Bishop Whalon offers a few thoughts on restructuring the church

Bishop Pierre Whalon takes a long look at the structure of the Episcopal Church, and ventures a few opinions on the sorts of changes that might be necessary in an essay at Anglicans Online. He writes:

Start with the local congregation. We can and we should add new models to our definition of “parish” and “mission church.” In Europe we have been experimenting with this, necessity being the mother of invention in a missionary situation. The swift changes in the landscape of American church life also demand a new flexibility in congregational organization, while retaining the substance of our identity as Anglicans overall, and Episcopal Christians in particular.

The definition of a diocese and specifically, the office of bishop, are also a center of reforming interest. ... Does the particularity of our polity require so many dioceses? How does this age’s great game-changer, the Internet, figure in?

The General Convention itself needs rethinking. Some are calling for consideration of a unicameral body, like our full-communion partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Its enormous size (888 deputies and almost 300 eligible bishops) and expense certainly need to be trimmed: the representation and resultant expenditure should be proportional to the need to meet.

The office of President of the House of Deputies has recently expanded in its scope from being the legislative officer presiding at triennial meetings of the Convention. What should be the duties of the office, given that we continue not to pay a salary to the President of the House?

The Presiding Bishop’s office is another focus of attention. The present Presiding Bishop has been criticized for seeming to take more responsibilities than the office allows, specifically with respect to dealing with the property disputes above. ... But it is precisely when there is crisis that a central authority needs to intervene. How to define that?

The Executive Council meets between General Conventions to conduct the business of the Church. Its president is the Presiding Bishop, and the vice-president is the President of the House of Deputies. It functions like a board of trustees, yet with 38 elected members, reforms also should be considered. The Treasurer and Secretary of Convention are elected by Convention. So with the Council, we have five centers of elected authority, each with a staff — on whose desk should the buck stop?

What are your thoughts? I find myself wondering lately if it would be more beneficial for the structure task force to take a fresh look at the entire Episcopal operation, rather than diving straight in to the mechanics of our governance. I don't just want them to help us reorganize--although reorganization is necessary--I want them to help us rethink what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. All the issues that Bishop Whalon outlines need to be dealt with, but if these are the only issues that we deal with, I am afraid we will end up with a more efficient church that does the same things, only in a more cost effective way.

Comments (12)

I'd like to put an inverted question alongside this one Bishop Whalon asks:

"Does the particularity of our polity require so many dioceses? How does this age’s great game-changer, the Internet, figure in?"

Does being an Episcopal church require making such a big deal of our bishops - big dioceses, staffs, and diocesan program? With a game changer like the internet, might we shares resources and planning more broadly and return bishops to their original context as the senior local pastor in a not-too-extended (or not hugely populated) face-to-face experienced local community?

I would like to echo what Donald has said. I think it would be better to have more bishops, not fewer. The caveat though is that an expanded episcopate would be more focused on the pastoral and teaching roles. Perhaps much of what the diocese does now could be better coordinated (and funded?) at a provincial level.

Jon White

Interesting direction in which the comment thread is going. I'm sympathetic.

But what about the parish that goes off the reservation? Or the parish that goes through a rough patch and need rehab, perhaps due to a bad experience with clergy? Can a diocese with little authority address these?

In my experience the role of the diocese is often putting out fires with authority because nothing else will?


John, I like your question. I wouldn't hope for "a diocese with little authority" but a little diocese with more mutually accountable, collaborative authority. I remember one of our presiding bishops (several back) saying his authority was like the Wizard of Oz, credible because he was mostly hidden and no one thought to challenge him. If the bishop was the pastor of a congregation with a dozen other congregations gathered around it, how would s/he and clergy and laity deal with crises among them? It would likely be more transparent, yes, less surgical or isolated, possibly more painful. Would we just look the other way? Happens sometimes at the larger scale too. I was fascinated to read Nathan Mithchell's recent piece in Worship about the role of Celtic bishops before Patrick Romanized the Celtic church. Abbots were more powerful than bishops. Bishops had sacramental function but deliberation seems to have been shared among small cluster/coalitions of heads of community. Sounds more like an entrepreneurial organization, maybe more fragile and prone to failure, but also much more nimble and more open to innovative success.

"If the bishop was the pastor of a congregation with a dozen other congregations gathered around it, how would s/he and clergy and laity deal with crises among them? It would likely be more transparent, yes, less surgical or isolated, possibly more painful."

Donald, I'd like you to flesh this out more for me because I'm having trouble following. I ask not to make a point but merely for information:

You're saying that if a bishop were also head of a particular congregation -- and that the bishop's area of governance was smaller than it is today -- then crises would be more "transparent" and their resolution "less surgical"? Are you saying that under current governance, the bishop's role is to prevent people from knowing about crises? And what does performing "surgery" precisely mean in this context? Maybe an example could help.

Erik Campano

I agree (partially) with Donald Schell and others above. We need more bishops and more dioceses.

But then we part ways: I think we need less general convention, fewer CCABs, and more teeth to collegial discipline among the house of bishops in matters of doctrine and practice. The ecumenical councils were ugly, but they were effective.


I was thinking aloud (writing and thinking) in response to John's question. Our authority structures (compared to early church) are consolidated over wider areas for "efficiencies of scale." The peril is distance from local context. Conflict and need for conflict resolution will continue whatever structures we put in place. But when the conflict is close to home and we know leaders and those in the conflict up close, conflict has more creative potential (and is more uncomfortable to address directly) because distance and layers of structure give much more opportunity for "discretion" that can turn into secrecy. You ask for an example, and I'll offer an extreme one - Look at how the Roman church has dealt with sexual abuse cases and even parish closings. What people know locally is disconnected from the leaders' work "resolving" the problem.

Would Bishop Whalon be happier about the diocesan problem if, as in our state, we have 1 bishop for 114 congregations in 105,000 square miles? Perhaps the good Bishop, or the bloggers above, would be willing to share their answers to the questions they raise. We've been hearing about TEC reorganization and cost/staff cutting long before General Convention. We have groups within the church working on these problems but it still seems very easy to say let's "do it on the cheap." The changes, when they come, are going to last a long time (I think)so lets get as many ideas out there and make sure we do it as right as we possibly can.

Sorry, again. post was from Lan Green

"But when the conflict is close to home and we know leaders and those in the conflict up close, conflict has more creative potential (and is more uncomfortable to address directly) because distance and layers of structure give much more opportunity for 'discretion' that can turn into secrecy."

Donald: This is really interesting. What you're saying here -- correct me if I'm wrong, please -- is that the more localised the polity, the more that parishioners will know about crises (like sex abuse scandals). This, then, makes them more "uncomfortable" to deal with, because the people involved in the case are more likely to be familiar with each other. But it also carries "creative potential" -- that is, the chance to learn from the situation and prevent it, perhaps, from happening again. But, again if I'm understanding you right, when power is top down and hierarchical over vast areas, fewer people are likely to understand the process by which conflicts get resolved, it'll be less personal, but also less transparent which means that it is less likely to lead people to come up with creative solutions?

Regarding conflicts like sex abuse or parish closings: may I suggest that successful resolution is not so much a matter of how many bishops there are, or what their powers might be, but what kind of personal, and direct, leadership they proffer? You could have a bishop who runs 150 congregations but when a conflict arises, if s/he's there on the real turf speaking directly to the people involved, negotiating reconciliation, providing pastoral leadership, etc., that's a heck of a lot better than a bishop who leads 12 congregations but remains detached, in his or her office, and/or shuts down communication when conflict comes up.

I suppose what I'm saying is that as far as bishops go, it's quality, not quantity, that counts most. Diocesan size doesn't matter so much as to how skilled is the person who's leading it.

I'd like to take a stab at Bishop Whalon's question about the internet. I don't think it undoes the role of dioceses or anything like that, any more than it changes the roles of US state governments. But what the internet does do is make it much easier for people to find out what's happening in the church next door. In the old days, when I was a kid, and trudged 20 miles in snow to school uphill both ways, and there was no internet, then you didn't really have any way of knowing what your church in the next town over was up to, unless you took a drive over there and picked up the bulletin. Nowadays, you can just go to their website. I don't know how many people actually do this regularly -- I tend increasingly to view the world through the stained-glass window-colored glasses of an Episcopal Church geek -- but this availability of information is important in crisis situations. If the congregation in the next town over is, say, thinking of breaking away from TEC, an online forum (like this one) may offer you the chance jump much more quickly into the debate than in the past.

The other thing about the internet is that if there is some kind of crisis or scandal, it's a lot harder for interested parties to cover up. Bishops and other hierarchical leaders lose some power to quash people who might disagree with them. The power of internet exposure has been a huge boon to the people fighting sex abuse in the RC Church (e.g., That is all to say: the net democratizes, which is a development that I'm guessing Bishop Whalon would like, given the admiration he expresses, in the full version of his essay, for the democratic origins of the Episcopal Church.

Erik Campano

Erik, I think your observation about the quality of bishops is really key. I think part of the problem with episcopal quality is lack of agreement about what exactly the best use of a bishop is. Some of us want teachers and pastors, some want visionary leaders, others a steady hand on the tiller and many, it seems, want the iron hand of authority. Let's be honest, our inherited role of bishop has always been somewhat at odds with our democratic polity - ever since Bps White and Seabury duked it out in the 1780's. For my part, I'd like a bishop who is more accessible and less remote. At the same time, I don't really want someone looking over my shoulder constantly. But right now, my desire for closeness is greater than my fear of overbearing-ness. And I think a more focused diocesan structure might open the way for more creative ministry, maybe not everywhere, but in enough places that their good efforts will begin to spread.

Jon White

Bishop Whalon's ideas are not irrelevant by no means, but I think it is toying around the edges and at 30,000 feet overhead. When I think of restructure and change, I think of (in no particular order of importance...)

1. make clergy training less burdensome.
2. increase training/formation of laity.
3. decentralize seminary ed.
4. one legislative body + a PM and a PB
5. really live the Five Marks of Mission for 25 years, minimum
6. increase liturgical creativity.
7. one bishop per 10 parishes, with a bishop as a rector.
8. expand the role of deacons for all diocese.

Things like that.

Kevin McGrane

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