When I was first called to All Saints in 2017, our bishop suggested that we consider joining another diocese. Since I was at that time a priest in the Diocese of CANA West, I proposed to the Vestry that we move the parish there. However, after a congregational meeting with Bishop Felix Orji, the Vestry concluded that it was not the right move for us to make at that time. However, we were also clear that the possibility of moving into a new diocese might still be a possibility in the future. Recently we have begun exploring the possibility of joining the Anglican Diocese of the South. But before I say more about that, perhaps some background and history would be helpful.
What is a diocese?
If you are new to Anglicanism, you might be wondering, “What is a diocese?” The simple definition is that a diocese is a geographical region or district of churches under the pastoral care of a bishop. So just as a parish is made up of many individuals under the pastoral care of a priest, a diocese is made up of many parishes under the pastoral care of a bishop.
What are the benefits of a diocese?
The geographical structure of a diocese helps churches to share resources. For example, when I was in the diocese of Colorado, there were many parishes that were simply too small to have a significant youth program. So the diocese would put on these wonderful youth retreats every year where all the teens could come together to have fun and learn about Jesus.
A diocese also provides opportunities for collegiality amongst clergy. Especially in smaller parishes, a priest can easily feel isolated, so getting to know other priests in a diocese often feels like a lifeline to the larger church. It also provides a network of pastoral care for clergy with the bishop serving as their primary pastor.
The diocesan structure gives us a way to experience and learn from the broadness of the Anglican Church. Again, when I was in Colorado we had churches in our diocese that were traditional and others that were more contemporary. We had some churches that were evangelical and others who were more catholic. This diversity helped open my eyes to the beauty and adaptability of Anglicanism and helped to strengthen my understanding of my own ministry.
Finally, a diocese helps to connect us to the wider communion. As Anglicans, we are not simply part of an individual parish or a national denomination. We are members of a worldwide communion of Anglican Christians. It is through our diocese and through our bishop that we remain connected to these other Anglican around the globe. When I meet an Anglican from another country, I may not know him or her personally, but we quickly discover that our bishops know each other, and thus an immediate bond of fellowship is created between us.
What has changed?
Unfortunately, the theological crisis in the Episcopal Church turned this structure on its head. By definition, Anglican clergy and parishes must always be under the authority of a bishop. There is no such thing as an independent Anglican church. During the early 2000’s as clergy and congregations left the Episcopal Church, they had to seek alternative episcopal (i.e. bishop) oversight. This resulted in a breakdown of geographical boundaries. When my parish in Colorado Springs left the Episcopal Church we came under the authority of a Nigerian bishop who lived in Virginia, but at the same time there were already parishes in Colorado Springs that were under the authority of bishops from Rwanda.
As the exodus picked up steam, parishes started banding together based more on affinity than geography. So, for example, charismatic Anglicans came together under one bishop while Anglo-catholic Anglicans came together under a different bishop. This of course is an oversimplification, but I think you get my point. The understanding of a diocese changed.
Where does All Saints fit into this history?
All Saints was originally founded as a part of CANA, which is the missionary branch of the Church of Nigeria. However, when Father Doug was called to be the Rector, although he was living in Wisconsin where he taught at Nashota House seminary, he was still canonically resident in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. With no real geographical boundaries established, the two bishops decided it would be most expedient to simply transfer the parish out of CANA and into Pittsburgh.
The Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh was unique in that they left the Episcopal Church not as individual parishes but as an entire diocese, and thus they still looked in many ways like an old school geographical diocese. So All Saints has always been a bit of an outlier in Pittsburgh.
What has made it even more difficult for All Saints is that Pittsburgh operates with the basic assumption that all parishes are within a one or two hour drive from each other. While this works great for the parishes in the Pittsburgh area, it is really hard on parishes like All Saints. For example, when Fr. Nathaniel was going through the discernment process to become a priest, there were a number of times when he had to go to Pittsburgh for various meeting and interviews, and he was required to bring Audrey and the Rector of All Saints with him. For someone living in Pittsburgh that would be a minor inconvenience, but for Fr. Nathaniel it was a pretty significant burden. Not only did he and Audrey both have to take 2-3 days off from work each time, but they also had to pay for plane tickets, car rentals, hotel rooms, dinners out, etc.
Although Bishop Hobby has worked hard to try to reduce this burden for parishes like All Saints, it is still easy to feel isolated when we are so far away from the rest of the diocese.
What about the ACNA?
Of course, all of this happened before the creation of the Anglican Church in North America. In 2009, the ACNA was formed as a way to bring all of these different groups together and form a new Anglican province. In the early years it served essentially as an umbrella organization for groups like CANA (Church of Nigeria), AMiA/PEAR USA (Church of Rwanda), REC (Reformed Episcopal Church), etc.
However, it wasn’t long before we started seeing the difficulties that come with non-geographical dioceses. Sharing resources, collegiality, and pastoral support are very difficult to do when your churches are literally thousands of miles apart. Sure, it was Anglicanism by definition, but without the many benefits that the structure is intended to provide. For this reason, the ACNA is currently trying to put a stronger emphasis on geographical boundaries for dioceses.
Where are we now?
This past September I attended a conference entitled “What is Anglicanism?” in Birmingham, Alabama. While I was there, I talked to some fellow clergy about the difficulty of being part of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh. It turns out that the people I was talking to were all part of the Anglican Diocese of the South. They informed me that southern Missouri is actually part of the geographical footprint of that diocese, and they already have a parish in Sikeston, MO and a number of parishes in northwest Arkansas. But the best part is that they are in the process of spinning off the western part of the Diocese of the South to form a new diocese, which will likely be called the Mid-South Anglican Diocese.
With the permission and blessing of Bishop Hobby, I was put in touch with Bishop Frank Lyons who is the assisting bishop in ADOTS (Anglican Diocese of the South). He came out on a Sunday evening and visited with our Vestry to talk about ADOTS, the potential for a new diocese, and what it might mean for us to join them.
What are the benefits of joining ADOTS?
There would be many advantages for All Saints if we made such a move. For starters, it would allow for our clergy to have increased collegiality with other area clergy. Sure, Alabama and Arkansas are not super close, but they are certainly closer than Pittsburgh. In fact, it is faster and cheaper to drive from Springfield to Birmingham than it is to fly from Springfield to Pittsburgh.
It would also allow us to share resources with other local parishes and serve as a resource for new and growing congregations. We are also excited about the possibility of taking part in the formation of a new diocese, which will have an emphasis on church planting. In so many ways it seems to be a very good and natural fit for us.
How will we make this decision?
As per good Anglican polity, this is a decision that ultimately the Vestry and Rector will make. However, we want to invite the congregation into a season of discernment with us. Please take some time to pray about this possibility and what it would mean for us.
You can check out the ADOTS website by going to www.adots.org.
If you are interested in learning more about ADOTS Bishop Foley Beach (who also serves as the Archbishop for the ACNA), check out his daily devotional here: http://awordfromthelord.org.
If you are interested in learning more about the Mid-South Anglican Convocation (which will eventually become the new diocese), you can check out their Facebook page here:
A visit from Archbishop Foley Beach.
Archbishop Beach is planning to join us on Sunday evening, February 10th for dinner and conversation. This will be a great opportunity to meet our potential new bishop and ask him any questions you might have. Feel free to ask me any questions in the meantime and I will try to answer them as best as I can. Thank you all for your prayers during this exciting time in the life of All Saints.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.