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Navajoland on a Glide Path to Self-Determination

When the 81st General Convention gathers in Louisville, Kentucky, in late June, there will be no shortage of uncertainty on the agenda. Who will be the next presiding bishop? Will the House of Deputies oust its leader? What changes are coming for Title IV, the clergy discipline process that is widely considered to be broken?

But here’s one outcome you can take to the bank: Increased self-determination for the Episcopal Church in Navajoland (ECN).

On April 30, the convention’s joint committee on governance and structure unanimously approved Resolution C009, which is quite short: “Resolved … That the 81st General Convention grant the Petition of the Episcopal Church in Navajoland to become a Missionary Diocese.”

Since 1978, the jurisdiction has formally been known as the Navajoland Area Mission. What’s the difference between an area mission and a missionary diocese? You can read all about it in 1,300 words of dense prose in Canon I.11, but here’s the TL;DR: As a missionary diocese, the people of Navajoland will elect their own bishop.

And that’s huge.

The Rt. Rev. Barry Beisner

Episcopalians among the Diné have been led over the years by nine bishops, most of them with titles like “assisting” or “interim,” and all of them either appointed by the presiding bishop or elected by the House of Bishops. The Rt. Rev. Barry Beisner has served as provisional bishop since May 2023 — on a half-time basis, commuting from the Diocese of Northern California, where he stepped down as bishop diocesan in 2019.

Beisner was one of eight people who testified in favor of the resolution at the April 30 online hearing. “The petition, if granted, probably won’t change much. We’ll function much as we have — we’ll still be the special responsibility of the whole church, as per Canon I.11.1. But it will be a profound step forward in self determination, in dignity, and empowerment for the people of Navajoland Area Mission.”

Nobody testified in opposition — and it’s hard to imagine that anyone will on the floor of General Convention. When Episcopal governance bodies gather in person, meetings routinely begin with an acknowledgement that the venue sits on land that was taken without compensation from specific Indigenous peoples (in Louisville, the Cherokee, Shawnee, and Osage tribes). The 2022 General Convention in Baltimore voted to earmark $2.5 million for an in-depth study of Episcopal complicity in the forced assimilation efforts of the Indigenous boarding school movement.

Witnesses from both Navajoland and the broader church gave ringing endorsements to the resolution.

The Rev. Cornelia Eaton

“As long as I remember, this has been a hope and a dream for the people that they had spoken of in sacred circles, especially in hogan learning circles and at the councils when the people come together,” said the Rev. Cornelia Eaton, canon to the ordinary of Navajoland. “The young and older people had been hoping to become a diocese one day, since the area mission was created.”

The vast Navajo Nation is located at the junction of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, occupying an area larger than West Virginia. The Navajoland Area Mission comprises nine small churches scattered across that vast territory. The total membership of about 775 is smaller than the smallest “full-fledged” domestic dioceses, and the communities are poor. Navajoland will always need churchwide financial support.

But Navajoland plays a unique role in the Episcopal Church, combining Christian faith and Episcopal tradition with Navajo spirituality. In addition to sustaining the Diné, Navajoland is a powerful symbol of respect for Indigenous Episcopalians throughout the church.

The resolution is an opportunity “to move from a place of assimilation to understanding how we live in partnership with our diversity, and to move from a place of paternalism into that genuine partnership,” said the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, who is Shackan First Nation and a rector in the Diocese of Olympia, Washington. It’s “a very important step, and not only for the Diné, who are representing, for all of our Episcopal indigenous communities, a way forward.”

When the time comes, the first bishop elected directly by the people of Navajoland will undoubtedly be Diné — but he or she will not be the first Diné bishop. The Rev. Cathlena Plummer told the committee about her father, the Rt. Rev. Steven Tsosie Plummer, who was elected by the House of Bishops and served as Bishop of Navajoland from 1990 until his death in 2005. “My father longed for a Navajo Area Mission that would someday be equipped with Diné leaders that were educated enough to lead Diné congregations from state to state of the Navajo reservation. He longed for a Navajoland that would support and sustain itself and have its voice heard by the larger Episcopal Church, and know that we are very much born and raised Episcopalians, just as much as the next person.”

The Rev. Nancy Koonce, a deacon and deputy from the Diocese of Idaho, is a certified public accountant, and has worked with Navajoland for a decade to develop financial management processes. The mission’s finances had been managed by the Diocese of Utah, and later by the Church Center, but these days, the Diné keep the books. “Now they provide timely and accurate monthly financial statements to the ECN council, and are able to be proactive regarding their financial needs, rather than reactive. They are doing multi-year financial planning and budgeting. They are not there yet, but they’re working toward a fair level of pay and benefits for their clergy and lay employees. They have established an endowment.”

Navajoland has an active laity, which helped sustain Episcopalians and non-Episcopalians alike during the pandemic, which took a heavy toll on the reservation. “We put our health and the health of our families at risk by carrying out the task of loving our neighbor, by delivering food, necessities, and water,” said GJ Gordon, a lay deputy. “At the height of the pandemic the Navajoland Area Mission was serving 300 families a month,” driving long distances to reach remote areas.

A bit of legislative minutiae will help explain the momentum behind the Navajoland resolution. The evening hearing was planned for two hours, and also involved resolutions unrelated to Navajoland. When the scheduled conclusion arrived at 10 p.m. Eastern time, the joint committee could easily have postponed a vote until a future meeting. Instead, the members took a five-minute break, then reconvened for the sole purpose of approving the resolution.

Committee members carefully specified that the resolution should not be included on the “consent calendar” at General Convention, which is a mechanism for passing a batch of uncontroversial resolutions in a single vote, without debate. Removing something from the consent calendar can be a first step toward voting it down, and an observer asked in the online chat why that step was being taken.

The Rt. Rev. Jeff Fisher, who chairs the bishops’ half of the committee, acknowledged the question and deadpanned: “I think that it would be really appropriate to have this be on the floor of convention — and for us to possibly have a big celebration about it.”

It’s possible.

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