May 18, 2015

In Praise of Provinces

Episcopal Resurrection has proposed that The Episcopal Church eliminate provinces, a task that, as it turns out, requires a lot of changes to the church’s canons. The authors of the Episcopal Resurrection Web site argue that
This layer of denominational structure serves little purpose today other than to ensure geographic diversity on certain committees. … This change will free up resources currently spent on maintaining an outmoded structural model.
They also argue that eliminating provinces will allow certain bodies that now require representatives from provinces, such as the Joint Nominating Committee for the Presiding Bishop, to be made smaller. They confidently assert that “we can ensure continued geographic diversity without rigid lines.”

I am skeptical of these largely unsupported claims. I don’t believe the existence of provinces constitutes a significant drain on church resources, and promises to achieve geographic diversity are not completely credible where there is no mechanism to assure it. Moreover, the existence of provincial groupings does not preclude dioceses in different provinces from working together for some particular purpose. The Dioceses of Pittsburgh and Northwestern Pennsylvania—the dioceses were once one—have consulted about possible efficiencies that might result from working together.

Rather than making an abstract argument for the existence of provinces, I want to make an argument from personal experience.

Province III logo
Province III Logo
As early as 2003, Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP) began seeking assistance and advice from 815—the general church was regularly referred to as 815 back then—as Bishop Robert Duncan’s actions seemed increasingly schismatic. PEP believed that there was sufficient evidence to bring a presentment against Pittsburgh’s bishop, but we were told that the bishops of the church would never act against a colleague. In short, we received no encouragement or assistance. (Actually, this is not completely true. We received some sub rosa assistance from sympathetic people in New York.)  Three years later, when Duncan supported a resolution that purported to withdraw from Province III, PEP reached out to the province, representatives of which attended a PEP meeting to brief members on the operations of the province. (The diocese had not been taking an active part in Province III for some time.) As Duncan’s actions became increasing alarming, PEP members began meeting with Maryland bishop and president of Province III Bob Ihloff at locations outside of the Pittsburgh diocese. Ihloff was more effective at getting attention from 815 than PEP had been, and the meetings were later expanded to include non-PEP Episcopalians and legal representatives of the Presiding Bishop. By October 2008, when the diocese actually split, Episcopalians were ready to move on, both to rebuild an Episcopal diocese and to carry on the legal fight. Of course, the lawsuit filed by Calvary Church in 2006 was instrumental in retrieving millions of dollars of property from the breakaway group, but 815 had opposed Calvary’s move at first. Province III helped bring everyone together when unity was needed most.

In the time leading up to the diocesan split, informal representatives of Pittsburgh were warmly welcomed at Province III events. Generally, our connection to the province helped maintain an emotional connection to the wider church that would have been difficult to maintain with the more distant Episcopal Church Center. Even had my diocese been a “normal” one, the provincial connection would have helped counteract the sense of isolation and independence that so easily develops at the diocesan level.

Province III has sponsored a number of useful programs, but, perhaps most useful, is the provincial synod, particularly in years in which the General Convention meets. (You can visit the Province III Web site here.) This year, for example, attendees were briefed on issues to come before the General Convention in a meeting attended by the Presiding Bishop and other church leaders. Such an event is more easily staged by an organization with an ongoing existence than by an ad hoc group, as would be necessary in the absence of the provincial system.

Finally, it is worth noting that other organizations have taken advantage of the provincial organization to segment the work of their own groups. Episcopal Relief & Development and Daughters of the King both rely on a provincial structure.

For these and other reasons I hope that the General Convention will reject the call to eliminate provinces within The Episcopal Church. I suspect that, if General Convention does eliminate provinces, some provinces may even continue to exist informally. In any case, if anything is going to save our church, it isn’t going to be the elimination of provinces.

4 comments:

  1. Lionel,
    Thanks for your posts about the Memorial and this resolution. I appreciate the engagement -- which can only help us get to the best legislation in the long run. Looking forward to your thoughts on some of our other proposals. Peace,
    Adam

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    1. I hope that deputies can give thoughtful consideration to the important resolutions before them, and I hope that some of the less important resolutions don’t get too much in the way. The General Convention has a very big job to do this year.

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  2. Hi Lionel,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and story about how provinces have been effective as a network of real support for people dealing with on-the-ground challenges. For my part, I don't view the provinces as a particular drain on church resources - they're not terribly expensive, and while it's important that we use resources wisely, this isn't something that really moves the needle budgetwise, and probably not timewise either.

    Where I get concerned is that provinces also have a role in the governance of the church - notably in electing members of executive council and the JNCPB. Who does the electing? A House of Bishops and Deputies in each province. How do you get to be a provincial deputy? This is where things get weird.

    Canon 1.9.7 provides that "Each province and area mission shall determine the manner in which its deputies shall be chosen." I've done a little research on this, and there's not a lot of consistency. Here's what I found in a check of the constitution and canons of a few of the dioceses in Province V, where I live:

    Chicago: selected by Ecclesiastical Authority, no limitation on term
    Indianapolis: silent
    Northern Indiana: silent
    Western Michigan: elected by diocon, 3 year term
    Northern Michigan: C&C not online
    Eastern Michigan: elected by diocon, 3 year term, must be a GC deputy
    Michigan: elected by diocon, 3 year term, must be GC deputy or alternate, nominations by committee
    Missouri: silent

    I think it's problematic that almost half of the members of Executive Council, which plays a critical role in the governance of the church, are chosen by electors who are themselves selected through what appears to be a pretty scattershot means.

    Since this resolution was published I've seen a handful interesting stories of effective ministry at the provincial level (I regret that I haven't seen more). While I'm still unconvinced that the provincial structure is the best way to accomplish these things, I'm open to persuasion. But if the convention chooses not to go down this path, at the very least we should be looking to standardize the method of selecting provincial representation to make the provinces' role in governance more transparent.

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    1. Thanks, Brendan, for your comments and research. Perhaps we can clean up problematic aspects of the provincial system without doing away with it entirely.

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