December 1, 2015

How Important Is the Diocese?

Fund-raising letter of November 11, 2015
Bob Duncan, the bishop of ACNA’s Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, recently sent out a fund-raising letter.  (A PDF version of the letter is here.) The appeal carried the title “Bishop’s Extra-Mile Appeal in Support of Congregational Mission.” The appeal suggests, as have other indicators, that the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh continues to be under-funded.

As a fund-raising appeal, the heart of the letter is in these two paragraphs:
Every believer is called upon to tithe, to give away at least ten per cent of what we have to the work of God, chiefly through the local parish. Many of us go beyond the tithe. Many of us go the extra mile.

This year, my last as your Diocesan Bishop, I am asking you once again to consider an extra mile gift. Let's do something memorable!
What I was particularly struck by, however, by an earlier paragraph:
We are part of a great diocese with a great mission. We do our mission chiefly through the agency of our congregations. Congregations are primary, the diocese is secondary. The diocese exists to make its congregations strong, and to connect them with one another and with the Global Church.
The militant traditionalists of (or recently of) The Episcopal Church have played fast and loose regarding the importance of dioceses. When then bishop Duncan was urging the churches of the diocese to vote to leave The Episcopal Church, he repeatedly asserted that nothing would change; congregations would merely dissociate themselves from the heretical wider church. To reassure them—disingenuously, I might add—that they would be able to keep their property, he told the people that the diocese, detached from The Episcopal Church, would make no claim on their property such as that asserted by the Dennis Canon.

On the other hand, conservative bishops had earlier latched on to the notion promoted by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that the diocese is the fundamental unit of the church. James F. Turrell called this notion dangerous, idiosyncratic, and profoundly ahistorical. The archbishop seemed to be looking for buy-in for the Anglican Covenant wherever he could find it—why not from dioceses if The Episcopal Church would not accept it?—but the effect went beyond what was intended. Some bishops did talk of having dioceses adopt the Covenant, but Williams’ ill-considered ideas also provided justification for dioceses leaving The Episcopal Church.

The reality, I’m afraid, is that Duncan and his ilk will make whatever argument serves their purposes. When a strong diocese advances their cause, the diocese will be emphasized. When congregational autonomy does so, diocesan leaders become congregationalists.

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