The further news of church closures and parish mergers in the Diocese of Lancaster (The Tablet, 1 December 2007 p42) reflects a familiar narrative which is often interpreted as almost entirely due to a shortage of priests. However, other reorganisations, widespread handwringing and the even the radical calls by Dutch Dominicans reveal a statistical pattern which my own rather simple reading of the statistical information in successive Diocesan Directories confirms. Numbers of priests have indeed fallen - in the last 20 years here in Birmingham archdiocese by between 5 and 10% - but at the same time mass attendance has almost halved while the number of active church buildings has hardly fallen at all. So statistic after statistic shows that each active priest is saying mass for fewer than 200 people each weekend - yet saying mass two, three or even more times.
The conclusion normally drawn - that we need more and younger priests - is clearly a false one. The age profile of priests fairly closely reflects that of their congregations.
What we really need are fewer masses with larger groups of people. We need eucharistic communities which are more realistic, more varied, more vibrant. We need to reduce the number of buildings we use - however painful that may be. We are not really short of priests at all. It is more people that we need. A Church obsessed with vocations, patterns of ministry and leadership is barking up entirely the wrong tree. If only we were to resolutely focus on evangelisation, then vocations would look after themselves.
Fr Peter Weatherby
Priest, Sacred Heart, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent