‘Priest-less Parishes’ in Ireland, Wales and England

The Irish Catholic has reported that the Roman Catholic bishops in Ireland are ‘drawing up radical new plans for parishes to hold Sunday services led by laypeople as more-and-more communities are set to be left without a priest for the first time.’  The news item appears to have been triggered by a communion service the previous weekend at Co Wicklow which was led by a nun, who did not have the permission of the Archbishop of Dublin Dr Diarmuid Martin.  However, the underlying issue – an ageing clergy population whose average age is 64 with few newly-ordained priests to take their place on retirement – is not restricted to Ireland, and on 20th July the Church in Wales an independent ‘root and branch’ review of its activities and vision for its future, Arolwg yr Eglwys yng Nghymru / Church in Wales Review, reported here.

Within the Church of England, the ‘supply and demand’ of stipendiary clergy is monitored annually by the House of Bishops who take into account not only retirements and those training for ordination but estimates of other factors, which is the greatest source of uncertainty: some resign and leave completely; for others, there is two-way exchange with self-supporting ministry, chaplaincy, other provinces and the Diocese in Europe; and other clergy are remaining stipendiary but for altered hours.  Recently reported figures show that against the actual figures for 2010 baseline of 6,350 men and 1,770 women ‘full time equivalence of stipendiary clergy’, the numbers in 2015 are projected to reduce to 5,450 men and 1,730 women.


Unlike the Church in Wales report, the plans in Ireland are at an early stage and a ‘discussion document’ is expected to be circulated to senior Church leaders within the next few weeks.  The Irish Catholic reports that this will:

‘set out plans for what parishioners can do when there is no priest to say Mass. Lay people will be expected to take a lead role. However, married deacons, eight of whom have already been ordained, will also co-ordinate liturgies in the absence of a priest.’

In view of the central importance of the Mass to Roman Catholic worship, it is hardly surprising that this issue has been addressed earlier.  The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament published Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest in 1998 and the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum: On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist, [at Chapter VII] in 2004.

Paragraph 12(c) of the former emphasizes the importance of the priest, stating:

‘the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, by which the paschal mystery is expressed, and which is carried out by the priest in the person of Christ and offered in the name of the entire Christian people.’

The distinction between the role of the priest and deacon was emphasized in the 2009 modification of Canons 1008 and 1009 by Pope Benedict VI through his motu proprio Omnium in mentem.  Under the 1998 Directory, [paras. 28 ot 30], when Mass cannot be celebrated, the pastor is required to ensure that holy communion is given by the deacon, acting as his ‘primary assistant’ or in the absence of priest or deacon,

‘to appoint laypersons, who are to be entrusted with the care of these celebrations, namely, with leading the prayers, with the ministry of the word, and with giving holy communion’.

This principle has been applied in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool where twenty-two Lay Funeral Ministers, men and women, have been commissioned to lead funeral services in circumstances in which there is no Requiem Mass and no priest available.  These provisions, which come into effect in the autumn, were prompted by a combination of the declining number of priests and the large number of funerals that take place in parts of the archdiocese.

By contrast, the review of the Church in Wales addressed both organizational as well as spiritual issues and will include:

  • Replacement of parishes by much larger ‘ministry areas’, served by a team of clergy and lay people, which mirror the catchment areas of secondary schools, where possible;
  • Creative use of church buildings to enable them to be used by the whole community;
  • Training lay people to play a greater part in church leadership;
  • Investing more in ministry for young people;
  • Developing new forms of worship to reach out to those unfamiliar with church services;
  • Encouraging financial giving to the church through tithing.

The Report and its 50 recommendations will now be considered by the Church’s Governing Body.

Within the Church of England, the projected decline in priest numbers, although significant, is not as high as in Ireland.  Nevertheless, this will be one of the issues for consideration by the new Archbishop(s).

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