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Bishop Whalon offers a few thoughts on restructuring the church

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.


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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


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

Erik Campano

“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


Sorry, again. post was from Lan Green


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.

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