Decline and Discipline

I attended the House of Bishops meeting last week on Zoom. A significant portion of our limited time together was focused on two issues: the results of the 2022 Parochial Reports for the Episcopal Church, and the disciplinary process for bishops. 

Results of the 2022 Parochial Results across the Episcopal Church are available here

The Bishops’ statement on accountability for discipline is available here

I want to comment briefly on each of these because I think they are important for all our church leaders to be familiar with. These are not my full or complete thoughts on either subject. 

The Parochial Reports generally tell a story of decline.  Attendance and membership increased from 2021 to 2022 as the pandemic receded, but are not yet at their pre-pandemic levels. Finances and giving generally continue to hold steady or increase. Most Episcopal Churches are small–over half of our congregations have 50 or fewer people in church on Sunday mornings, and the median Sunday attendance is 35. Demographic information given by about half of Episcopal congregations indicates that half of Episcopalians are over the age of 65, and 73% are White. (US demographics indicate that as of 2020, 17% of Americans are over 65, and 59% are White)

First I want to say that these numbers are descriptive, not proscriptive. I do not believe our decline is required to continue–and I do believe that in general, many congregations in Arizona are well-positioned to grow, as many congregations across the United States in the Episcopal Church are currently doing. The commitments the Diocese of Arizona has made to our campus ministries, to congregations that worship in languages other than English, and to youth and young adult ministry are commitments to sharing the gospel to new generations, and to a church that is growing in the Holy Spirit. 

But these numbers ought to make us curious about how our structures, funding, and mission are influenced by congregational size. How shall we prepare priests, when most congregations cannot afford full-time clergy? How will lay leaders guide their churches without consistent clergy presence? How do we allocate diocesan resources when so many congregations are chasing a model that is financially unsustainable for them? 

The second topic, of discipline for bishops, was more challenging and was instigated at the request of many of us who felt that the recent letter from the President of the House of Deputies about a process in which she was a complainant was one of several recent incidents involving bishops and discipline that required a deeper look from a body that has vowed to be shepherds who guard the flock. 

The nature of clergy misconduct is that it hurts, maims, and traumatizes individuals, as well as the Body of Christ. The letter from the President of the House of Deputies resonated so deeply with so many people because it recalled past injuries that many have suffered. 

We care about the behavior of bishops (and clergy more generally) not because we want to protect the reputation of bishops or of the church, but because Jesus compels us to build communities of safety and trust, particularly for the vulnerable. The Statement from this meeting of bishops is a good start, but if we do not follow through with action I will not view it as having been a successful conversation. 

Those actions will include a review requested by our Presiding Bishop by the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, and Constitution and Canons on these disciplinary processes. The Title IV process for bishops is very similar to that for all clergy; where it differs is that an Accord that is agreed upon by the Presiding Bishop (or their designee) and the Respondent must be approved by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, an elected body of 10 bishops, four priests and deacons, and four laypeople. It sounds like the Standing Commission may be looking particularly at the role of the Church Attorney, and the discretion of that position. A critical change took place in August when a new Intake Officer for bishops was hired who was not themselves a bishop. 

However, I do not believe these are issues that can be entirely solved through Canons or changes in process or personnel. I pray for a heart change. 

There were good conversations in my small group about how to improve our Title IV processes locally. How do we better provide pastoral care for those who have experienced misconduct and those who are accused of misconduct? How might we standardize training for Intake Officers, disciplinary board members, bishops, and Church Attorneys so that everyone is aware of and using best practices? 

These two issues–of church decline and clergy misconduct–intersect with one another in all sorts of ways. The skepticism of many young people in our nation towards organized religion often has its roots in the sense that churches are hypocritical–they profess faith in a God of loving relationships, but sometimes exercise behavior that is un-loving and abusive. When there is misconduct in a congregation or a diocese, it often leads to the departure of church members.  And when clergy are subjected to bad behavior–whether by a bishop, other clergy, or laypeople–it demoralizes them and sometimes leads to their departure from ordained ministry. None of this makes the Body of Christ stronger–and it is incumbent upon us to do better. 

May the Lord who has given us the will to do these things, give us the grace and power to perform them.

One comment on “Decline and Discipline”

  1. What a wonderful and insightful letter, Bishop Redial. I believe that if we follow your lead and work together in love, respect and community we can grow as a church and as individual Episcopalians. We all have a responsibility here.