What hath Bradford to do with Ripon and Leeds?
It belongs to the Crown, or, at least, the Monarch is its Supreme Governor. And according to canon law, she is ‘the highest power under God in this kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil’.
In practice, however, her omnipotence is exercised by the Prime Minister through Parliament. So cutbacks begin with the House of God.
It is helpful that the Archbishop of York was already amenable to rationalising his See by merging the Diocese of Bradford with that of Ripon & Leeds. It's the first time in a century that such a thing has been done, but it's not as if we're talking about a take-over of Athens by Jerusalem, or even merging Canterbury with York.
Combining the diocese of Bradford with Ripon & Leeds might, on the face of it, make a bit of sense. Not least, Bradford and Leeds are both are in the gritty county of West Yorkshire. And, from a financial perspective, there is strong pressure on the Church of England to arrange mergers. It has to start somewhere.
Ripon was founded in 876, but lapsed for a thousand years. The present diocese is a creation of 1836, and it only took the name ‘Ripon & Leeds’ when the major city began to eclipse the cathedral city in population size. It was the first diocese to be created in England after the Reformation. Its current bishop is the Rt Revd John Packer, who has held the post for 14 years.
But the Diocese of Bradford was formed very recently – in 1920. There's nothing particularly historic about it, even though the foundations of its cathedral church date back to the seventh century. Its bishop, the Rt Revd Dr David James, retired in July of this year after eight years, and has not been replaced.
His tenure of office was marked by a period of notable decline. While Ripon & Leeds has seen a trend of steady increases in weekly attendance over the past decade, Bradford has remained static or fallen. The usual Sunday attendance for Bradford in 2008 was 8,700, which was static from 2007. Average weekly attendance fell from 12,500 to 12,300.
Conversely, attendance in Ripon & Leeds in 2008 was 12,300, up from 11,000 in 2007. Its average weekly attendance rose from 14,900 to a staggering 17,100, representing an annual increase of 15 per cent. While Bradford has a smaller population – 683,000 as against 837,000 for Ripon & Leeds - it is clear that organisationally-effective, demographically-relevant and spiritually-inspirational leadership have contributed to the Ripon & Leeds success.
It doesn't help that a minaret is now more prominent in Bradford than the cathedral spire, dominating the heart of a city that has been ripped out and left as a ramshackle building site – soon to become a city centre park after a succession of failed development projects.
The wasteland is cultural as well as physical. The call to prayer hasn't yet replaced the peal of bells, but it is only a matter of time. The reality is that the church’s response to the seismic shift in Bradford's ethnic make-up and dominant religion has been poor.
While Christian schools have closed, Islamic ones have opened. While churches have closed their doors due to declining numbers, mosques have sprouted up all over the place. Eid is virtually a city-wide holiday, while Easter – the most important festival in the Christian calendar – survives only as a remnant of cultural Sabbath hangover.
The Church of England has met the challenge of other faiths not with a virile expression of its virtues or pride in its historical significance, but with multi-faith accommodation and compromise. It is no surprise that a multi-faith education centre built beside Bradford Cathedral closed after just seven months.
It cost a colossal £5m to construct and was projected to attract 40,000 visitors a year. In its first week, it welcomed just 62 paying customers, and attracted fewer than 600 in the peak three weeks of August. Meanwhile, the strong tradition of masculine, Non-Conformist, Evangelical Christianity is resurgent. New groups are springing up throughout Bradford, recruiting disaffected members of the Established Church.
And without spiritual leadership, the diocese is simply an administrative unit – a regional area of a national ministry overseen by a bishop. With nothing special to mark it out in the eyes of the Church, it stands to reason that changes in demographics might cause reassessment of the most efficient ways and means of governance.
Successive incumbents at Westminster have merged offices of state and even abolished some ancient ones as they saw fit: Agriculture is integrated with Fisheries; Education with Skills; and Culture, Media and Sport are all lumped together as though Leeds United playing at Elland Rd were as constitutionally significant as the St Edward's Crown in the Tower of London.
Though, oop north, it probably is.
So merging Bradford with Ripon & Leeds makes sense – especially if quality ministers are in short supply, you are running out of money and your supporters are deserting you.
And on the face of it, HM Government and HM Church have got quite a lot in common: both are fragile coalitions riven with irreconcilable divisions; both are haemorrhaging supporters; both are being subsumed to foreign powers; and both are virtually bankrupt. And both are out of ideas. That is why a merger makes sense to the Church.
But not to anyone else, least of all the dwindling band of Christians in Bradford.
There are 2.4 million Muslims in the UK, but according to the ONS they multiply 10 times faster than the rest of society. The Christian population is declining, only spurred on by Eastern European Roman Catholic immigrants. They are filling the churches in Bradford – Roman Catholic churches. Church of England pews are empty. One of the few reasons for attending is that the Church schools are one of the last bastions of ‘white / Christian’ education, but even that is changing.
Thus, in the hard, gritty northern city of Bradford, the Church of England is being subsumed to the Mosque of England just as nationally the Archbishop of Canterbury is eclipsed by the Pope. Where there is no vision, the people perish. Or get expediently merged.
Allahu Akbah – God is the greatest.
But in Bradford, Jehovah is shunted aside for Allah in the on-going battle to lead the pantheon.