The Church of Ireland General Synod has backed a call for continuing talks between the United Dioceses of Tuam, Killala and Achonry and the United Dioceses of Limerick and Killaloe to decide their future structure. Details of their conversations to date were outlined to the Synod in Limerick this morning.
A joint working group, set up after last year’s General Synod, has met three times. It’s looking at three areas of cooperation: joint events, finance and structures.
In the area of structures, the group has considered five options as ways forward for the dioceses. These are: (a) no change; (b) remain as two separate dioceses but with the Bishop of Tuam, Killala and Achonry also serving as an incumbent; (c) amalgamation of the two dioceses under a diocesan bishop with the help of a suffragan bishop, who would serve as an incumbent in Tuam, Killala and Achonry; (d) amalgamation of the two dioceses under one bishop and transferring parts of either dioceses to a neighbouring diocese; and (e) amalgamation of the two dioceses under one bishop.
The working group has indicated a clear preference for either option C or option B.
The motion before this year’s General Synod called on members to encourage the dioceses to continue their talks and bring proposals to next year’s Synod. It also proposed that synod would be prepared to consider Option B or Option C.
Proposing the motion, the Bishop of Tuam, Rt Rev Patrick Rooke, said the conversations had been “very encouraging”. They had learnt about what they had in common and the benefits of collaboration.
“In part ii [of Motion 8] we are looking for your guidance on one possible solution to the ‘Tuam issue’ that has exercised the mind of the Church for some time now and came to a head during the last episcopal vacancy. The small numbers in Tuam, in my view, raise not one but three issues. First, for the wider Church which is largely responsible for funding a separate diocese and the structures required; secondly for the diocese itself which, with limited personnel, demands multi–tasking and extensive distances to travel; and thirdly, for the Bishop, who though privileged to know his flock in a very personal way, can feel frustrated by the limitations the small numbers impose,” Bishop Rooke said.
He stated that Option B had proved popular but had only addressed the role of the Bishop and would represent small savings to the wider Church. It also did not formalise a link with Limerick which, he suggested, may soon be in “similar numerical difficulties”. Option C scored highest among the diocesan representatives but Bishop Rooke acknowledged that there was opposition to suffragan bishops in the Church of Ireland.
Seconding the motion, the Bishop of Limerick said that both dioceses were open to change but that they did not believe that effective ministry could continue in the vast area of the West and South West of Ireland without an episcopal presence in both existing dioceses.
Discussing the virtues of Options B and C, Bishop Kenneth Kearon said that C had greater flexibility and was more open to evolution and change. “The question behind this motion before you is simple – if we come back next year to Synod with a proposal for a part–time suffragan Bishop, will Synod accept that? If we come back next year with a proposal for a part–time diocesan Bishop will you support that?” he asked.
Both Bishops said that they were seeking the opinion of General Synod on Options B and C but said that the minds of their respective dioceses would not be known until discussions had taken place at their diocesan synods.
Speaking to the motion the Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Dr Michael Jackson, said that members of synod should consider very seriously the concept of a suffragan bishop amongst diocesan bishops. The Church of Ireland had set this idea aside previously. The Archbishop said that this was not to say that we should not be open to new ideas but, if bishops were to work together as a body, we should consider seriously the effect a suffragan bishop would have on this. A more fruitful option to retain and develop the episcopal and dynamic presence in the total geographical area could be explored.
Canon Nigel Sherwood (Dublin & Glendalough) said the area of boundaries didn’t sit well and wondered about getting overly upset about boundaries. Priests should be priests and should do the work of priests on the ground, spreading the gospel, he said.
Dr Michael Webb (Dublin & Glendalough) said the work being done by Tuam and Limerick was encouraging and said we should do things courageously. “We should say to these dioceses to ‘go for it’ and come back to us next year with what you want to do,” he said.
Archdeacon Alan Synott (Tuam) said we had to be brave enough to try things. “We could be stuck in this waiting pattern if we keep being cautious,” he said. The question of equivalence must be considered but it was similar to non-stipendiary ministers, he suggested; it was incumbent on everyone to make it work.
Archdeacon Ricky Rountree (Glendalough) said there was room to look at suffragan bishops which he had seen working well in Western Australia. He said the key was to be clear what their role was and their ownership of their ministry. He said good episcopal oversight was needed, while trying to relieve the top-heavy load of administration. He said option C was a way of obtaining episcopal oversight while relieving the administrative load.
Jock Saunders (Killaloe) – a member of the inter-diocesan working group – said there were a lot of similarities between the two dioceses. He said change was absolutely necessary in the long term. Both dioceses were financially sustainable now but that might not be the case in the long term, he said, which meant that it would be increasingly difficult for clergy and laity to contribute to central church. He said more radical changes had to be considered to the way dioceses work. He said the difficulty in merging the dioceses as one was one of geography. The travel times would be inefficient and unrealistic, and both ends of the dioceses would be disenfranchised. He suggested that the only way a merged ‘Diocese of the West’ could work was if administration and decision was devolved to smaller units – clusters of four to six parishes.
Brenda Shiel (Down) said she was not happy with the idea of a straw poll. She said a most interesting proposal had been forthcoming from Tuam and Limerick and the dioceses should be encouraged to consider what would work for them.
The Revd Stephen Farrell (Dublin) said the idea of a suffragan bishop represented a change to our understanding of the Church and the episcopate for the entire Church of Ireland. If the suffragan bishop turned up in a parish, would the question be: ‘Why isn’t the bishop here?’, he asked.
Peter White (Killaloe) said he felt a strong sense of history here and reminded people of the first debate about the ordination of women. He said that the then-Archbishop of Dublin warned of the practical issues if women were ordained. He said the Holy Spirit would find solutions and suggested synod should leave the gate open to see where the Holy Spirit led. He said that the presence of a bishop at a function was important and a suffragan bishop was needed.
Three straw polls were carried out among members of synod to help the dioceses in their work. These revealed a preference for Option C - amalgamation of the two dioceses under a Diocesan Bishop, helped by a suffragan bishop.
Synod passed the motion encouraging the two dioceses to continue their talks and bring proposals to the 2018 General Synod.
(Photograph: By Church of Ireland)