Tangled Up in Blue: Provinces

This is the twenty-second post in a series on resolutions for General Convention 2015. See also the index of resolutions and the list of resources related to #GC78.

Provinces episcopal churchJust because I finished the Blue Book resolutions in my last installment doesn’t mean we’re done. As of today, there are 217 resolutions up for consideration at General Convention, and we’ve looked at the 152 resolutions from the Blue Book. As time permits this week and next, I’ll be looking at the remaining resolutions (from bishops, dioceses, provinces, and deputies) by theme. So today we’re looking at resolutions having to do with provinces.

A few weeks ago, I met with a group who drafted a memorial to the General Convention calling us to proclaim resurrection and to engage in spiritual practices as individuals and as a church. We also drafted a set of nine resolutions that we think help to enable the vision of the memorial. In our thinking (and here I’m speaking only for myself), I saw us trying to figure out what we could achieve, what we could legislate, and what we could add to build on TREC’s work. So we had some good ideas that did not turn into resolutions. For example, if every Episcopalian spent more time with the scriptures, we’d be better followers of Jesus and our churches would be stronger. But you can’t legislate that.

We considered several areas, and we kept looking at provinces. While our nine provinces certainly do some good, they also add a layer of polity that we should be able to trim way to free up resources of time and money for other work. It’s important that no one think that I or anyone else would say provinces do no good. Rather, the opportunity cost of keeping them is higher than what they accomplish; much of the good provinces now offer does not require a layer of polity.

Getting rid of provinces isn’t the be-all, end-all of structural reform, and it won’t cause a sea change in our church. But it should be an easy way to make headway on organizing ourselves for this century, continuing what is good, and trimming what is not necessary. From my perspective, being good or familiar or comfortable is not sufficient. We need to keep those things which are essential, and hold all else lightly.

First, the good. Our nine provinces offer a good vehicle for regional gatherings. Seeing the tweets from the recent Province IV (southeastern US) gathering, I wished I could have gone. It makes an easy way to convene people across several dioceses. Provinces are also good for building regional networks. Youth ministers or commissions on ministry or even bishops can gather more easily because travel costs are lower, and they can share resources.

It should immediately be noted that all of those things could happen even without things called provinces. New England Episcopalians could get together without a thing called Province I. Youth ministers in the upper midwest could meet online or in person without being in a province.

Provinces also help us fill churchwide committees, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing. There’s a rule now that if a committee has more than nine people on it, one person should be from each province. Why do we mandate a strict quota system for geography, but not for other kinds of diversity? In other words, since we trust our presiding officers to appoint people of varied race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, etc., can we also trust them to seek geographic diversity? In our current system, we end up with some comically large committees. The nominating committee for a presiding bishop is 29 (!) people. That’s one bishop, one deacon or priest, and one lay person from each of our nine provinces, plus two youth representatives. Maybe we should instead decide on the optimal committee size and work on geographic (and other) diversity in appointments.

In some provinces, the provincial synod (that’s like a regional general convention) is made up of the bishops and synod members who are elected by dioceses. In some provinces, these synod members are appointed. And in others, they are grafted into synod by virtue of, for example, being elected deputy to General Convention. And then these synods elect Executive Council members. So in some cases, we have unelected or opaquely made appointees elected members of our church’s board.

There is also an issue of time. Some provincial synods meet a couple of times a year, and a room full of people spend a day or two in these meetings. What is the result? How do those meetings proclaim the kingdom of God? How else might we spend our time? At the churchwide level, the cost of provinces is not high, perhaps in the low six figures. But if you add up all the costs of all the meetings, it becomes more significant.

One more prefatory note: I had a chance to visit Province IX last year when I went with some staff members of the Episcopal Church to visit the diocese of Ecuador Central. First of all, I was exceedingly impressed by the effort to provide resources from the whole church to address some local challenges. These are deep, real relationships, and I was blessed to see the fruits of these relationships as a diocese which has a long history of various challenges works toward health. Part of the goodness of what’s happening in Ecuador is a network of relationships with the other dioceses of Province IX (Colombia, Dominican Republic, Litoral Ecuador, Honduras, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela). There is a great deal of resource sharing and mutual support among these people, and the churchwide staff are able to target resource development at a group with broadly similar contexts. Any reform of provinces would necessarily keep these networks and targeted resource development. The good work and the great momentum (as these dioceses work toward sustainability) can continue without a thing called Province IX.

So why get rid of provinces?

Setting aside the idea that the burden should be on those who advocate structural maintenance in our day, I think there are several compelling reasons to get rid of provinces.

  • We can accomplish the good things that provinces are doing without needless a layer of bureaucracy and complicated polity.
  • We can have more flexibility for networking across the current provincial boundaries. Maybe Western New York would rather meet with Northwest Pennsylvania? Or maybe small, rural dioceses from across much of the nation would find it beneficial to gather at times.
  • We can spare ourselves from constituting nine copies of some committees, when in reality we only need one for our church (e.g. clergy discipline courts of review).
  • We can size churchwide committees appropriately and trust our presiding officers to keep an eye on geography as a criterion for diversity.
  • We can have a consistent, churchwide process of elections, especially for Executive Council.

Provinces are a horse-and-buggy solution to modern challenges. How can we have networks that are larger than dioceses but not encompassing the whole church? Transport is easier now. Online networking is easier now. We can build the networks we need without resorting to structures that are otherwise unhelpful. We can build networks from the grassroots, without being told who to connect with.

I’ll share the explanation for the resolution that the Episcopal Resurrection team drafted. Obviously I’m in favor of this resolution, as I’m listed as the proposer.

First established over a hundred years ago after decades of discussion, provinces have served their useful purpose. In today’s age of easy travel, we wish to open up collaborative possibilities beyond the constrained boundaries of provinces, to permit shared ministry across current lines, if desired. This layer of denominational structure serves little purpose today other than to ensure geographic diversity on certain committees. We believe that we can ensure continued geographic diversity without rigid lines, similar to our current practice of seeking diversity of race, age, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression. Interest-based provincial networks, such as young adult gatherings, deployment officer gatherings, etc., can continue to meet under this change; there is nothing that requires a governance structure to exist in order to allow an affinity group to meet. Removing the provincial structure allows such affinity gatherings to choose the geographic groupings that make the most sense in their context. This change will free up resources currently spent on maintaining an outmoded structural model.

At the same time, we wish to acknowledge the good work of the dioceses in Province IX, and the particular circumstances of our international dioceses. This resolution calls for their continued support, and for our Presiding Officers to continue to include participation from dioceses outside of the United States in the church’s committees and commissions.

Since Title IV currently uses a Provincial Court of Review, we propose the creation of a single churchwide Court of Review. We believe that a churchwide court will be an equally satisfactory alternative to the current structure.

Eliminating provinces also allows the numbers of members on certain committees to be adjusted, since provincial representation is no longer needed. Specifically, we propose to change the following:

  • Executive Council from 38 members to 30
  • The Joint Nominating Committee for the Presiding Bishop from 29 to 20
  • Increase the Official Youth Presence from 18 to up to 24

With that lengthy introduction, let’s look at the resolutions now before General Convention on provinces.

D011: Eliminate Provinces. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

(NOTE: I am proposing this, so take what you read here with that in mind.)

As the explanation says, this encourages ongoing networking without a layer of bureaucracy to go with it. The provincial courts of review for clergy discipline are replaced with a churchwide court of review. Ongoing work of the dioceses now in Province IX is encouraged. Because we don’t need to fill committees based on geography, we can tweak some sizes. In this proposal, Executive Council gets a bit smaller, as does the presiding bishop nominating committee. The Official Youth Presence at General Convention is increased.

Because I think we can do the good of provinces without a thing called provinces, I’m for eliminating them for the sake of streamlining and the promotion of flexible networking and collaboration.


Several of the provinces passed resolutions at their synods in the last few months encouraging their ongoing purpose. Each of the following resolutions proposes the addition of a canonical definition of provinces as follows:

The primary purposes of the Provincial system are to provide a structure which facilitates inter-diocesan collaboration to achieve Diocesan and Episcopal Church goals, and to enable more effective communications and regional advocacy of significant programmatic efforts.

That’s good as far as it goes, and if that’s all provinces were, I suppose I could get behind it. However, there’s more to it than that; the cost of the collaboration that’s described is very high. Want proof? Have a look at D011, and see how much work it takes in our canons to get rid of provinces. These 19th-century solutions are embedded in ways that demand 21st-century thinking.

In other words, we can have the collaboration without having synods and presidents and review courts and so on. Dioceses can and should collaborate freely.

The following resolutions are similar:

C021: Amend Canon I.9. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

C027: Amend Canon I.9Full text. Likely vote: NO.

C029: Amend Canon I.9Full text. Likely vote: NO.

C034: Amend Canon I.9Full text. Likely vote: NO.

See above for the reasoning on my likely no vote.

(There are others on the way, I think, and I’ll add those when they appear on the General Convention website.)


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3 Responses

  1. Christine Gilson+ says:

    How do I send you an email, Scott? I have an interesting thing from the “days of yore” that I think helps explain TEC – and I’d like to email it to you.

  2. Jesse Zink says:

    To pick up on an idea you mention in passing, how about creating networks of dioceses based on size (i.e. budget)? Different size dioceses have different needs and different gifts to offer the church. I’m thinking of, say, four networks, ranging from one for resource-size dioceses (e.g. LA, Texas, Chicago, etc.) to smaller but well-endowed dioceses down to small, rural dioceses that struggle to afford a bishop. I’d be open to the idea of rooting representation on various committees in such new networks because I think that sometimes the different needs of the church based on region and size are not adequately represented.

    But much overall agreement with the opportunity cost approach to church structure. The church is not in a both-and situation anymore but one in which it needs to make choices. And I’d also like to see more regional events of the kind you suggest, an idea I thought about a bit more when the TREC report was first released.

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