03 July 2015, The Tablet

What is going on in Brentwood Diocese?

by Mark Lee

Brentwood Diocese recently decided to axe 10 jobs and the people doing them. It portrayed the change as a really good thing, overall, despite conceding its harmful effect on the staff who were losing their employment.

Among them were Sr Nuala Gannon IBVM, diocesan adviser for adult religious education for 17 years, Elisabeth Abbott, secretary for the Marriage and Family Life Department, and Davina Bolt, who were director of the Social Justice Department for 12 and 18 years respectively. Also made redundant was Lucy Studham, a key member of the Commission for Evangelisation and Formation and the Pastoral Support Team and for 14 years coordinator of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, who ironically was praised in the current issue of the diocesan magazine, and her administrator Sylvia Lanz.

These are part of changes brought in under Bishop Alan Williams, who took over last year from Bishop Thomas McMahon, who had led the diocese since 1980. In addition, the diocese’s two vicar-generals have been replaced by one vicar-general and a handful of episcopal vicars.

It appears from its press release, the diocese formed the view that the diocese’s costs exceeded income and the only option was to cut employment costs at the diocesan office, Cathedral House. It was decided that the work that had been done by the axed staff would be readily picked up by parishes, especially the laity, who therefore would feel valued and empowered.

The soundness of these views has not been proven. Despite, it seems, the staff affected asking for evidence, and for other alternatives to be explored, the diocese appears not to have been open to any dialogue.

This manner of change may just be lawful, yet we believe all Catholics are being called to holiness and being as Christ-like as possible.

The diocese seems to have fallen far short.

As part of its collaborative ministry, the diocese has a lay Diocesan Pastoral Council for the bishop to consult. But it was not consulted.

It does not feel as though the diocese knows what it is doing, is living its values or is anywhere near being an exemplary employer committed to justice, as it should be.

The consequences may be that the Catholic Church appears not to be living its own values, and its ability to influence society for the better may be weakened.

It is never too late to put things right. How the diocese responds to criticism now will make a huge difference. It may be time for some humility, or even to revisit what it has done.

If you behaved badly, own up; and if you didn't, help us understand how we have misunderstood your behaviour.

Mark Lee is a member of Brentwood Diocesan Pastoral Council and a Chartered Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

What do you think?


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User comments (19)

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:47:47

I am glad that things turned out well for Philip Jakob, who is right that saying one thing yet doing another is worrying. In the annual report for the Charity Commissioners and the Diicesan Vision, Collaborative Ministry and the Diocesan Pastoral Council feature high. Yet in a seismic change they are ignored.

Bob Hayes, I think, has misinterpreted salaried Catholics as bureaucrats.

I don't think JT that anything I wrote suggested "ignore the Financial shortfall and Do Nothing". What I would have expected was a thoughtful, thorough and inclusive consideration of options, followed my a thoughtful and caring implementation of change. Those things appear to have been lacking.

On the other hand raises useful points that The Church needs to live within its means. True. None-the-less how it responds is the key.

Paul reflects the view of many that paid staff in Dioceses are bureaucrats. Yet this is often not the reality. Often they are committed pro-active Catholics who also need to earn a living.

Thank You to all who have commented. I may not be right. I remain convinced that as lay Catholics we need to speak up and air issues, to help our Church be the most Christlike and effective as it can be. I look forward to how the Diocese responds to the debate or whether it just ignores it as "job done".

i wish you all well, Mark

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:32:20

Dear Mike the Lion Heart

Sad you have interpreted my blog in this way. I don't think I have questionned anybody's Faith and hard as I try I cannot see Why you describe the blog as wingey or sanctimonious. I shared my letter to The Tablet (that was then developed into the Blog, at the request of The Tablet) and he thanked me for airing my views through The Tablet.

Thank You Tony for the kind words. I was sorry to read that you had been a victim of cuts. I haven't though likened anybody to the Pharisees. I think though that the manner of planning and change lacked skill and failed to display exemplary Standards & Gospel values.

I think Jim McCrea that the issue was that those dismissed were not Priests and cost money.

Fr Arul (Parish of Larvik: Norway) misses that I do ask the Diocese to convince me, and the wider community, if my Assessment is wrong. In the absence of more information, I can only comment on what I know.

Denis raises a valid challenge whether the Diocese has been financially astute over the years. I do not though see that the ministries carried out by the Commissions axed were a bureaucracy.

Bluepoles I think places too much reliance on Bishops being exclusive Decision Makers on every aspect of Church life. Collaborative Ministry, the publicly stated, even if now not practised policy of the Brentwood Diocese, does not deny the apostolic right of The Pope and his Bishops, guided by The Holy Spirit, to interpret the fundamentals of our Faith.

Comment by: Mark Lee
Posted: 18/07/2015 10:13:07

As the author of this blog, I thought I should respond to the comments you have been making.

I think oscarw is right that there are unanswered questions. Laity who know of the changes and certainly some Priests wonder this.

I am sad if mikethelionheart feels anything I have written is an unfounded accusation.

Jim McCrea thinks I have questionned other people's Faith and I wonder how my professional judgement of the facts known to me, plus my Catholic Faith, can be interpreted like that. In any event: when I wrote to The Tablet, I sent Bishop Alan a copy and he replied positively that I was airing these issues through The Tablet. Whilst The Tablet asked my to write a blog rather than publishing my letter, my blog was essentially what I had shared with Bishop Alan. Maybe Jim you will think differently in light of that information?

Surely we have a duty, in any event as Catholics to speak up when we fear harm to The Church?

Cleopas raises valid questions. I don't know if there was specific fund raising for these Diocesan ministries. I do know they were filled by committed Catholics who also needed income and unlike Priests are not provided with housing etc.

Margaret_M_C raises valid points. Indeed consultation and dialogue with the wider Church and with the staff involved might have produced the same result. Change that is collaborative is more likely to succeed. I do not know whether Bishop Alan made all the decisions or decided on the approach. Maybe others did?

Comment by: oscarw
Posted: 13/07/2015 14:31:05

The Pope also said a 'Church for the Poor' so one wonders if there'll be resources to support this mission now that the Social Justice commission has finished. Interesting how this commission was chopped while liturgy and music appears to have escaped the axe. Are parishes expected to pick up the advocacy work too? Who will equip the parishes to lead and engage in social action?

Comment by: mikethelionheart
Posted: 10/07/2015 22:01:35

The unfounded accusations and slanders of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.

And, above all, wait to see which diocese decline and which thrive.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 10/07/2015 02:47:24

How dare Mark question people's faith?

“The actions of (sic) men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” (Misattributed to James Joyce) John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), Book I, Chapter II, paragraph 3.

And, above all, people who have no vote tend to vote with their feet.

Comment by: cleopas
Posted: 09/07/2015 22:59:29

Sadly this non collaborative attitude has been a common feature of English Dioceses in the last year -think of Shrewsbury and Portsmouth. Just one question – did anybody fund raise for theses vital ministries in Brentwood?
But what is most tragic is that those who have lost their jobs are not just ‘bureaucrats,’ but dedicated workers with ministries and gifts as true and valid as any Bishop or Priest. By your fruits ye shall know them. In five years lets re-visit the numbers of Mass attendees in these Dioceses.

Comment by: Margaret_M_C
Posted: 07/07/2015 02:11:11

Some comments seem to have missed the point. It's not what you do so much as how you do it. Consultation might have produced the same end result, or it might have come up with some better alternatives .... or even a realisation and willingness to act on more money needing to be given. Either way, it's about bringing the people with you. Dictatorship in the Church is no longer acceptable, particularly in financial matters where bishops are not experts in the field.

Comment by: Mike the lion heart
Posted: 06/07/2015 12:01:09

A very wingey and sanctimonious article.

How dare you question people's faith, mark.

Comment by: Tony
Posted: 05/07/2015 17:58:36

Well said, Mark. A courageous vox in deserto. I too can speak, from personal, experience. As a full-time parish director of music and liturgy, I fell victim to the financial expedience axe. And my words of warning to the pastor came true; Mass attendance dropped, a vibrant music and liturgy program was replaced by a lackluster weekly 'performance'. And, worst of all, the bottom line was hit; collections dropped. In the memorable words of Pete Seeger, 'when will they ever learn?' Despite there being some very wise and wonderful pastors (including bishops), the arrogance of the power-mongers can be compared only to that of the the Pharisees at the time of Jesus, who not only had all the answers but displayed an appalling lack of both wisdom and compassion. Well done, Mark.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 04/07/2015 19:47:18

I notice that those named as being redundant are all women!

Was there a clericalist mindset at work here, perchance?

Comment by: Parish of Larvik (Norway)
Posted: 04/07/2015 09:26:11

I read your comment. I perceive that your comment has already judge the diocese, as it is not keeping up to its values. You have also mentioned that the diocese does not have enough income. I am living in a diocese for the time being in Sri Lanka to help the new diocese, with so big a debt. No religious institution come forward to help to tide over.
People who are poor and were used to receive from the church, irrespective of religion, are not willing to buy properties that the bishop and his administrative collaborators are willing to sell.
The bishop is looking for avenues to create funds to open up new missions.
If the catholic population is not supportive and has not enough to contribute, I do not see how will the new bishop run the diocese with expenditure that he cannot cope with. It may be the parishes who need to rethink to support the diocese.Fr.Arul

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 04/07/2015 06:40:12

Mark Lee names just three of the commissions that Brentwood's parishioners fund; parishioners who are often hard pressed to keep their own jobs and whose numbers are dwindling and ageing. Brentwood Diocese has been in denial over the issue of funding for many years. The absurd reality is that tiny parishes which are solvent, are financing a bureaucratic giant that is not. That is not the "poor church" that Pope Francis has in mind, rather it is an unworkable situation that cannot continue.

Comment by: Bluepoles
Posted: 04/07/2015 01:43:25

Once the Prince of the Church makes a decision it is the same as God making it as he has been 'ontologically chnged' at ordination - could also mean 'deludsional' and incompetent. There are many such decisions being made in the USA and Australia and they all have to do with keeping the Prince of the Church in luxury and making sure he keeps the funds rolling for his personal pet projects. Dont expect a review of such incompetence and meanness.

Comment by: Philip Jakob
Posted: 03/07/2015 21:53:55

As one whose post as Director of Music for the Cathedral & Diocese of Hallam was declared redundant last year after 20 years of service I extend my sympathies to those who have lost their livelihoods and sense of purpose. In my own case it was put down to an inability to repay the loan on the cathedral's restoration only one year after completion. It was also felt that after a review (for which there was no evidence shared) the tasks could be covered by volunteers. I think you would need to ask the volunteers and parishioners about that!

The Tablet printed a brilliant letter from my friend John Bell of the Iona Community. It merits re-reading in the current wave of redundancies.

A good point is made about the apparent wilful neglect of the Bishops' own teaching document on Collaborative Ministry. What sign do they think they are giving now?

Fortunately I have since gained worthwhile employment in Tampa, Florida doing much the same thing and finding it hugely valued. And the sun shines!

Comment by: Bob Hayes
Posted: 03/07/2015 21:14:02

'What is going on in Brentwood Diocese?'

It could well be that the diocese is trying to follow Pope Francis' injunction to 'smell the sheep' and for the Church not to be 'just another NGO'. Surely living and proclaiming the Gospel is a shared mission for all the laity - not a 'job' to be delegated to a salaried bureaucracy.

Comment by: J.T.
Posted: 03/07/2015 17:53:30

"Costs exceeded income..."

The irresponsible thing to do would have been continuing to employ bureaucracy that the Diocese couldn't afford.

Comment by: On the other hand...
Posted: 03/07/2015 17:11:38

Mark makes interesting points but fails to see the central issue. If you have no money you cannot pay people; and the person who carries the can is the bishop he cannot make it any better by sharing the burden of unpopular decisions with others who at the end of the day are not legally responsible. It may take a long time to put right, but Bishop Alan needs to stand firm in focussing on what he can afford to pay for. Unless of course everyone would like to double their contributions overnight...

Comment by: Paul
Posted: 03/07/2015 13:45:19

There is too much paid bureaucracy in the country's dioceses, so it's encouraging to read that at least one bishop is curtailing it, sad though it is for the individuals affected.

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