Church of England considers moving the north-south divide

The precise location of the north-south divide has been difficult to pinpoint with any clarity. Manchester is in the north, of course; unless you’re in the Highlands, in which case it is very much in the south.

The midpoint of the longest north-south axis in Great Britain is in the village of Haltwhistle in Northumberland – but Londoners (and Northerners too) are likely to dispute the logical conclusion that emerges from this: that the Lake District is in the south of Britain.

For hundreds of years, the Warwickshire town of Meriden has long been considered to be the centre of England. But in 2002 Ordnance Survey did a, er, survey; and said that the geographical centre of England was actually in Lindley Hall Farm, near Fenny Drayton and Higham on the Hill in Leicestershire. So far as I can tell, they didn’t say whether the tides were in or out when they carried out their research.

Being somebody who was born and bred in the Black Country, I have often looked at the debate about where the north south divide is with some disinterest. Wherever it is, I am neither a hard northerner nor a southern softy: Ich bin ein Midlander.

I am supported in my theory by the ever-accurate Wikipedia, which states, quite authoritatively, that the furthest point from high tide marks is between Hammerwich and Wall – south-west of Lichfield and north-east of Walsall – just down the road from me.

The Church of England is, perhaps, one of the very few organisations to know exactly where the north-south divide is – and, like the economy in general – most of its resources are in the south.

If you exclude the dioceses of Europe and Sodor and Man – neither of which are in England – the C of E has 11 dioceses in the north, in the province of York; and 29 in the south, in the province of Canterbury.

This imbalance between the provinces of York and Canterbury worsened last year with the formation of the single diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales from the three former dioceses of Wakefield, Bradford and Ripon and Leeds.

The southern-most tip of this new diocese is part of the Church of England’s border between north and south, alongside Chester, Sheffield, Southwell and Nottingham, and York.

But all this could be about to change because the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have asked the C of E’s Dioceses Commission to review the provincial boundaries “so as to create a more balanced archiepiscopal workload”.

The chair of the commission, Michael Clarke, says that it will “canvas the views” of the bishops at a future meeting of the House of Bishops, which brings together all the diocesan bishops and a small number of elected suffragan, or assistant bishops.

At the very least, such a review could see the dioceses of Lichfield, Derby, Leicester and Lincoln move from the Province of Canterbury to the province of York. This would create a some-what wonky line from the Welsh border, just west of Shrewsbury, to the Wash, north of Norfolk.

But such a move would only bring about a minimal change to the north-south divide; with 15 dioceses in York Province and 25 in Canterbury. It would also separate dioceses with shared interests; such as Lichfield and Hereford which share responsibility for the county of Shropshire.

Such a move would also break up the West Midlands regional grouping of bishops and so, it seems to me, that if Lichfield were to move to the northern province; then Hereford, Worcester, Birmingham and Coventry would also have to move.

Likewise Peterborough, the only one of the east Midlands dioceses that would otherwise remain in Canterbury, would also need to move to the north to keep it in the same province as its regional partners.

Such moves would create equality: 20 dioceses in York province and 20 dioceses in Canterbury; along a diagonal line running from just north of the Bristol Channel to the Wash.

Of course, the Dioceses Commission will have to do more than look at a map and draw lines. They will need to consult and also take into account questions such as the number of people, priests and parishes in each diocese.

Another option that is theoretically open to the Dioceses Commission is for the diocese of Lichfield to be restored to its former archiepiscopal status.

The province of Lichfield could incorporate the 10 dioceses of the East and West Midlands, taking one from York and nine from Canterbury. This would create three provinces: York with 11 dioceses, including Sodor and Man; Canterbury with 21 dioceses, including Europe’ and Lichfield with 10.

But this still leaves Canterbury with double the number of dioceses than either York or Lichfield; and there is hardly any appetite in the Church of England for even more bureaucracy; so it is more likely that the Dioceses Commission will simply suggest a transfer from Canterbury to York.

Such a move is likely to be far less contentious than their last major task of creating the diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales. We Midlanders have known for a long time that the rest of the country don’t know where to put us; and frankly we don’t care.

To southerners we are northerners. To northerners we are southerners. To us, we’re Midlanders and we don’t much care about where the rest of the country think we are.

We know our place: it’s in the centre.

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  • This is my thought-experiment from a few years ago, imagining nine provinces of 48 county dioceses along the Leeds model: http://dan.barnesdavies.co.uk/codi/

    • GavinDrake

      Interesting reading.

      You have clearly put a lot of thought and work into this; but I can’t see it working.

      In the West Midlands, the Black Country towns (Walsall, Dudley, Sandwell (to some extent) and Wolverhampton) have a very clear dislike of Birmingham (“dislike” isn’t the right word). I think that they understand their historic links with Worcester and Lichfield and Joe Public would likely resist any moves to put them with Birmingham. Also, Birmingham Cathedral is tiny and unsuitable to be the seat of a provincial archbishop.

      But the biggest stumbling block is cost: As I said in my original piece, any attempts to create a third geographical province is likely to be resisted on cost grounds. The creation of seven new provinces would be resisted even more. And the cost of reorganising dioceses and the creation of new ones would, too, be extremely expensive – not least because it would need extensive legal work to draft the necessary Orders in Council.

      • GavinDrake

        Having said all that – send it to the Dioceses Commission. As they are currently reviewing the boundaries now, more than ever, is the time to get the powers that be to consider it.

        • Guest

          Thanks, Gavin. I might well do that.

  • Enders_Shadow

    Not radical enough. The best solution would be to transfer almost all of England to the Primate of England (aka the Archbishop of York, leaving only a few dioceses in the south (Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury, and maybe Exeter and Truro. This would enable AbC to do more international things, because his turning up in a small country can make a big difference – both to the country and the attention it gets in the British press.

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