I believe that the most important “sleeper issue” coming before General Convention this year is diocesan collaboration. A number of resolutions could open important doors to allowing our struggling dioceses to gain more traction in their crucial work.
The various creative initiatives dioceses have attempted in recent years demonstrate the difficulties some dioceses face in developing a mission strategy and raising the money to pursue it. The election of Sean Rowe as Bishop Provisional of Bethlehem, even as he continues the bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania is but one example of the ways different dioceses are trying to adapt. These ecclesiastical experiments to date can be considered the beginning of a coming wave of collaborations for three reasons: the financial situations of small dioceses are likely to get worse before they get better; nothing tried so far has proven to an unqualified success; and a number of canonical barriers remain to fuller collaboration. Hopefully by the end of convention, we will have at least removed some of the canonical barriers.
I was part of a group that wrote two resolutions to facilitate diocesan collaboration: D007, which I proposed, and D003. These resolutions would enable greater flexibility in diocesan collaboration without requiring anyone to do anything they do not want to do. Another resolution, C031, would provide financial incentives for diocesan mergers.
D007 would accomplish two objectives. First, this resolution would allow dioceses to share a commission on ministry. Current canons provide that each diocese will have its own commission. Allowing for collaboration in this area seems especially beneficial at a time when more and more dioceses are developing clergy formation programs that differ from a traditional three-year Master of Divinity, and are developing training and licensure for a variety of lay leadership offices. Second, this resolution would allow bishops to serve in more than one diocese. Current canons require a bishop to reside in his or her diocese. D007 would allow a Standing Committee to consent to a bishop residing in another diocese where that bishop is also serving. This solution seems the most straightforward way to eliminate the only current barrier to bishops serving more than one diocese at a time. This resolution would still require each diocese to have its own standing committees and finance committees, which seems necessary as long as the dioceses remain independent corporations.
D003 would amend the constitution to allow for diocesan mergers when a diocese does not have a bishop. Article V of the church’s constitution currently requires that dioceses without a bishop wait until they elect one before moving ahead with a merger. This requirement would seem counter-intuitive, however. The time when a diocese is without a bishop may be the best moment to consider a merger with a neighboring diocese. Consent of General Convention and approval by the Executive Council would still be required, however, so this change does not create an unduly hasty process. Note that resolution A101 accomplishes as similar goal, but only when a Bishop Provisional is in place in a diocese. D003 provides for the Ecclesiastical Authority, which may be a bishop or the Standing Committee, to allow a merger to move forward.
C031 is a resolution proposed by Province III that would reduce the General Convention Assessment by 50% for one year for dioceses that agree to merge. This resolution will require some wordsmithing by the legislative Committee on Governance and Structure, but it provides an interesting carrot that might prompt some discussions about inter-diocesan mergers and collaborations.
I would also mention a number of resolutions that discuss the selection process of bishops. Ensuring we get the best leaders at the diocesan level is extremely important. The Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church saw a need for the church to look seriously at the role of bishop and proposed A002. A number of other resolutions deal with various aspects of the episcopacy, and how to ensure that recent selection problems aren’t repeated. I believe D004, which was written by a group I was a part of, is perhaps the most comprehensive of these resolutions, but whatever comes out of committee should probably be approved.
Adam Trambley, a member of the legislative Committee on Structure, is a clergy deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.