Embracing Change in Galloway Diocese


A parish priest with responsibility for several parishes in the rural South West of Scotland outlines new models of being church which are emerging from a diocesan wide process of embracing change.

Albert Einstein is usually credited with the quote ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.  This statement would appear to be particularly applicable when we look at being church today.  The old solutions are no longer appropriate, and as Werner Jeanrond has shown in his article in the March 2017 issue of Open House, we are living in challenging times requiring new models of leadership, ministry and dialogue.  Simply replicating what we have done in the past will not do.

In Galloway Diocese the process of promoting new models of being church is done under the umbrella of ‘Embracing Change’.  This process began with the title ‘Embracing the Future,’ but we soon realised that the future was already here.  Initially we had looked at what our parishes would look like, and need, in the short, medium and longer term.  However, change was so rapid that what was originally thought of as some distant possibility soon became a present reality.  We could no longer simply prepare for the future, but had to embrace change now.  This has of course brought with it certain considerable struggles, as well as providing opportunities for growth.

One very significant discovery has been that even though we are a diocese, each deanery within the diocese must offer its own unique response.  North Ayrshire has the majority of the parishes and the people, with the church buildings often only a few miles from one another.  In the South of the diocese however, numbers are much smaller, yet distances between churches far greater.  What applies in the north does not relate to the south.

The priests and people of North Ayrshire have gone through a discernment process to identify their specific needs, and are working to bring parishioners together in various churches for different gatherings, expanding the commitment to the individual parish, and promoting lay leadership beyond parish boundaries.  They have identified common themes and are initiating their pastoral responses around these themes.

One area which emerged from the discernment process was the need for adult faith formation.  A response to this has been the initiative in shared training for lay-led funerals.  Seven parishes in the deanery now have lay people trained to conduct lay-led funerals, and this is acknowledged as not simply a way of supporting the parish priest, but is in fact an opportunity for the baptised to minister because of their baptismal calling.  The support and collaboration which these funeral ministers offer to one another is a good example of ministry crossing parish boundaries, and an illustration of the threads of a new way of being church and of offering ministry.

The experience of the south of the diocese has been that the dramatic reduction in active clergy has meant parishes now clustered together sharing one priest.  This has of course also happened in the Ayrshire deaneries, yet it is the distances between places in the south that makes the situation here so distinct.  The reality is that it is simply not possible to bring parishioners together from parishes separated by significant distances, especially when you are speaking of an elderly and increasingly infirm congregation.  Even though parishes may share a priest, the distance between Dalbeattie and Whithorn, for example, is almost 60 miles, and travel time one way can be anything between 75-90 minutes depending on tractors, caravans and sheep.  There is simply no connection between the parishes other than the priest.  To try to unite them just because they share a priest will not bring unity.  Rural parishes need rural solutions, and this brings with it a leadership role for lay ministry which is slightly different from that being experienced in the north.

Collaboration between the rural parishes covering South West Scotland is certainly being encouraged, yet leadership is emerging in a way that is distinctly rooted in the local parish.  One example being that on Good Friday, the Commemoration of the Passion was celebrated in the parishes for which I have responsibility at the same time in four separate church buildings.  As parish priest I could only be in one, so responsibility for leading these liturgies fell on the ministers of the different places.  That these individuals willingly took on this liturgical leadership ensured that the local communities were able to participate in the Good Friday afternoon liturgy in their own local setting.  This may well reflect a model of liturgical ministry which is qualitatively different from an extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist leading a weekday Service of the Word and Holy Communion because a priest is on holiday, and perhaps indicates a way forward in embracing change.

Ensuring that rural communities maintain their distinctive individuality as they continue to offer specific ministry requires organisation and planning.  Up till now this has been provided mainly by the Parish Pastoral Council.  Perhaps, though, it is time now to re-assess the role, makeup and function of Parish Pastoral Councils if we are to respond adequately to the needs of parishes today.  I was heartened to read an article in the March 2017 edition of The Furrow in which this same suggestion is made.  Martin Delaney, a priest of the Diocese of Ossory, in Ireland, proposes that we need a radically different approach to Parish Pastoral Councils in which they move from being expressions of collaboration to being places of co-responsibility.  This would seem to me consistent with moving beyond priest-dependent parishes, and beyond priest-dependent Parish Pastoral Councils, to structures where adult lay voices are more than simply consultative.  What Parish Pastoral Councils have provided up till now has been appropriate for beginning a process, but we do need to proceed in finding a more suitable vehicle for maintaining and promoting pastoral initiatives which clearly reflect the direction in which we are moving.

In the original diocesan document for Embracing the Future, it was stated that in this process, no-one should be asked to do anything that would appear unreasonable, yet no-one should expect things to simply remain as they have always been.  To maintain this we must prepare for a future where ministry and pastoral care continue to be available, albeit in different forms than previously experienced.  It is the role of priests and laity together to delineate the principles, to discern a suitable process, and to commit themselves to undertake the necessary steps which may emerge.  It is not about simply creating policies or structures, but about allowing the Spirit to lead as the Spirit wishes.  This does however need discernment, which will lead to being nothing other than truly open to whatever God wishes.

In this we can learn from the example of Pope Francis who said during his Casa Santa Marta homily given on 6th July 2013:

‘Jesus tells us that new wine requires new wineskins.  In the Christian life, and also in the life of the Church, there are old structures, outdated structures, they have to be renewed!  And the Church has always been attentive to this…  It always allows itself to be renewed according to places, times and persons.  The Church has always done this work, right from the beginning!…  Don’t be afraid of this!  Don’t be afraid of the innovation of the Gospel.  Don’t be afraid of the innovation that the Holy Spirit works within us!’

In the Diocese of Galloway we are taking small steps to reorganise and revitalise parish ministry.  It is a work in progress, but one that clearly teaches us that one size cannot fit all.  Embracing change requires flexibility, adaptability and a willingness to work together.  New models of ministry are emerging, yet we must continue to remain open to further change and variation in our pastoral practice.

William McFadden is Vicar General of the Diocese of Galloway and a former Rector of Scotus College, Scotland’s national seminary which closed in 2009.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.