Plans are afoot, it seems, drastically to reduce the number of 'smaller' Italian dioceses. I'm not terribly enthusiastic about this. There have already, I understand, been too many amalgamations.
History has known different models of diocesan episcopacy. One thinks perhaps primarily of (1) the old 'city-state' model: a middle-sized market town and the villages socially and economically attached to it; and (2) the gigantic northern European dioceses based upon pre-urban tribal boundaries (medieval Oxford was in the diocese of Lincoln).
(1) goes back to the first evangelisation, when Christianity took root in the polis well before it spread out among the pagani. It is still alive in the dreamier parts of the Mediterranean. Or rather, it was back in the '60s. I rather liked it. The Bishop was not a distant prelate or what Gregory Dix called a cheerfully brisk businessman in gaiters. People could drop in for a cup of coffee and to gossip, and, most Sundays, he celebrated in his Cathedral in the presence of a sizeable percentage of his people. Perhaps most of the babies were still baptised in the Baptistry attached to the Cathedral. The boundaries were there; you never forgot he was the bishop, but the sort of prelacy which sadly encrusts episcopacy in this country was happily absent. Having a Bishop in the Apostolic Succession does not have to mean that he lives a couple of hours' driving away and has all the apparatus of secretaries and menials to keep the common people at a distance; the over-loaded diary; the perpetual feeling that you're taking up too much of the time of somebody with terribly important things to do. "Call me Bob" is no substitute for feeling that somebody really has got space for you. I remember Mervyn Stockwood who, even before his Chauffeur had got the car moving after a parish visit, was already talking into his dictaphone.
It's the system I blame, not the Bishops. Even though I'm not incardinated into the Diocese of Portsmouth, Bishop Philip Egan has been a model of a kindly pastor (and he has got a real reforming grip upon his diocese and writes delightful Pastorals of refreshing orthodoxy). And I hear well of Mark O'Toole ... but, good heavens, his diocese stretches from the Scillies to the Eastern borders of Dorset. (Does anybody remember that very funny joke he told us in Allen Hall? I've completely forgotten it except for the punch-line "I didn't mean the whole b****y bucket".)
We learned what true, pastoral episcopacy was when we had our flying Bishops. I had learned it earlier, in South London, in my friendship with Bishop Christopher Commodatos and his Cypriot congregation. The Bishop as the high-powered District Manager is a concept that leaves me cold.
I hope those dozy little Italian dioceses survive. But I bet they won't.