A Process Reflection from the Structure Task Force
The structure committee’s early discussions revolved around a single question: what infrastructure would a unified diocese in Wisconsin need to accomplish its mission if the proposed reunion is approved by all three dioceses? Although “building an office” is the goal, structural decisions often come relatively late in a process. Imagine a person who was asked what structure was needed to cross a large body of water. The structure could be a boat, but it might also be a bridge. It could even be a helicopter. All three “structures” will convey a person over the water, but the reason for the water crossing will determine which structure is best for the purpose. A person traveling cross country by car will want a bridge. A person hoping to spend a pleasant afternoon might elect to paddle a canoe, and a person in urgent need of medical care will be grateful for a life flight.
Likewise, envisioning a diocesan structure requires not only a structure that fulfills the legal requirements of the Episcopal church, which is analogous to crossing the water, but also some assumption about the reason for crossing. Our task force took this latter consideration as the most important piece of discernment. One solution would place a bishop in the geographic or logistical center of the state, in which case, the committee would find a place where transportation is optimized. Alternatively, a committee might decide the diocesan staff should not burden parishes financially, so the diocesan ask from parishes would be zero and the proceeds of the collective endowments would fund a rather small staff. Depending on the reason for its formation, the diocesan infrastructure of a unified Wisconsin diocese would be very different. This recognition that the structure supports function moved our discussion from weighing the pros and cons of bridges, boats, and helicopters to asking why we wanted to cross the water. Our committee finally agreed that the reason to cross the water, that is the reason a diocese exists is to support local ministries and to unite them into a fuller version of the body of Christ than is possible in a single congregation.
In this light, a diocesan community exists to encourage and assist congregations in their development of local Christian ministry and community. Congregations are most healthy and alive when they are:
● Incarnational (showing forth God’s love for people and creation through the person and work of Jesus Christ).
● Discipleship oriented (helping people live into spiritual journeys and the loving relationships of God’s kingdom).
● Apostolic (sending people to love and serve God and other people in the world).
These three aspects of healthy congregations are central to our Christian faith, our Way of life, and to full expressions of the body of Christ. These signs of health are included in our Catechism and Baptismal covenants. By sinking roots deep into each of these three areas, Christian faith communities become healthy and vital, and spiritual growth feeds and enables every aspect of congregational life, including prayer and worship, sacraments, music, leadership, and authority. Church participation and attendance increases as congregations truly become more loving, discipling, and missional because people want to be part of healthy and thriving communities that care for others.
Only when we discern what makes us who we are, can we craft a structure that equips us to live into this identity. Our discussion leads us to believe that the diocesan structure that will help the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin is one that can re-build our parishes into 21st century Benedictine communities, based on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and authentic inclusion. This vision will not only serve the people inside and outside our parishes, but also, incidentally, ensure that Anglicanism will be a driving force in the wider church. If and when we truly discern this is the way forward and pursue it, then the tangible structures for this work will fall into place. As we look to build a structure for a revitalized and re-formed Episcopal Church in Wisconsin—whether that is the three existing dioceses or some iteration of a reunited diocese—a fundamental question has to be answered: “How are we to be?” Or perhaps a corollary question, “What are the core characteristics of being Anglican?”
The church has spent the last 50 years skillfully avoiding these questions. COVID took away our prerogative to bury our heads in the sand. First, we discern how to be the church, and then can we build a structure to enable us to live into our God-given potential. Two major concepts, the via media and martyrdom, emerged early in our discussions; these, in turn, led us to a third, unifying concept already mentioned above—the idea of the parish and of the diocese as iterations of Benedictine community.
The via media is arguably the most dearly held aspect of Anglican historical identity. This characteristic of Anglican identity differentiates it from other branches of catholic Christendom, whose modern expressions were all birthed in the midst of great ecclesiastical strife. The reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I were marked by reformational whiplash. Great theological swings between traditional Roman Catholicism and the newly developing Reformed Churches left the church in England subject to the royal whims of the day. Under the leadership of Queen Elizabeth I, the via media or “middle way” forged a new understanding of how people who disagreed about important matters of religion, could still be united in a common faith. The Elizabethan Settlement retained much of the church’s pre-Reformation traditional practice, but without submission to papal authority. Uniformity of worship was required, but considerable latitude was allowed for individual conscience.
The via media is often misunderstood in a negative way to mean compromise or unwillingness to take a firm position. It is better viewed as a practical way to navigate complex issues where there are multiple “right answers.” Catholic-leaning Anglicans could read the 39 Articles and hear the mass said in one way; Protestant-leaning Anglicans would hear it another way. Just as English society was deeply divided in the 16th and 17th centuries, our own society faces huge moral and ethical questions about which people of faith disagree. American society is divided sharply by topics like abortion, stem cell research, and assisted suicide. The role of the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters continues to be a hotly debated topic. In some quarters of Anglicanism, the role of women in ordained ministry is still not a settled matter. The via media allows people of good conscience to hold views contrary to others in the church, and simultaneously enables all to leave those beliefs in the nave and approach the communion rail united by a common faith expressed in the historical creeds of the church. The via media is one way that the Episcopal Church can differentiate itself from Roman Catholicism and other mainline Protestant denominations. The via media is tailor-made for our bifurcated society.
Martyrdom is a second concept necessary to live into faithful and missional structure. Following the Anglican impulse to move forward by looking back to our ancient heritage, both congregations and dioceses must recover the ancient sense and practice that the Church gives birth to “martyrs” or, in English translation, “witnesses” rather than to satisfied consumers or worldly producers of religious goods, services, or institutions. Christians in the communion of the Holy Spirit bear witness to a Truth by the way they live, worship, work, love, pray, serve, repent, forgive, build, play, steward, and rest that this Truth is deeper than the passport they carry, their party affiliation, or the world’s fickle senses of relevance or utility. This deeper truth is nothing less than the Kingdom of God ushered into the world by the Crucified and Risen One.
Such counter-cultural witness is costly and requires deep, practical formation and support of Christians, formation and support that only diocesan community relationships, shared purpose, and distinctly ecclesial culture can provide. Furthermore, the arrangement of diocesan structures by itself is not sufficient. Only the power of the Spirit imparted in baptism and exercised by lay people, bishops, priests, and deacons, can enable a diocesan life in which Christians are personally and collectively joined to Christ in a death like his and be raised to new life like he has. Nothing could be more relevant to a creation groaning to be “delivered from the bondage of decay into the glorious liberty of the children of God” than congregations and a diocese structured and living for such purpose and mission.
Following Jesus is hard work. If carried out effectively, we cannot expect that the world will thank us for doing it. The most ardent followers of Jesus like Dr. King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Perpetua, or Oscar Romero, sometimes even lost their lives for doing it. Yet they did it. And the world is a better place for what they said and for what they did. Christianity, when lived out as God would have us do, is hard work. So hard, that alone it would be almost impossible to accomplish, but we are not alone. As Episcopal congregations, and collectively as a fuller picture of the Body of Christ reflected in a diocese, we can carry out the task that is set before us.
In our conversation, the lenses of “martyrdom” and “via media” were linked by a third concept, Benedictine spirituality, which has been a part of Anglicanism from a time that stretches back before the Reformation. The monastic movement of the 4th-6th centuries called the church back to its roots, to a balanced life of prayer, worship, service, and community. St. Benedict built on this call, and his understanding of Christianity was rooted in living in community. Unlike other monastic orders who professed vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, those living in Benedictine communities professed, and still profess, vows of obedience, stability, and conversation of life. The influence of Benedictine spirituality in the formation of the English church, its place at the heart of Anglicanism, and in The Episcopal Church (TEC) as we have inherited them cannot be overstated. These hallmarks of Benedictine spirituality are briefly described below and form a framework for the questions this paper poses regarding the structure of a possible unified Episcopal diocese in Wisconsin.
Obedience. The Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict begins, “Obsculta, o fili,” or “Listen, my child.” To obey comes from the Latin word obedire, which means "listen to," or a more colloquial translation, "pay attention to.” Christian communities of faith are places where we are called to listen—to the Word of God, to the tradition of the church, to the collective wisdom of the Communion of Saints, and to each other. Only when we listen, can we learn. The church needs to be a place where we can listen and learn.
Stability. In the earliest days of monasticism, if one did not like the food, or the accommodations, or the abbot, or members of the community, one simply moved on to another community more to one’s liking. Benedict countered this with a vow of stability. He posited that we could not grow into the full stature of Christ unless we learned to work through our differences. We live in a world that is made up of innumerable small communities. We pick and choose the ones to our liking: the news channel we watch, who we vote for, who we associate with, in these and so many other ways, we divide ourselves into micro-communities. And, if we don’t like the one we are in, we simply move on to the next. A community of faith needs to stand in contrast to their instability and be a place where anyone can find refuge, while at the same time being authentic. A community of faith is the crucible for learning to love our neighbors—especially the ones we don’t like.
Conversion of Life. Becoming a Christian is a lifelong task. We baptize and communicate children well before they have any idea what being a Christian entails. Parents and the gathered faith community make promises on behalf of the person being baptized. When people are confirmed, they make an informed affirmation of those same promises. In the Episcopal Church, at baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and ordinations, the assembled community promises to do every in their power to help those receiving these sacraments to live into the promises they are making. Conversion of life, maturing as a Christian, is a cradle-to-grave proposition, requiring the support of a faith community to sustain an ongoing process of conversion.
In After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, author and philosopher Alisdare MacIntyre, wrote: “I spoke of us as waiting for another St. Benedict. Benedict’s greatness lay in making possible a quite new kind of institution, that of the monastery of prayer, learning, and labor, in which and around which communities could not only survive, but flourish in a period of social and cultural darkness. The effects of Benedict’s founding insights and of their institutional embodiment by those who learned from them were from the standpoint of his own age quite unpredictable. And it was my intention to suggest, when I wrote that last sentence in 1980, that ours too is a time of waiting for new and unpredictable possibilities of renewal.” The wisdom of Benedict is just as relevant today as it was 1700 years ago. Re-visioning the church through the lens of Benedictine spirituality, could allow the Episcopal Church to offer its unique way of being Christian to a world that sorely needs it.
Spiritual writer Martin Thornton, in his book English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology according to the English Pastoral Tradition, lays out six core characteristics of this Benedictine way of being:
• Consistency in maintaining the “speculative-affective synthesis” – the unity of heart and mind, the (amalgam) of the intellectual life and the (emotional) life.
• An insistence on the unity of the Church Militant, priests and people together carrying out the mission of the Church.
• A unique humanism and a unique optimism, summed up by Dame Julian’s “all shall be well.”
• The liturgy, the Eucharist and the Daily Office, as the foundation of the Christian life.
• Private prayer remains subservient to the recollection of Christ’s presence. i.e. it’s not about Jesus and me. It’s about Jesus and us.
• Spiritual direction, not only as a pastoral practice but as the source of theology.
The universal church in general, and The Episcopal Church specifically, is in need of renewal. The Christendom model of the 19th and 20th centuries is dead. If TEC is to remain relevant and alive, whether as three dioceses in the State of Wisconsin or a new re-unified diocese, we need to re-engage our Benediction roots, examining what “Obedience, Stability, and Conversion of Life,” look like in 21st century Wisconsin. We need to demonstrate how people of goodwill who hold widely varying opinions can live together in community. At the minimum, this would mean a thorough reconsideration of the common understanding of the episcopate.
The structure task force agreed that the most visible and identifiable aspect of this way of understanding a diocese requires a bishop who is primarily a Chief Spiritual Officer (CSO), not a Chief Executive Officer (CEO). The bishop would be supported by a diocesan staff that focuses on the nuts and bolts of facilitating new, outward facing ministry. To that end, a bishop will primarily be a teacher, a pastor, and a theologian who comes alongside clergy as a trusted advisor and authority. One of the great pieces of the monastic tradition was the leader as confessor. In the current structure and culture of the Episcopal church, it is hard to imagine many priests who are willing to make their confession to the diocesan bishop. Or to put it another way, there are not many priests who are unwilling to receive this sacrament from the hand of their bishop. This fundamental lack (or even rejection) of habitual, sacramental re-incorporation of the diocesan clergy into the life-giving unity of the church by the spiritual leader of the diocese derives in part from clergy who tend to view a bishop as their boss, somone whose work is governed by canonical, rather than spiritual, obligations.
To conclude, diocesan communities can help congregations become loving, learning and serving Christian communities in many ways. Bishops, diocesan staff, clergy, and lay leaders need to help congregations focus, discern, and respond in their unique contexts to build and share their expressions of community, discipleship, and mission regularly and intentionally. Steps toward loving community may include helping overcome divisions and differences (conflict resolution and reconciliation), improving communications, and identifying ways to share compassion and caring. For discipleship, supporting people’s spiritual journeys by helping them discover, develop and use their gifts in community, experience spiritual growth and transformation, and become leaders. For mission, helping serve with and for God and other people, the diocesan community helps congregations to go beyond their comfortable boundaries through effective ways of sending people out to engage surrounding communities (such as missionary small groups and congregational, community or intercultural partnerships). Working together in these activities builds and strengthens diocesan community relationships, shared purposes, and culture.
Beyond this revision of the episcopal office and in consideration of the many possible ways that a diocese might assist any given congregation, the best course is perhaps to return to the original metaphor, and ask why we want to cross the water. To that end, the following questions built around the questions of the via media, martyrdom, and the Benedictine categories of obedience, stability, and conversation of life must be addressed, not only by this task force, but by the wider community of the Episcopal Church in the state of Wisconsin: