Saturday, July 14, 2012
It is Now Time to Restructure and Merge Dioceses
General Convention is over and some really good things happened. The blessings of committed same sex couples is a blessing and permitting transgendered persons to enter the ordination discernment process are spirit filled decisions. And the decision to study church restructuring and report back three years hence is indeed another blessing and long overdue. Good work, General Convention. Now it is time to turn our attention to merging and restructuring Dioceses.
The starting point for this discussion is still the now familiar refrain of church decline. Already Dioceses are stretched financially to pay their National Church Assessment. Parishes Churches are likewise stretched to pay their Diocesan Assessments. Fewer people are attending church on Sundays and members are either leaving or dying off. Based on this alone, there is a need to examine not only the number of Dioceses, but also the present funding of the Dioceses that we have. This twofold approach is necessary.
But first there is a theological issue to be resolved. Most Bishops believe that the Diocese is the fundamental unit of the Church. Based on the Romanizing model of the late sixth century in England, it is popular for the hierarchy to assert that Augustine's organizing principle is God's Word. Not so if we revert to Holy Scripture. Among several descriptions of the New Testament Church, the two identifiers that impress me in this regard are the ecclesia, those called out to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, and the metaphor of the human body; the Church as the Body of which Jesus Christ is the head. When Paul is writing about the church, he is not referring to a Diocese, he is referencing local groups of believers in major metropolitan centers. In Paul's mind, the local congregation in a given place is the fundamental unit of the Church.
If it is true that the fundamental unit of the church is the local assembly, then it is true that the majority of resources should go to support that body. While we may theologically debate the Episcopacy, and while we may agree as Anglicans that Bishops are important if not integral to our tradition, and while we may agree that some sort of central office is necessary to conduct the ministry of the Bishop, it is still true that resources devoted to that office are out of line when considered alongside the meager resources of the vast majority of Episcopal Churches.
We have way too many Bishops and Dioceses in TEC. Therefore, the first step in restructuring should be to decrease these. This would then allow more resources to flow downwards towards local churches. Meanwhile, current Dioceses could trim their expenses, tighten their belts, and allow more finanacial flexibility on the local level. This movement outwards from Dioceses would be then consistent with the biblical theology of the local church as the fundamental unit.
Diocesan Conventions are the places where these issues must be addressed. But they first have to be supported by the Bishop of each Diocese. Bishops, are you ready to have these discussions?