WHETHER the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle should present its new bishop with a fait accompli in the form of the sale of a sizeable slab of parish properties – including church buildings – is an interesting debating point.
On the plus side, it would let the new bishop avoid becoming embroiled in what seems certain to be a painful series of fights.
On the minus side, it assumes that the new church leader, whoever that person may be, won’t have some better ideas than the proposed property fire sale to deal with the problems of the diocese.
It’s easy to see the business case for deconsecrating and selling off nine of Newcastle’s churches and various other potentially valuable properties. Each sale removes an ongoing source of expense and puts cash in the bank that can be spent in other areas.
But churches are supposed to be much more than mere businesses. Leaving aside any attempts to invoke the story of Jesus Christ’s reaction to the moneychangers in the temple, the reality that each parish is rich with its own human tradition can’t be ignored.
In that context, it seems somewhat insensitive of the church hierarchy to be conducting detailed analyses of the financial merits of disposing of diocesan bricks and mortar without letting the affected congregations in on the conversation.
It has already been astutely noted by at least one observer that such behaviour runs a serious risk of permanently alienating the people who form the backbone of the parishes and the diocese itself.
Consider the extraordinary pain and bitterness suffered by the congregation of the historic Anglican church at Camberwell, in the Hunter Valley, when their church was damaged by fire.
Despite the fact that the congregation had been punctually paying the insurance premium for years, the diocese was accused of swooping on the insurance payout. Church leaders argued that redirecting the funds to other works was better than rebuilding the damaged structure. This view was strongly opposed by the Camberwell congregation.
A possible desire on the part of some diocesan leaders to rationalise real estate holdings, cut costs and concentrate efforts on churches deemed likely to attract substantial and profitable congregations may be understandable.
But even if that approach is the right one, the decision should not be made without involving parishioners from the outset.
Nor should such far-reaching steps be taken before the new bishop takes the reins.