In New Zealand, the outgoing bishop of Dundedin, the Rt Rev Kelvin Wright has announced his retirement. In his retirement letter though he offered that he was giving adequate notice so that the diocese might have time to figure out whether it might be too small to continue.
“The simple truth is, we, in the Diocese of Dunedin can no longer afford a full time bishop. This year we are balancing the budget because the St. John’s College Trust Board has recognised my role as a ministry educator and has allowed us to use some of the funding we use for educational work to be applied to the episcopate.
I have spoken of the reasons for the changes in our circumstances before. At our peak, back in the early 1970’s there were about 10,000 people worshipping in Anglican Churches in Otago and Southland every week. Last year there were around 2,000. In other words, there has been an 80% decline over the last 40 years. The infrastructure of our church was developed to serve a spiritual environment which has changed beyond recognition, and now we cannot sustain it. The reasons for our decline are linked to the shifting patterns of religious behaviour in the Western world generally, and to the enormous social changes which have taken place in the Rural South Island over the last few decades. In many ways we have met these challenges quite well: many of our churches are quite buoyant, and our attendances at services across the diocese have actually risen over the last 3 or 4 years but this rise in attendance has not been matched by a rise in committed membership, or in giving. ”
This same situation is facing several dioceses here in the Episcopal Church as well. Twenty-three of our domestic dioceses had average Sunday attendance (ASA) of less than 2500 in 2014 (the latest year for which there are stats) according to the Episcopal Church’s statistics web page. Of those twenty-three, six had ASA of less than one thousand. Several have explored innovative approaches such as Western Kansas, whose last bishop was also the rector of a church, Eastern Oregon, who had a provisional bishop who was an assisting bishop in another diocese or even merger with a larger diocese, such as Quincy who merged with Chicago.
The question before us, just as in Dunedin, is whether the current structures of the church are fit for purpose in our current context. It seems pretty clear that they are not and yet change is slow and what would be best is still unclear. If we are smart, we will look to be ahead of the change and create the structures for ourselves that will best enable us to fulfill our Christ-given mission; if we are not, change will be imposed upon us anyway by the myriad of changes happening all around us