The Bishop of Lancaster has told Catholics that church closures in Preston are “necessary surgery” to address a near terminal decline in congregations.
In an exclusive interview with the Evening Post, the Rt Rev Michael Campbell opened his heart to a dwindling band of worshippers, revealing: “It’s sad, but Preston has too many churches for too few people.”
“We can either bury our head in the sand or face it and deal with it,” he said. “I have great sympathy with the people affected, but as the Good Book says, the world of the past has gone.”
Bishop Campbell caused uproar before Christmas by shutting down both St Ignatius and St Augustine’s churches and creating a new merged parish in the centre of the city.
He told the Evening Post he had “no plans at the moment” to axe any more. But he added: “We are still very well off for churches in Preston, very well off.
“I would like to think that there will be a Catholic presence 20 years from now. It may well be a different presence, but who can foretell the future?
“As bishop I have just had to face harsh realities, or bequeath them to my successor. I had to address this.
“It has been painful, very painful. A no-win situation for me. But we simply couldn’t continue along this road. Someone has to make the decisions and bite on the bullet.
“If you wanted to go to church on a Sunday in Preston then within half an hour’s walk there were five, six or seven churches you could go to. The population doesn’t justify keeping all those any more.”
The closures last month left regulars furious at having to find alternative venues for Mass, some after a lifetime of worship at their churches.
But already Bishop Campbell has found new tenants for St Ignatius – the Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation, who have been based at St Maria Goretti’s Church in Ribbleton.
And, with St Walburge’s also spared from being mothballed with the arrival of an Italy-based Latin Mass group, he has now managed to save both historic buildings for regular worship.
“It’s a great relief,” he confessed. “I am absolutely delighted to have been able to do that. St Walburge’s has been given a new lease of life – it was only being used for one hour a week prior to this.
“And the same will happen at St Ignatius when the Syro-Malabar congregation take over there.
“The decline of the Catholic Church in central Preston has been down mainly to demographics. People have moved out of the city centre to the suburbs and the population isn’t there any more.
“We have been left with these big churches and not the congregations to support them. Also congregations are growing older and not being replaced.
“I estimate we have only 200 to 300 people attending Mass in central Preston. We could have easily seen that number in any one church years ago.
“But, however much we may lament it, this is how it is. It has happened and the reasons are many for this decline. But it has come to a point where we simply can’t continue as we have been.”