Saturday, June 2, 2012

What is a diocese?

Whether we are sorting out property disputes in North America, or working out whether two dioceses out of forty-four in England not agreeing to women bishops is worth bothering about, or live in Australia where (it seems to me) whatever is happening in Sydney is important to all other dioceses, or perhaps live in Uruguay which recently nominated a bishop the Province of the Southern Cone declined to confirm, the question "What is a diocese?" might be on our minds. It might also be useful to ask this question in the Diocese of Christchurch where we face overwhelming questions about the viability of many of our parish buildings, questions whose answers depend not only on the parishes themselves, but also on diocesan bodies such as Synod, Standing Committee and the Church Property Trustees (i.e. our diocesan trust board).

Sometimes we say in Anglican conversations that the basic ministry unit of Anglican churches is 'the diocese'. Theologically I understand this to mean that the key office(r) of the church is 'the bishop', so the church in its fullness is found where Christians gather in communion around their bishop. That is, the diocese is the church in its fullness, no smaller unit of ministry (on this theology) is the church in its fullness.

Clearly this is not all there is to say, because bishops do not arrive in a diocese solely by means of the diocese, which means that the notion that the diocese is the church in its fullness is up for discussion. That is, it is arguable that the diocese is not the church represented in its full fullness because a bishop is appointed to a diocese with the say so of other bishops (e.g. minimum of three to ordain a bishop), and, indeed, in some Anglican jurisdiction, with the say so of others (e.g. in ACANZP, a majority of the members of General Synod). Nevertheless, once a bishop is in place, a diocese stands alone if it desires: it can ordain its own clergy, train its own clergy. Well, maybe not all so simple: clergy implies regulations and over the years dioceses in our church and others have felt more secure having common regulations for ministry, to say nothing of common prayer books arrived at by more wisdom than resides in a diocese. Then there are arguments about the 'congregation' being the basic form of the church ...

Actually, cutting to the chase, I am doubtful (but open to arguments in comments) that the diocese is the basic ministry unit of the church. I suggest that in a Anglican framing of the church as an interdependent set of bodies, there is no one simple, discrete unit of the church. Rather there are units plural which in their complex relationships make up the church. There are parishes, but they can only operate so far without recourse to their diocese. There are dioceses, but they can only operate so far without recourse to the whole province/member church of the Communion to which they belong. There are provinces/member churches which can operate for a very long time and on a wide range of matters without recourse to the Communion, but recourse there is because something burns in the heart of the true church member which wants to be part of something larger. And the Communion itself keeps talking about re-union with Rome, Constantinople, and Geneva.

So, a diocese is not the church in its fullness. Bit of a negative answer to our question! What about a positive answer? I suggest, keeping the idea of interdependence in mind, that a diocese is both a corporation and a co-operative. It is a corporation in the sense that various bits of civil and ecclesial law talk about 'the Diocese of X' as a legal entity that can do this, own that, and even pass statutes and resolutions of its own. But it is also a co-operative in that 'the diocese' is hard to define without its bishop (elected as the local synod and (say) the General Synod co-operate), its synod and committees (which mostly do not exist without the co-operation of parishes as they come together to meet, to elect and to appoint), and its trust board(s) (whose members often are appointed by ... synod).

I haven't even talked about money, but here, also, the idea of corporation and co-operative are important. As a corporation a diocese owns property and receives monies, including bequests. As a co-operative a diocese finances aspects of its ministry and mission by contributions from its ministry units, those contributions ultimately being voluntary contributions in the sense that synod agrees to whatever system for collecting money is required to make things work (again, as synod agrees). The diocese which has large trust funds at its disposal is less dependent on the co-operation of synod for its workings than the diocese which has large dependency on parish contributions.

In ACANZP an often forgotten fact about diocesan life is that significant parts of what we do as 'dioceses' is dependent on a third source of funding, the annual grants from the St John's College Trust Board. I know of no episcopal unit in our church which could survive without immense pain and loss to its education and training if it suffered a sudden cessation of that funding. The good thing about that dependency is that it helps dioceses to meet together at General Synod and other forums because we go there to make sure that funding source is healthy and well governed. And don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

What happens when a diocese gets to a point where it cannot sustain what it thinks of as being the essense of 'diocesan' life? We will watch the next 12 - 24 months of the life of the Diocese of Dunedin, the clergy of which have just received a sobering letter from its bishop, Kelvin Wright, about the pressing financial situation it faces.

Back to corporation and co-operative. I suggest a diocese is an entity within the ecclesial community of Anglicans which lives as both a corporation and a co-operative. Either/or is not an option.

Perhaps my question here, "What is a diocese?" is miscast. The better question might be, "Is a diocese what we think a diocese is?"


MichaelA said...

Good question Peter. Referring back to the formularies, I can't think of anywhere that it is mentioned in the BCP, or the Articles or the Ordinal.

I suppose some sort of diocesan organisation is implied by the fact that confirmation must be done by the bishop, but otherwise the formularies are directed to the parish level, or the general level.

I have heard that Cranmer was engaged in signficant structural reform at diocesan level during Edward VI's reign, but the records pertaining to this reform have not yet been published. If he saw diocesan organisation as in a state of flux, that might partly explain why the formularies don't really touch on it?

The number and organisation of dioceses changed from time to time in England throughout the middle-ages. There was a major change when the monasteries were dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII, because many cathedrals were monastic and therefore ceased to exist. This enabled Henry to reform the whole structure (I mean 'reform' in a structural sense, not a doctrinal sense) by establishing new cathedrals and re-drawing old diocesan boundaries. But this was just a more intense form of changes that had occurred on a piece-meal basis before that.

I hope this helps!

Michael, Sydney

Andrew Reid said...

Thanks for the stimulating discussion as ever, Peter. I think it's probably helpful to say right from the start that the New Testament talks about local fellowships (ekklesia) and the whole body of Christ. Sometimes, there seems to be references to multiple house gatherings in a single city (e.g. Rome, Corinth), but we have to acknowledge that deaneries, dioceses, provinces, national churches etc are a human construct rather than a Biblical one. So, however we organise ourselves, it is helpful to focus our ministry on the two entities the Bible focuses on - the local fellowship and the whole body of Christ. In a similar vein, it is difficult to argue the case that a diocese is the basic ministry unit - so many NT letters are written to local fellowships that this argument can't be sustained.

Having said that, we have a helpful tradition of dioceses, led by bishops and governed by synods. They provide a helpful focus of leadership, administration and common purpose. However, I think a diocese needs to see itself as serving the local fellowships and the whole body of Christ, rather than the other way around. Our emphasis on bishops has sometimes led to a more centralised and top-down approach than we ought to have.

One of the best examples I know of using diocesan structures to strengthen local parishes for kingdom ministry is in the diocese of Tasmanis (declaring an interest, the bishop is my former parish priest!). They were declining and ageing, and didn't have enough ordinands coming through. Bishop John Harrower has introduced some creative new ministry models to enable these parishes to continue, and re-focus on mission.

Something else to say here is that my experience in the diocese of Egypt & North Africa has shown that larger ministry units like the province and the Communion really matter to suffering and struggling churches. During the upheaval of the Arab uprising, these wider networks are a genuine support and blessing to us.

Father Ron Smith said...

So, Andrew wants to go back to the Bible again! Has he no modern understanding of the 2,000 years of history that has elapsed since that time? It's a wonder he's not advocating the return to the Temple construct - or perhaps even the Ark of the Covenant. Adam & Eve, anyone?

It does remind me of those who think that the Holy Spirit did absolutely nothing after the first Pentecost. no wonder churches are going our of fashion for most of our young people.

I'm rather fond of Pope John XXIII's Semper Reformanda, my self - where there's life there's hope. Mind you, Rome has resiled from that forward movement since then.

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the Faithful; rekindle within us the fire of God's Love through Jesus Christ our redeemer. Amen.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Ron
Everytime we affirm the gospel we go back to the Bible. It does not mean we want to reconstruct the Temple. How about giving us your own constructive thoughts about dioceses rather than criticising a fellow commenter in this way?

Father Ron Smith said...

To my mind, Peter, the diocese is a reasonably thought-out system of Church governance: The diocesan bishop at the centre, parishes and diocesan external ministries around the bishop. Bishop assistants, at the direction of the diocesan bishop - to help in episcopally-related ministries delegated by the diocesan.

Provinces with a Presiding Bishop, acting in concert with Diocesan Bishops, collegially, has been a well-tried and tested episcopal model for some time in the Anglican Communion - allowing Mission in context to operate in each part of the Communion - with creedal definitions as the basic glue. No disciplinary Covenant needed.

In other words: - No Change in the system of governance, but open-ness to the changing face of Mission.
Bishops to be chosen from those who are experienced in parish ministry - not just from academia!

Peter Carrell said...

Thank you, Ron!
That is a constructive contribution which is entirely agreeable save for one sentence consisting of four words :)

MichaelA said...


Another thought: studying recent examples of change in diocesan structures overseas might give ideas that assist with the NZ experience:

1. Anglicans in the developing world (particularly in Africa) have seen an explosion of evangelism and church-planting over the past 20-30 years, with new dioceses and arch-dioceses being formed, and old ones re-shaped.

2. The Church of England has re-drawn a number of diocesan boundaries over the past decade to fit in with changing demographics.

3. Since its formation three years ago, ACNA in North America has formed at least three new dioceses and dissolved one.

4. The Anglican Church of Canada is considering folding three dioceses into one large diocese where numbers have dropped for various reasons.

If you can find someone with practical knowledge of these, they might be able to share the experiences each church had of the change.

Michael, Sydney

liturgy said...

To clarify Andrew's point above, the local church is the whole Body of Christ. The local church is the whole church, the catholic church.



Anonymous said...

"So, Andrew wants to go back to the Bible again!"

Thats what Christians do Ron. They put God's opinion first, not the fashions of men.

Andrew Reid said...

Hi Peter,

Just saw this post from Mark Thompson which sets out in more detail the view about local churches being the basic unit of the church.

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Andrew
That seems to be part of a print article in The Briefing which I happened to read last night.

Essentially I reject the Robinson/Knox line about congregations. It is a very narrow view of "congregation" (as though congregational life is not occurring when members of the congregation meet each other in the supermarket, work together on some practical help for someone in need in the parish, or meet with other members of other congregations on diocesan committees and synods and at General Synods); it is a very cynical view of denominational life (denominations good if they support the congregation as the congregation wants to be supported but bad if attempt to direct the congregation to conform to a wider "conciliar" understanding of the gospel and of mission); and it is a very low view of the ordained ministry (which does not work from congregationalism but from inter-congregationalism, i.e. dioceses as they receive applications, discern God's calling, and recognise it for ordination, not for the local congregation from whence the candidate comes, for for any and (over a lifetime) many congregations, and, as well, working on a diocesan vision for training, often through a diocesan-standard (not one congregation's standard) college run by the diocese (and, again, to underline the point, not by one of the local congregations).

The Robinson/Knox line is so diminished in its vision for the church that it beggars belief under what circumstances it arose for these two men, along with Mark Thompson himself, are very intelligent and thoughtful scholars.