Last week, on 30 July, The Tablet published this article about a Portsmouth parish being taken back in time by an order of monks who had been invited by the Bishop to take charge. In the article two parishioners, mentioned by name, give their opinion that this has not been a good move and that people have been driven away.
I am guessing The Tablet got this story from the local Portsmouth newspaper that ran this story on 20 July, in this article unnamed parishioners voice their discontent.
The story was repeated on a couple of blogs run by parish priests from other dioceses. One of the priests is able to lay to rest any concerns about the Portsmouth parish as he is reliably informed otherwise.
Why both these periodicals would want to publish such incorrect information is baffling, but I have first hand experience of the press being ‘economical with the truth’. The Tablet is often accused of doing so.
On 22 July the Tablet published an article about the latest change of priest at Blackfen. Reporter Christopher Lamb does little more than relay information directly from the statement the parish priest read at Mass when he announced his resignation. His article can be read here. Oddly one or two people on Twitter denounced Mr Lamb’s article as incorrect. Having seen the parish priest’s statement, I cannot find anything incorrect, see for yourself: –
I have an announcement that I need to make to you. I would have made this announcement sooner but certain things had to be put in place before I could tell you. I regret to inform you that I will not be your parish priest for much longer—I am leaving Blackfen this Summer. I must add at the outset that this is my decision, and not that of the diocese. I have not been asked to move!
I would like to begin by thanking you all for your kindnesses to me over the last year. I think we could all agree that the transfer from my predecessor to me was not as smooth as any on us could have wanted. This is not the place to go into the reasons for that. All I will say, at the moment, is that the personal cost to my physical and mental health was high. The kindness of many of you during this period towards me was greatly appreciated, and I am sad I was not able to be more open and honest with you at the time.
With all that being said, I eventually made the decision that I needed an outlet from parish life. Since January I have been teaching Maths part-time at St John’s Comprehensive School in Gravesend. In due course I informed the Bishop that I wished to make that situation full-time and permanent, and tendered my resignation as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, to take effect at such time as a suitable successor was found. That time has now come.
So today I can announce that, with effect from 1 September Fr Oliver Antao will be Parish Priest of Blackfen. Fr Oliver is an experienced parish priest who brings many gifts and talents to the parish. I know that he will continue to take the parish in the direction that I initiated, and build on what we have achieved in the last few months together.
I will be leaving you on Sunday, 16 August, and supply priests will look after things before Fr Oliver takes up the reins. This is a wonderful parish that has a bright future—but I am not the right person to make that journey with you.
Please pray for me as I leave parish ministry and begin the next stage of my life—teaching maths to our teenagers. Also remember me as I begin to learn how to live in the ‘real’ world, dealing with such things as paying rent, bills and so on.
In the article putting our minds at rest about the Portsmouth parish, we are told attendance there had dropped by fifty per cent in twenty years. We can all agree the Bishop of Portsmouth would have nothing to lose by trying something else there. Numbers at Blackfen has also suffered. The figure for Mass attendance recorded for 2008 is 554, in 2013 that figure falls to 459, a drop of 95, which is 17%, in just five years. These figures are submitted by the parish and published in the diocesan directory. Like our priest blogger I too have a reliable source, not in Portsmouth but at Blackfen where the 10.30 Sunday Mass, which had an attendance of approximately 40 now has an attendance of approximately 150. It looks like the missing 95 may have returned.
As an aside, something else odd that happened at this time was the amount of curiosity raised about the outgoing parish priest. No less than three blogs, written by middle aged (but still all younger than I) married men speculating on his private life were published. Why they would would be so interested is best left to our curiosity. One of our priest bloggers noted these, and other comments, and said in a post it had “captured people’s prurience and some pretty unpleasant speculation.” Quite.
The Bishop of Portsmouth did not ask an order of monks to take of a parish to destroy it, at Blackfen the outgoing parish priest has worked hard to serve his community in a way they wanted, and they have responded generously. If the secular press want to make something negative of that, we can’t stop them. We, however, who know the truth, should be celebrating it and sharing it like the good Father did about the Portsmouth parish.