Some things rise to one’s consciousness slowly. One that has been nibbling on the mind for some time, but which burst into awareness at General Convention in a new way this summer, is the formulation “The Episcopal Church in” as a replacement for “The Episcopal Diocese of.” So, for instance, we have the name “The Episcopal Church in Minnesota” rather than “The Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota,” a usage which has been introduced over the last few years not only in that diocese but in others as well. I’m imagining that in each case this has not been a formal change in articles of incorporation, but rather a change in self-conception and public presentation, but I could be wrong.
What’s in a name? Before becoming too exercised by this “innovation,” there are a few points to be made. “Diocese” is a word that is unfamiliar to many, a word moreover that has developed at least two pronunciations as familiarity with its use has faded. So “The Episcopal Church in” formulation has at least the virtue of being easily recognizable and pronounceable. There are also considerations of commonality: a diocese wants to be clear about its brand, as in “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” And there is also a historical point to be made: the word “diocese” was not used much in the Episcopal Church until the 1830s, when the church in some states began to multiply new “dioceses” that subdivided civil jurisdictions, or even leapt over their boundaries, and canonical language began to change in favor of the more traditional formulation. Until then, the language of church law largely spoke of the bishop of each state or district. Remember as well that “diocese” has its origins in a civil entity within the late Roman Empire.
Mind you, in places where the name of a diocese does not coincide with the name of a state there are some issues. “The Episcopal Church in Indianapolis” can hardly be a substitute for “The Episcopal Diocese of Indianapolis,” especially if you live in Terre Haute or Muncie or some other place in the diocese. Dioceses that take their name from their see city already have difficulty enough. Then again, if you are “The Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee” or “The Episcopal Diocese of California,” a change to “The Episcopal Church” formulation makes things even more confusing. Does anyone really want to put forward a name as unwieldy as “The Episcopal Church in the San Francisco Bay Area” as the principal identification of its organization? For citizens of the Volunteer State, “The Episcopal Church in Middle Tennessee” is both shorter and sweeter and more intelligible than the options available to other dioceses, but can one really imagine an Episcopal Church without a “Diocese of Tennessee?” Apparently not, I will modestly claim, as the reorganized diocesan structure discovered in 1985, in a time when (in the midst of the creation of new dioceses out of the old statewide entity) the continuing diocesan entity in the middle declined to rename itself.
So what is in a name? We might decide that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” and call a halt to the whole disquisition. But one might also think that there is more at stake here than a mere matter of words. Whatever its origins, the term “diocese” has a historical resonance that other terms cannot capture. Patrick Collinson put forward a thesis in The Religion of Protestants that once you gave the title “bishop” to leaders of the newly reformed Church of England they began to think like bishops who held the ancient sees and to act like defenders of episcopal prerogative, at the very least. So perhaps it is also with the term “diocese.” The very use of the term puts down stakes in a historical argument about who you are as a community and what you are as a faith tradition. Reformed, yes, but catholic as well.
There are bigger fish to fry, as well, in terms of ecclesiology. “The diocese is the basic unit of the church:” an ecclesiological commonplace that in the early twenty-first century Episcopal Church has become more than slightly suspect, as some dioceses asserted their independence in the midst of a bruising conflict about sexual ethics and the proper form of the Christian life. In this case, thoughtful reflection on the nature of Christian community is in danger of being extinguished by the needs of litigious argument about the centralized nature of the church.
The diocese led by the bishop is more than the branch office of the central distributor of our “brand:” it is in fact the local church itself, discretely situated in different geographic and demographic contexts within a particular area. A diocese is in its origin a Eucharistic assembly, where the baptized People of God gather in unity and celebrate and share the salvation won by Christ for all the world. In the midst of that Eucharistic assembly, the bishop, the presbyters, and the deacons find their proper place as servants of the local church and the People assembled.
An independent diocese makes no sense, as the nature of catholicity demands connection. Part of the bishop’s ministry is as a sacramental symbol of the larger church that exists outside diocesan boundaries. Churches like the Church of England or the Episcopal Church (sometimes in our tradition called “particular churches”) exist to represent that connection and even to give it substance, as in the ancient requirement that other bishops from the province join in consecrating a new bishop. But “particular churches” do not originate in a Eucharistic assembly, at least not directly. “Archbishop” or “Primate” is not an order of ministry, and it does not stand at the center of a super-Eucharistic assembly. Neither, we might add, do synods or conventions, even General Conventions. Particular churches are really placeholders for what St. Augustine called the catholica, the universal church that is the mother of us all. By their very nature they are meant to point beyond themselves to a greater unity that transcends any provincial boundary.
So perhaps “The Episcopal Church in” formulation is just a fashion, whose virtues are clarity and comprehensibility. If so, good enough. But in this ecclesiological climate there is danger that we Episcopalians, in the midst of reformulation and re-imagination (and under the pressure of events) will begin to misunderstand our own nature as a church. I think we need to think again.
The featured image is “Red rose” (2011) by Nemodus Photos. It is licensed under Creative Commons.