One of British Catholicism’s most significant divides is between urban and rural. The Church is most visible in towns and cities: there are more churches, Mass is celebrated more frequently and parish events are easier to get to. But what about Catholics living in rural areas? It is estimated that 70 per cent of the land area in the UK is agricultural. Yet out in the sticks, it is harder for Catholics to get to the sacraments and for priests to reach their parishioners.

The consequence, of course, is very often falling congregations and church closures. It was announced earlier this year that Salford diocese plans to close more than 20 churches and merge approximately 100 parishes. These closures are rarely popular: Bishop John Arnold of Salford has said that he is “well aware that some of the changes proposed … will not be welcomed”. But he pointed out that “adjustment and change is required to meet the continuing needs and challenges of a changing world.”

The idea of merging parishes is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, where rural areas are even harder to cover. Last December, the Archdiocese of Hartford merged almost 100 parishes. Fr James Shanley, rector of the archdiocese’s mother cathedral, said at the time: “It is sad, there is great emotional attachment.” But, he said, “small numbers of people cannot possibly sustain” the number of their churches. And earlier this year, the Diocese of Trenton in New Jersey announced plans to amalgamate 10 churches in response to declining clergy and church attendance.

Fr Robert Miller, who has run the UK National Conference for Rural Catholics for the past 13 years, says the basic problem is all too obvious: the “reduced numbers of clergy”, which make it harder to do pastoral work.

“It’s difficult to lay on Masses to the far-flung,” he says, “because we are short-staffed.” He adds: “My friend who’s a priest in London can do six house visits in one morning. I would be lucky if I can get one done in one morning by car because of the distance involved.”

So what about merging parishes? Could that be a solution? “I don’t see a problem with it, providing people go in for good management,” says Fr Miller. “It works for other organisations – if you think about Scout groups and suchlike.” Fr Miller notes that married ordinariate clergy have expanded the ranks of the priesthood in recent years, and more married priests could help fill the gaps.

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