Bishop Nicolas Knisely's Report from the Diocesan Convention
St. Pauls Church Pawtucket, RI
I am delighted to say again what many of you already know, that this is the 225thth time that Episcopalians in Rhode Island have gathered in Convention to take council and to make decisions about the structure of our common life in Christ in this corner of the vineyard of God. We date the founding of our diocese from the very first General Convention in 1789, so we, like many of the other dioceses which existed at the time of the formation of the Episcopal Church in this country are all celebrating the same anniversary.
It’s probably worth noting that we might remember that in our first convention, we were part of a diocese that was overseen by Bishop Samuel Seabury, who was also the bishop for all the Episcopal churches that remained after the devastating effects of the Revolutionary War on Anglicanism in the US colonies. As a few clergy returned from Canada (where they and their families had fled during the persecutions of the war) and new congregations began to be planted, the diocese was organized by the four churches of the state (Trinity Newport, St. Michael’s Bristol, St. Paul’s Wickford and King’s Chapel, later St. John’s in Providence.) We didn’t decide to call our own Rhode Island based bishop until 1843 when Bishop Henshaw, also Rector of Grace Providence, succeeded Bishop Griswold, who had been the Bishop of All New England (except Connecticut) and the Rector of St. Michael’s in Bristol. From that point on, we had our own bishops presiding over our diocesan conventions - of which this is the 225thth.
Given our history as one of the original colonial dioceses, it’s not surprising that we carried a great deal of what was good and proper in the Church of England into our common life here in the United States. We have our governance structures, though obviously adapted to country where there is no King or Queen, we have our theological structures and language and we have our liturgical expressions all as consequence of our origin. What was true at that time for Episcopalians in Rhode Island has continued to be true for Episcopalians across this nation, and in now 16 other countries. (I remind you that the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church is the Diocese of Haiti.)
But there’s more to our common tradition than I think we often realize. Part of what it means to be the Church of England is to be the default church of all the people living in the community in England. Unless you are a follower of another religion, or part of another Christian denomination, you, by the fact that you live in the community, are part of the local Church of England parish. You may hardly ever attend worship, but you have every right to expect the clergy to be there for you, to baptize your children, perform marriages, provide counseling when needed and funeral services at the end of life. The parish community is not separate from the community, limited only to those who explicitly say they belong, the parish is the community. (Which is why when you ask a Church of England clergy person how big her parish is, she’ll often says something like 32,000 people - they count everyone in the town, not the average Sunday attendance or active communicants as we do.)
This idea that the parish church, which exists primarily for the good of the community in which it is placed, is at the heart of the vision that Archbishop Cranmer had when he and others created our first Book of Common Prayer for the people of England. The whole country would pray and work together for the common good.
Of course this idea is reasonable when you are the established Church and are an active part of civil government of the state. (It’s the reaction to this establishmentand the way it was abused in England and by other denominations here in the US, that led the founders of our nation to enshrine Freedom of Religion and the Separation of Church and State into our Bill of Rights.)
Being descended and formed in the structures and thought of an established state church and being placed in a mission field where such status was explicitly forbidden by the highest law of the land has obviously forced us to make some adaptions. Much of our pageantry and some of liturgical forms carry the weight of our history, and we sometimes unthinkingly expect that people will listen to what we say just because of who we are, but for the most part we have had to learn to how to be the church that exists for the common good in a new way here in this country, and specifically, here in this state of Rhode Island.
So what does it look like, and more importantly, what should it look like? I think it’s important for us to be intentional about recognizing our history and expectation and to be thoughtful and intentional about how to be a Christian community that is less focused on the good of the member as we are on the good of the community. (That’s important, so I’ll say it again: how shall we be a Christian community in Rhode Island that is more focused on the good of the community than it is on the good of the individual member?)
Right off it tells you that our focus is less on customer service and more on community service. God has somehow called us together in our local settings across the state and set us to the task of making our local context more like the Dream of God, the Kingdom of God than they are at present. We are the people who both hear the song of God’s creative acts in the everyday moments of our lives and we are the people who have been called out of ourselves and into community and fellowship on behalf of others so that they too can hear the music of God that surrounds them at every turn.
To do this, we have had to turn establishment upside down. (Or as our new Presiding Bishop said again and again in his first sermon last week at the National Cathedral, we turn establishment upside down, which really means turning it right-side up.) We can’t expect people to come to us because of who the government and society folks say we are, but we have to go to people because God has sent us to them to do what we can to help. We are missionaries in our own communities. It’s perhaps the heart of the meaning of the beginning of our real name as a denomination: the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society - a name that was chosen by us at a special General Convention in 1820. We exist as base communities for the support of the wider community, both as evangelists and as servants.
This transition from an historical establishment status to a dis-established one is a paradigm shift in the way we live out our life, and one that I think we are still growing into. Paradigm shifts (which represent new ways of understanding the world around us) take centuries to occur and I believe we’ve have been in the middle of such a movement since the beginning of the 19thth century here in America. We are moving from an understanding of society as well ordered structure with a King or Emperor at the head and governors and proconsuls deriving their authority from that centralized office, to a model of network and community where the life is lived and creativity is found not at the center but at the margins.
It’s a transition away from St. Augustine’s vision of the City of God based on the structure of the then still mighty Roman Empire toward the vision that Anglicanism has discovered as it lives out its new life as a Christian community that is community based and dis-established.
It is a transition from hierarchy toward network. It’s happening all around us - not just in the Church, but in nation states, in technology, in business and in everyday life.
I believe this is good news for the gathered people of God who are following our risen shepherd who has gone ahead of us to Galilee - to the place on the margins. In a fundamental way, as we live into this new way of being community, we are drawing closer and closer to what God has intended for us all along. Jesus was recognized as the Holy One of God by the people on the outside, the poor, the sick, the powerless - and was rejected by those in the power structures of the hierarchy.
But it represents an overturning, a right-side upping, of the prevailing understanding of how we organize our common life.
What does it look like to have a diocese that has been turned right-side up? Well it for one it means that I’m very reluctant to tell you what to do. I’m much more interested in listening to learn what is going on in your local community and in the life of the people of the congregation, and then taking counsel with other people in the diocese about how best we can act to support the needs that are emerging and join in the good work that is already being done at the margins of our common life.
That desire to listen and then join in is a shift from how we have often done things in the past. Your congregations are not branch offices or franchise locations of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. I do not, by myself set the common course or proclaim the vision that you must adopt. Together we discern what God is already doing in our midst and take counsel together to find the best way to participate in that work. We are becoming a missionary people who are following Jesus to where he is leading, not to where we want to go.
This of course requires healthy local communities that have the freedom, and gifts of discernment, to hear the voice of God in the everyday events of life. It won’t work if we have congregations that are so busy trying to keep themselves alive that they are turning inward, so concerned with the details of their corporate life that they are unable to see what is happening beyond the walls of their buildings.
Members of the bishop’s staff have been working to find ways to help with this challenge. The solutions are unique to each community, but they do have a common thread. Many of the problems that occupy our congregational attention have to do with business and financial issues and not with spiritual and faith questions. If you’ve been with me in a congregational meeting during a Sunday visitation, you’ve heard me say this again and again. You’ve heard me talk about how we need to transition from a pledge based financial model into whatever it is that is coming next. (My sense is that we will be best served by finding multiple streams of financial support - pledge, gifts, estate gifts and rental income.)
We are not where we need to be yet in all cases, but many of you have made incredible strides in the last few years toward sustainability. And as you have moved in that direction, you’ve also, I’ve noticed, become much more creative in how you do mission-work and ministry. You’re no longer focused on the bottom line, and you’re now able to look out the window, and to walk out the door into the neighborhood in which you have been planted.
I want to reiterate that there is no one size fits all solution to moving our congregations to sustainability so that this change in perspective can happen. What works in a large congregation in an urban setting doesn’t work nearly as well in what is essentially a summer chapel by the seaside. We are small congregations, we are large congregations, we are traditional parishes, we are mission churches and we are specialized ministries, and each one has special gifts to offer and different needs in terms of support requirements.
I really do want to give my staff a shout-out here because they have been very creative in working with all of our congregations in Rhode Island to find appropriate models for each congregation’s life. We are not done by any means, but we are starting to make headway.
But what more can we do? What more do we need to provide in terms of resources for your missionary work? And how best can we organize ourselves to provide what we need now, and what we anticipate we are going to need in the future. I don’t know the complete list yet, but in what I’ve heard from you, I have enough to get us started. Enough to get going.
Essentially what I’m talking about in all of this is a concept that is known in Moral Theology as subsidiarity. It’s a key idea in western Christian thought and informs much of Anglican polity and ethics. A shorthand version of the idea is that we believe that decisions in a hierarchical structure should be made at the “lowest competent level” - or in other words we should empower people in the local congregation or region as much as we can to make the decisions that affect their common life and mission. Decisions about how to work for the relief of the poor, how to provide for shut-ins and how to best do Christian formation should be made by people in the congregation, not by people in the diocese or in the national church offices. The role of the diocese or the national office is not to tell people what they ought to be doing, but to do our best to provide the sorts of resources that the folks in the congregation tell us they need.
(There’s obviously a constant work of discernment as the church struggles to figure out what is decided where. I’m of the opinion that more often than not we all should defer to what the local community decides.)
There are, of course, some things that are better done at a diocesan level - setting the budget priorities for our common work for instance. The total revenue of all the congregations of Rhode Island combined last year a little over 19 million dollars. The portion of that money that was committed to the common work we do across the state was 1.8 million dollars (which was added to roughly 2 million dollars of diocesan endowment income and other diocesan revenues). How that money is allocated for mission work is best decided at the diocesan level than it is at the local level because it is used for ministry on behalf of the whole rather than by a local congregation.
There are some things that might be best done at the wider church or national church level - things like the design of clergy and lay leader formation programs. This is something the Lutheran Church has done for decades. It’s not something the Episcopal Church has done, as a matter of fact we’ve specifically refused to do it that way even though task force after task force has recommended that only the national level is really capable of setting that course, and the struggle we are watching as many of our seminaries try to keep themselves going is probably a direct consequence of that stance.
It’s important that we *do* find the appropriate level of our structures to make the decisions as needed, and it’s important to remember that our tradition defaults to the local as much as possible all of that in total helps us create a path that lets us right-side up our diocesan life together.
With that in mind, I think there are a number of places where the diocesan level is the most appropriate place for us to support the work of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus here in Rhode Island.
ONE: We are unique in the Episcopal Church. We are the smallest diocese of the church in terms of geographic size. We are 40th in terms of our reported membership - larger than 60 of our other dioceses. We are 45th out of 110 dioceses in terms of total income. So while we are small in terms of geography, we are not small in terms of membership or resources.
We are, I believe, the diocese with the highest density of congregations in the Episcopal Church. We have congregations on average every four miles across the state. We have parishioners who move between those congregations, often attending a program or event that is offered in one community while regularly worshiping in another.
Given all that, we have a chance here in Rhode Island to explore new sorts of congregation cooperation that are only possible in our unique environment. There are models that make sense when you’re talking four miles between congregations that make little or no sense in dioceses where the average is in the hundreds of miles.
We have seen some of this happening already, and it is often being supported by diocesan staff and resources when it does. The Church of the Ascension in Wakefield and St. John’s Chapel in Saunderstown are sharing in the capable ministry being provided by the Rev. Rob Travis, though they are not intending to do this as a form of merger. It’s a new and creative model that we are all exploring together.
The new congregation in Coventry, Church of the Advent (God willing) is the result of clergy and lay ministry from across the northern and western parts of the state. This is allowing us to offer a ministry together that we simply haven’t been able to provide on our own.
The way we do ministry to Spanish speaking and Latino cultural communities is another of those areas where there is diocesan cooperation with local efforts.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the exciting and creative community of music ministry that is happening in Newport which includes the resources of all three of our congregations in the city and their unique musical resources that added together are making a significant and noticed impact in their community.
TWO: How we do formation for young adults is another major area where we can be more effective coordinating at the diocesan level in partnership with local congregations than we might be trying to do it each on our own.
The most effective statewide ministry that we have at the moment is the work that The Rev. Meagan Brower and her staff are doing at ECC - not only is she forming the next generation of diocesan and parish leaders, but we are connecting people to the life giving Gospel of Jesus who would not dream of walking themselves or their family into a church, any church, on a Sunday morning.
Additionally we need to be much more intentional about how we are doing ministry to college age and young adult Episcopalians across the state. We have a good start with the ongoing chaplaincy to Brown and RISD students based at St. Stephen’s in Providence, and with the new ministry center focused on URI students at St. Augustine’s in Kingston. And we have Bryant University covered, at least for the moment because of the long running ministry that the Rev. Phil Devens has had on that campus. But we’ll need to do more in the future if we are serious about nurturing and calling the next generation of lay and ordained leaders for our diocese and our denomination. We will need to find a way to get ourselves more connected at CCRI, at Roger Williams, at Johnson and Wales, and at Providence College, Rhode Island College and Salve Regina too. I’m hopeful that much of this work can be done collaboratively with other denominations, but there’s much to do in this area and it’s time we got started.
THREE: I have been speaking about the future of St. John’s Cathedral at every diocesan convention since I was consecrated your bishop. The work we are doing to reopen and restart its ministry is part of this new paradigm shift.
I dream that the Cathedral will be a new kind of ecclesial community, an incubator for non-traditional expressions of Episcopal Church congregations. And I dream that we will use the building, the lower part of the building in particular, to house the Center for Reconciliation, a new program that we are participating in with others from this community that is garnering all sorts of national attention and support (more on this later.)
What is being imagined in the whole building is that it will become a community resource,that will convene people in the community, collaborate with others as appropriate and serve as a catalyst for new work both inside and outside the Church. As it does this St. John’s Cathedral will be living into the new model of Cathedral ministry that is spreading around the Episcopal Church and within the Anglican Communion - a ministry of standing at the cross-roads of faith and community and being a place where groups find it possible to speak and cooperate with each other.
FOUR: As I mentioned, much of the pressure that congregations across the state are experiencing is coming from a changing business model, not a lack of faith or lack of interest from the community. There are plenty of people in our neighborhoods who need to hear the Gospel, but we are often so busy focusing on our congregational finances that we are losing sight of the main thing.
The change that happens when a smaller congregation is able to connect with a bi-vocational priest, who is committed to ministry both in a secular career and in the faith community, can be astounding. Once a parish is able to afford its day to day costs, its turns it focus to its missionary work, and begins to creatively proclaim the Gospel in such a way that new people can hear it for the first time.
So at the diocesan level, in conversation with the Commission on Ministry, we’re starting to work hard to recruit local bi-vocational clergy. We have two people preparing for a traditional career in the Church at the moment, three in preparation for a bi-vocational ministry in the diocese and five people in formation as deacons. The work of preparing the bi-vocational clergy and the deacons is work that will yield significant fruits in our future, and I’m grateful for all of those persons who are helping with that task.
This is another example of how the diocesan structures are working to right-side up themselves for the future of our mission in the state of Rhode Island.
FIVE: Along the lines of financial models, one of the most important tasks that we are doing as a diocese is to respond to the new economy that is emerging.
If you talk to young adults today, you’ll learn that very few of them have checkbooks or ever carry cash. Banks prefer that you use plastic not paper to pay your bills, as it’s easier for them to process and keeps costs down in a day when interest rates are so low for everyone that it’s very hard to turn a profit. Most congregations used pledge envelopes filled with checks or paper money to gather in the gifts of the faithful so that they can pay their bills.
You can see the problem.
We’ve been hard at work helping congregations and diocesan institutions to move into this new financial world. We are now able to take your credit card gifts. And I believe that early next year you’ll be able to easily support a ministry by sending either a text message or opening a mobile friendly website and giving your gift. We’ll still be grateful for gifts made in cash or check form, but for those for whom it doesn’t make sense anymore, we want to help them to learn generosity by making their gifts and receiving their gifts as easily as we can for them.
For some congregations it’s going to make sense to have the diocese do the heavy lifting in this sort of thing, for some the congregation has the resources to do it locally. Either way, we will all need to make this transition though, and relatively soon - some people estimate that have as little as five years and as much as ten years to have it completed. (And that might be optimistic.)
The good news for all of us is that there are a number of congregations of other denominations here in Rhode Island who are showing us the way. Bishop Jeff Williams, the pastor of Kings Cathedral (which is the old Church of the Messiah on the southside) tells me that they rarely receive an offering in an envelope anymore. They take up their whole weekly collection with electronic giving, and they have seen their giving increase significantly as a result, especially among young people.
That’s five things being done at the diocesan level to right-side up our common life so that the congregations can all live into the future that is breaking in upon us.
In closing, I want to return and restate something I said just a short while ago. We as a people, as a Church and as a community of followers of Jesus are moving into a new way of ordering our lives. It not unique to us, it’s happening all around the world, and we don’t know yet completely what it will look like when we arrive in the place to which we’re headed.
I do think that it where we end up will be somehow more focused on what it means to be a community, a network than what it means to be an individual. And it’s exciting if that’s going to be the case, that we are already a highly networked diocese - because of our size and our scale.
It is this characteristic more than anything else that I think that is allowing us to make the decisions and lay the groundwork for new initiatives that will bear fruit in our future. We will not be the same people we are today when we celebrate our 250th anniversary in 25 years. Or when we celebrate our 300th in 75 years. But we will still be the people whom God has gathered into communities across the state who will be working for the good of the whole community as part of our witness to the power of the new life we have found by virtue of our baptism and our relationship with our Lord Jesus.
But for the moment, in this time of renewal, Our diocese, our congregations can and ought to be on the cutting edge of what is happening in the Episcopal Church and across the whole Communion. It will be with an RI accent, but the lessons can be shared.
We have work to do.
Let’s get going.