Over at the America blog In All Things, Austen Ivereigh has an interesting post about parish realignment, triggered by an incident in the English diocese of Leeds. He says,

As an exercise in church communications, this is a textbook case of what not to do. Give what sounds like a cold, corporate reason for closing parishes; then, when people protest, be unavailable and remote.

I agree, and yet it also sounds like a textbook description of how these things are typically done, at least in my experience. Why are notions like "availability" and open communication so seldom part of the hierarchical M.O. when it's time for a parish to close (or a school to be shuttered, or a pastor to be moved)?

Maybe the problem is that the bishops who make the decisions and the laypeople who receive them are reading from different textbooks --How to Behave as Members of the Body of Christ vs. How to Run a Diocese Without Getting an Ulcer. Occasionally I hear the claim that it wouldn't matter how compassionate or pastoral the bishops tried to be. Laypeople are never satisfied, the argument goes; they won't listen to reason, at least when their own parish is at stake. The bishops retreat to the "I have spoken" model of authority because it is the smoothest course in the end. Is that true? Have any of you seen that actually play out in your diocese: The bishop makes a sincere effort to involve the laity in the process of realignment, or even to lay out his reasoning in as transparent a fashion as possible, but all he gets for his trouble is more grief? I'm asking because it sounds hollow to me... but it could be true. I don't know, because I've yet to see a bishop even try.

Here's how they ought to be trying in Leeds, Ivereigh suggests:

They should not be saying, "sorry, there aren't enough of you and there aren't enough priests to keep your parish going" but rather: "We do not want our Catholic community split into small, self-enclosed units ever more distant from each other. We are one Church, and as many of us should meet together on a Sunday as we can. That is the Catholic understanding of Church. That is why we are redrawing the parish boundaries -- to enable the People of God in this area to come together as one".

A commenter onthat postnoted that the geography of the Diocese of Leeds means closing parishes is a greater hardship than Ivereigh realizes. But what he says about our expecting "convenience" and our drifting away from an authentic notion of ekklesia resonates for me, and what he proposes as a model of communication for the hierarchy is, I think, reasonable. I just don't know of any bishop who talks that way to his people when he has to make a difficult decision. Do you?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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