Spiritual Geographic
  • Friday, June 29, 2012

The Charisms and Challenges of Smaller Dioceses

By Michael B. Cover

The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. — 1 Cor. 12:22

The impending merger between the Diocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Quincy is more than an isolated incident: it is a sign of the times. It shows that the current financial struggles faced by many small dioceses in the Episcopal Church can reach a breaking point and portends the potential for further consolidations. In some cases, such a “reunion,” as the Chicago/Quincy merger is being heralded — along with the Diocese of Springfield, they originally formed the Diocese of Illinois — may be necessary. But before we rush to adopt an administrative solution for fragile dioceses, it is critical to take a step back and ask, first, what a diocese actually is, and second, whether the Episcopal Church’s smaller dioceses present us with a problem to be solved or a parabolic challenge to be answered.

Diocesan Spiritual Geography

The Church, like the people of Israel, does not need to assert its right to exist. Unlike the Jeffersonian right to the pursuit of happiness which is founded on human self-evidence, the Church’s eternal foundation is the Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, who created her as his instrument to bring salvation to the world (2 Sam. 7; Rom. 11:28-29; Matt. 16:18). Even if God should punish or chastise her for a time, his covenant promises are sure (Hos. 11:1-11). Dioceses, in the high view of St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Magnesians, 7), constitute churches. They exist wherever the bishop gathers the people of God, and as distinct spiritual geographies they participate in the Church’s election. Each diocese, however, to risk an imperfect analogy, is likewise an unrepeatable ecclesial species. In ecclesiastical ecology, this means that each Episcopal See is unique and irreplaceable in the Church’s 2,000-year history. While God retains the right to prune the Church as he sees fit, an orderly discernment on our end regarding how to meet the practical needs at the local level should keep this theological identity of dioceses in the foreground.

A Charism, not a Problem

Any discussion of small or fragile dioceses in the Episcopal Church should begin with their spiritual charisms. All three bishops with whom I spoke about this issue (Bishop Edwin Leidel of Eau Claire, Bishop Russell Jacobus of Fond du Lac, and Bishop Edward S. Little II of Northern Indiana) consider size one of the spiritual gifts of their diocese; few liked the label “fragile.” Writes Bishop Jacobus: “We may be small and have a lot of challenges but we are strong and firm in our commitment to the mission and ministry of our Lord in this place.”

Over the last four years, I have served as a newly ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. Since I know this diocese best, I will offer two examples of its charisms. First, as Bishop Little notes, the diocese’s manageable size makes us “relationally rich.” Thanks to this charism (and Bishop Little’s shepherding), Northern Indiana has lost no churches since 2003. As a further consequence, clergy holding a wide range of theological commitments live and serve together in communion. Our clergy conferences serve essentially as think tanks composed of veteran and younger priests from across the theological spectrum. In light of such collegiality, the increasingly shrill polarization evident in corners of the Episcopal Church seems less and less intelligible. Northern Indiana offers the wider church an alternative vision of herself.

Second, the Diocese of Northern Indiana has a long-standing relationship with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and provides a unique center for joint service and ecumenical dialogue between our two Communions. When Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori made her visitation to the diocese in October 2011, a Roman Catholic priest was among the clergy welcoming her and offering an appreciation for the role of the Episcopal Church in South Bend. St. Margaret’s House, an Episcopal day center for women and children adjacent to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. James, is directed by a Roman Catholic laywoman, Kathryn Schneider. And of course, there is the unique intellectual ferment of Notre Dame, where Roman Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Orthodox scholars have been sharpening one another in all areas of theology for many years. Were Northern Indiana to be consolidated into another diocese, our relational richness and distinct ecumenical vocation would become largely attenuated as our parishes fell under the pressure to conform to the mission of larger dioceses whose focus was (geographically) elsewhere.

Interdependence, not Dependence

Given the autonomy of Episcopal dioceses as unique spiritual geographies and the good of preserving their charisms, what can the General Convention of the Episcopal Church do to support diocesan structures without unduly influencing this autonomy? One proposal in this year’s Blue Book (Resolution A100) focuses on the interdependent relation of dioceses to their provinces and to the Episcopal Church, and suggests that financial and administrative support for smaller dioceses might be sought at the provincial level. Resolution A100, to my mind, is asking the right question in an orderly fashion. It suggests that conversations should happen first at the diocesan level, and goes so far as calling for “revenue sharing” among dioceses and potentially administrative sharing at the provincial level as well.

Some further questions: might a diocese temporarily become a “mission diocese,” either of the Episcopal Church, of its regional province, or of another diocese, as an interim measure to support it through a difficult season and to better equip the saints for every good work in some of our country’s most economically challenged regions? What of a missionary “collection” for a diocese, as St. Paul carried out for the church in Jerusalem? The early Church, as well as the history of the Episcopal Church, provides a wealth of ecclesial models that, with a little creativity, we might draw on in the 21st century.

A Time to Build Up

Our limited means raise a natural question: which dioceses should be funded? That decision could depend on the creativity, vision, and energy for mission among the dioceses which request help. In this vein, I would like to make two observations regarding smaller dioceses, which are not suggestions but simply calls for reflection. The first has to do with our buildings.

Our buildings are beautiful. Like the fabled pillars of the earth — from cathedral arches to rood screens in country parishes — our sacramental spaces provide architectural dignity amid surrounding wastelands, seemingly buttressing the vast Midwestern sky. But they do not serve all of us equally well. I am fortunate enough to serve in a parish where our pews are full most Sundays, yet the building presents major challenges for families with young children and the elderly. Other congregations barely fill the church buildings they so faithfully steward. How might we turn our buildings from burdens into assets? Could a congregation be called to “fasting” from its building for a season of missiological revisioning and renewal? What would happen to our parish communities in the process? Second, when should a diocese plant new churches or other ministries? In 2009, Archbishop Robert Duncan challenged the Anglican Church in North America to plant 1,000 “works in the Anglican Way” during the course of his investiture. How might Episcopalians plant new Anglican works using our current buildings as constructive assets? The answer will vary from diocese to diocese, but as every gardener knows, a plot with no new intentional planting thrives on random volunteers and inevitably goes to seed.

Kemper, Prisca, and Aquila

I have focused on what might be called “polity solutions” to the challenges we encounter in smaller dioceses. None of these, however, will matter much if the Episcopal Church does not recover its evangelical vocation, which in the Midwest once went hand-in-hand with catholic worship and order. Polity will not help us for want of “mere apostolicity” in the mode of St. Paul and Blessed Jackson Kemper.

I spoke recently with the music minister of a nondenominational church in Mishawaka, Indiana — they have four full-time pastors, two of whom are young fathers. He told me his family had left an affluent Chicago suburb to respond to a call from his church in Northern Indiana. What would it take for our smaller dioceses to call clergy and laity with such confidence?

Kemper himself apparently had trouble persuading his New York colleagues to join him on the prairies and the farmlands of the Middle West. As a result, he trained clergy locally. That tradition is alive and well, and one which small dioceses with university resources should continue to foster. In addition to drawing on their academic partnerships, small dioceses are recruiting more “tentmaking priests,” those who are able to hold a primary vocation elsewhere or who are willing to take untraditional posts. A case in point: a courageous young priest I know will be leaving an affluent diocese to take up a cure in Northern Indiana, overseeing two small parishes, while his wife pursues doctoral studies at Notre Dame.

The importance of calling gifted lay ministers to small dioceses likewise cannot be overvalued. Writes Paul: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom. 16:3-4, emphasis added). Although it’s subject to debate, Paul does not call Prisca and Aquila “apostles” (cf. Rom. 16:7); as such they probably did not share that designation. Nonetheless, they underwent the same personal risks characteristic of the apostolic ministry (2 Cor. 11:21-33). In seeking to call charismatic leaders, how can churches and dioceses call the laity to a new level of missionary commitment?

No polity can thrive without apostleship. However, the joint calling of clergy and laity to step up to the apostolic challenge will also lead to new polities, as is happening in Northern Indiana. One particular model which Bishop Little has spearheaded is that of “regional ministry,” a particularly inspired example of which can be found in the recently formed Calumet Episcopal Ministry Partnership. The partnership comprises three independent parishes, whose vestries have agreed to envision themselves as “one church in three locations.” They share a lead priest, who celebrates at two of the three churches each Sunday. Retired clergy in the area help fill in the gaps. The most inspiring part of the ministry: although the three churches contribute to the lead priest’s salary disproportionately according to their income, the lead priest’s time is to be equally divided. This kind of “revenue sharing,” similar to that envisioned by Resolution A100, embodies the Gospel.

In Speculo

The way that the Episcopal Church decides to address the issue of small or fragile dioceses is in one sense purely an internal concern. However, it may have further ramifications. With dwindling numbers and struggling finances, flanked by the Anglican Church in North America, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox communions at home, and representing only 2.5 percent of the 80 million Anglicans worldwide, the Episcopal Church should see in the face of her struggling dioceses a mirror image of her provincial self. Just as each of our small dioceses represents a unique spiritual geography which contributes to the whole, so the Episcopal Church has a valuable role to play within the Communion. As we gather to take counsel in Indianapolis this July and beyond, we do well not to “forget what we are like” (James 1:23-24) in relation to the worldwide Communion and our ecumenical partners. Let us pray that what we do unto one another may also be meted unto us.

The Rev. Michael B. Cover is a doctoral candidate in New Testament and early Judaism in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and assisting priest at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Mishawaka, Indiana.

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Spiritual Geography


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