Pastoral letters from bishops announcing church closures usually try to hit an upbeat note. Two current shake-ups, in Wrexham and Salford, exemplify this. Bishop Peter Brignall of Wrexham described his reorganisation plan, “Into the Future”, as a “huge opportunity for renewal”, while Bishop John Arnold of Salford entitled his letter announcing closures “Strengthening Our Presence As Church: A Journey in Hope” and described the plans as “pruning for growth”.
Of course such optimistic language is intended to reassure people, but well-meant euphemisms can also provoke cynicism. It’s difficult not to question whether the closure of dozens of churches can ever really strengthen the Church. Of course, there are times when the closure of a church is inevitable and necessary and its sale might benefit a cash-strapped diocese.
Bishop Arnold’s proposal, which would result in the closure of more than 20 churches and the merger of around 100 parishes in Greater Manchester, received a positive response from the Catholic Universe, a weekly national newspaper based in the Diocese of Salford. The paper said that the bishop’s plan “followed a very successful consultation” with more than 2,000 responses and that the “overwhelming majority of these responses were positive”.
Following the announcement, Bishop John Arnold said that restructuring the diocese and using its priests and parishes more efficiently would free up more time for evangelisation. He told the Catholic Herald: “Closing churches is never the first option that a bishop would look at, but there are occasions when it is necessary and it can be a positive step. Parishioners develop a tremendous loyalty to their parish, which is great. But if the numbers attending a particular church dwindle then that can put a great burden on the few remaining.
“Asking them to attend a more vibrant church nearby can relieve them of that burden and give them a more uplifting experience of Church… Sometimes it is only by cutting things back that they can grow stronger. Now is the time to make changes that will sustain and grow the parishes that will take us forward on our journey.”
But some priests and lay people in the diocese take a different view. One parish priest who asked not to be named said that the approach to restructuring had been “top down” and that most priests felt “pretty hurt” by the argument that closure would lead to renewal when “we’ve been evangelising all our lives”.
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