On page 18 of its final report, the Task force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church proposed the elimination of the provincial representatives on Executive Council. Resolution D011 takes this several steps further and asks the General Convention to consider eliminating the provincial structures of governance altogether.
Currently, The Episcopal Church (TEC) is divided into 9 provinces. These divisions are roughly based on geography, although Haiti, The Virgin Islands, and The Convocation of Episcopal Churches of Europe are grouped together with the dioceses in New York and New Jersey in Province II.
What do provinces do?
As far as governance goes, provinces:
1) elect a Provincial Council that meets and works between Provincial Synod meetings;
2) elect judges to a Provincial Court of Review;
3) elect provincial Executive Council representatives;
4) hold a Provincial Synod, which provides a context for receiving and responding to PB&F budget proposals prior to General Convention.
Provinces also provide a regional platform for networking for mission by encouraging coordination between dioceses and facilitating coordination with the TEC staff and Executive Council. The extent to which provinces serve as useful networks for mission varies by province. For some provinces, convocations are rare, and the provincial synods have become a big deputy briefing/caucus prior to General Convention. Other provinces have more active regional ministry networks.
The proposed resolution, D011: Eliminate Provinces, tries to eliminate the governance responsibilities of provinces while upholding the benefit of regional networks. So, let’s imagine what might happen if we were to eliminate this layer of governance. The authors of the resolution seem to believe that strategic regional collaboration would continue apace where that sort of collaboration has already shown itself to be beneficial. They also suggest that new regional networks would be more easily forged without the overlaying structure of provinces.
Some of our provincial boundaries do not make a lot of sense for the purpose of developing ministry networks. Take for example, our geographically-scattered Province II. Other provinces, such as Province VIII, are so large geographically that in-person gatherings become regional gatherings based on the host location, rather than gatherings from the entire province. Some provinces suffer because they are made up of struggling dioceses that lack the energy for active collaboration because they are just trying to survive. It may be that provinces are best organized around at least one strong diocese that can serve as a resource.
It doesn’t seem that the existence of provinces is keeping dioceses from crossing provincial boundaries to collaborate where common interests are at stake. However, there is a concern that eliminating provincial structures would further isolate those dioceses that are already more isolated, whether they are isolated by geography or lack of internal resources. In places where there are lean diocesan staffs, provincial gatherings in coordination with Episcopal Church staff can serve as valuable, ministry-building encounters for laity and clergy alike. Now, some will argue that such gatherings would still exist without the existence of provinces, but one wonders if the same players would all be urged to come to the table. Sometimes that urging is important. Grassroots networks do not have the same level of accountability to reach out to the resource-poor or the linguistically or geographically-isolated. They form where they form. They form where there is energy, availability of time and resources, and ready-connection.
In a lean church, we need multiple kinds of networks to facilitate relationship-building and the flow of resources. We need the grassroots networks, but we also may need the kind of networks that urge seemingly unlikely companions in ministry to sit down at the table together, networks like provinces. The proposal to eliminate provinces, however, does point to some significant weaknesses in the province system as it stands now: boundaries that don’t make sense, governance imperatives that can be eliminated, and the variability in the quality of provincial functioning. Hopefully the General Convention will address all of these issues rather than merely accepting the false choice of eliminating such networks altogether or maintaining the status quo.