Northern dioceses under financial strain28 April 2014 | by Christopher Lamb
Northern dioceses are seeing their incomes drop due to declining numbers of Massgoers and economic pressures following the recession.
The Church in England and Wales appears to be experiencing a “north-south” divide with immigration in London boosting numbers of Catholics and economic prosperity helping financially with dioceses in the southeast.
In many parts of the north, however, the Church has fewer Catholics attending Mass while a loss of jobs following the recession in regions such as the northeast has left people with less disposable income to give to their parish.
The Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle has seen a decline of 3 per cent in offertory income for the last financial year, which itself saw a 2.1 per cent decrease on the preceding year.
In Leeds, the diocese slashed its central expenditure by £800,000 and put a freeze on parish building projects in order to cope with its debts, while last week it emerged that the Diocese of Hallam’s St Marie’s Cathedral has £1 million debt and made its musical director redundant.
Earlier this month the Diocese of Lancaster made an appeal to Catholics to help the work of new religious congregations and institutes who have been drafted in from outside the diocese by the bishop including the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan and the Institute of Christ the King.
“We are not a wealthy diocese and so I therefore need to appeal to the generosity of all of you… to assist me financially as Shepherd of the Diocese of Lancaster in resourcing and advancing this great work,” Bishop Michael Campbell said.
Jeffrey Ledger, the head of the Department of Finance at the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle, explained the problem facing many dioceses: “It is the declining numbers of people attending and therefore contributing financially. And their own personal economic circumstances mean that even those who are regularly attending aren’t able to offer as much financially as they used to.”
He added that the recent decline in offertory income was the start of “quite a sharp downward trend” and that problems had been exacerbated by the fact a large number of government jobs had disappeared in the area. In order to control costs the diocese has had a moratorium on parish building projects for the last four years.
Mr Ledger also explained that a working group had recently been set up in the diocese to address how to deal with empty properties when selling them was difficult due to the poor property market in the northeast.
He also said that the diocese had estimated it could have to pay up to £70,000 more in tax on unoccupied properties such as presbyteries and school buildings. An exemption on paying council tax on empty presbyteries has been removed by many local authorities with a higher rate payable where a property had been unused for more than two years. Mr Ledger said the preferred option for the diocese was to find some sort of community use for the buildings.
There has been speculation in recent years that a merger between the Dioceses of Hallam and Leeds would relieve financial pressures. Both dioceses are in need of new bishops: Leeds has been vacant for almost two years while at 77 the Bishop of Hallam, John Rawsthorne is past the episcopal retirement age of 75.
Hallam, which covers South Yorkshire along with parts of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, was founded by separating from Leeds relatively recently, in 1980.
Mgr John Wilson, the administrator of Leeds diocese, said: “were there ever to be a discussion of a merger in the future they would have to go back and look at the reasons that justified creating a new diocese and see if they were still there or not.” He stressed, however, that the two dioceses had their own distinct identities that should be preserved although there was scope for them to work more closely together.
Of the financial challenges facing Leeds he said: “The challenge for us is to live within our means. As the geography and the demography changes we need to make sure we can sustain our communities. That has meant in our dioceses some re-organisation of parishes.” Mgr Wilson said while some parishes, particularly in rural areas, were facing difficulties there were others that were growing.
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