton diocese. The new plan will not involve this area. Bishop Hollis has asked one of his priests, Mgr Raymond Lawrence, to draw up detailed plans for the new diocese, which would then be sent out for consultation in the autumn. Recommendations are expected to be put to the Bishops' Conference in the Spring of next year.
Mgr Lawrence said that he would need to ensure that there was adequate availability of churches and priests. He said: "The new diocese would have to combine the traditions of both Birmingharn and Portsmouth. In one sense these are different, but we are all the same Church."
The plans would leave a smaller Birmingham Archdiocese made up of the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. A smaller Portsmouth diocese would consist of Hampshire, eastern Dorset, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. IN THE SWIM OF THINGS: Former Pendlebury student Helen Fair-. dough watched two Bradford priests plunge into a university swimming pool this week to raise sponsorship for her work in a Romanian orphanage during the summer vacation.
Fr Ian Smith, the Catholic chaplain to the University of Bradford (left) and the Rev Mike Harrison, Anglican chaplain, swam 50 lengths of the pool to raise £700 for Helen, a 21-year-old student who hopes to work in Brasov with the Poplars Church charity for eight weeks. As she has to pay her own travelling and living expenses while she is there, Helen has turned fund-raiser with a little help from her friends. Photo:John HoulihonlGuzelian