“It is time to think beyond the constraints of the parish.” This was the blunt message from Diocesan Director of Development Steven Webb (pictured with Bishop Alan) to Stewards of the Gospel at a recent meeting at Campion School to discuss the way forward for the Diocese. He said that while responses to the parish questionnaires showed a recognition of the need for change, the scale of the challenge was being hugely underestimated. “The typical responses to the question ‘How does your community feel about being part of a new parish?’ were not positive,” he said. “People want ‘access’ to a priest but the stark truth is that in 20 years’ time, we will have half the number of priests.”
He showed a graphic representation of the change in numbers which clearly demonstrated his point. “Restructuring is going to impact on every parish – that is the scale of the challenge we face. It is time for a new human response, time for a change of heart so that we stop looking inwards into the parish.”
Alongside the necessary restructuring, however, is the inspiring element of renewal. “The two are separate but interconnected and interdependent. We must never lose sight of the fact that we want to be the best Church across Essex and East London that we can be.”
Renewal is the way to ensure that promise. “It is part of our new human response to God’s love for us. It is about evangelising and stewardship, doing things differently and doing them together. And, based on parish responses, we must focus on young people, adult formation, lay training and succession planning for tasks in the parish.”
He said the Church has a three-fold responsibility: to proclaim the word of God; to celebrate the sacraments; and to exercise the ministry of charity.
The last is particularly important for the work of the Stewards, he added. “Going forward, we need the generosity of spirit that Bishop Alan has talked about. We must love and care for one another, priests and people. Our expectation of our neighbours needs to be realistic and generous.”
In Exodus, he said, Jethro tells Moses that he is taking on too much and how to delegate. And in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, there is advice on changing ways of doing things. Both are applicable today. “We are facing changes in circumstances too. New ways of doing things are needed. It is not just about priest numbers – the ways things are being done in society as a whole are changing.”
In practice, he said, life for all of us needs to change. “Priests cannot go on with more and more responsibilities – they will tire themselves, like Moses. We must ensure that doesn’t happen. We need to ‘select people of good reputation’, as the Apostles advised, and develop and train them to help with those tasks.” We need to cherish priests and recognise each other’s contributions to Christian life, he added.
“The key is keeping Christ at the centre of everything we do,” he concluded.
Parishes will receive information on renewal and restructuring proposals for consultation later in the year.