EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS
What Is A “Diocese” & What Is It For?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I have been writing monthly letters to the Episcopalians in Nevada for some time now, but this is the first time I have sent it to each of you directly. I am writing to you in this way because many of our congregations do not have newsletters or any good way of sharing my messages with you.
But what is the point of the messages at all? It’s basically about getting to know each other. I don’t expect you to read every word I write. The delete button is a perfectly legitimate way to conserve your time and attention. But I want to send some thoughts your way in the hope that from time to time you will look at them, and that we might better find each other as fellow travelers on life’s way and work together for some part of God’s mission in Nevada.
In this first letter, I will tell you how I understand a diocese and what it has to do with your life. I am a bit of a theology wonk. So bear with me. It has to do with God. The Trinity means that God is a unity in diversity and diversity in unity. God happens in relationship.
We are called to be godly, so we are called to have our own unique identities but to be in relationship with each other. In fact, we can’t truly become ourselves except through the push and tug of relationship with other people. God’s mission draws us together. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God.” 1 Peter 2: 10. Individuals who were not previously connected establish human, personal ties while they all share in God’s mission.
Neurologically human beings are wired to be in relationship with each other. There is an exciting new field of research about that. Some of you might enjoy looking into it. Click to view one web site on the subject.
Or to learn more, the best book about this is . But it’s really just common sense. “People who need people are the luckiest people.” We learned that from Barbara Streisand. It’s true. It isn't easy, but it’s true. God designed us to find him and love him, not in abstract ideas, not in caves on mountaintops through esoteric exercises, but in each other, in the mix and muddle of daily life together.
God puts us together in natural ways. Families share DNA. Neighbors live side by side. People who have the same political opinions or interests form parties and fans of the same sports teams watch games in each other’s living rooms. All of that is good and natural, even godly. But in the Church, God brings together a wildly diverse assembly of people who might not naturally be friends. In Romans, Paul considers the relationship between Jews and Gentiles to be as unnatural as a wild olive branch growing on a cultivated olive tree. But he says God grafted Jew and Gentile together in the Church. Romans 11. Just so, God has called us together into a holy friendship - not always an easy friendship, not a natural friendship, but a godly friendship rooted in our faith in Christ.
So what is a diocese? It is a network of relationship among congregations, just as congregations are networks of relationships among individual Christians. The principal cords of the network are caring for each other, wishing each other well, even willingness to help each other to play our different parts in God’s mission.
A diocese is first and foremost a web of caring. It is only minimally an authority structure. It is an authority structure only insofar as necessary to hold some bond of unity, to preserve our identity as Episcopalians. But the Episcopal Church’s rulebook (the Canons and Rubrics) allows a great deal of diversity in the practices of congregations. I have very rarely had to tell a congregation it needed to make a change in order to be legitimately Episcopal. 20 times as often, I have been asked by people in congregations to tell them “my policy” on this, that, or the other thing, and have replied that it is their decision to make.
Authentic relationships cannot be coerced. The business of the diocese is to provide opportunities for parishes to cooperate, to do things together. Our Epiphany project with Luci Lanterns is a small but quite lovely example. We invite each congregation to take up a small collection, then we pool those gifts to buy solar lanterns we, as the Diocese of Nevada, can send to our sister, the Diocese of Makueni, Kenya, so that people in rural villages without electricity can have light at night.
It is also our mission to help each congregation know something about the wider church. We are part of The Episcopal Church, a denomination with a presence in all 50 states and - I bet this will surprise you - 15 other nations. Our largest diocese is Haiti, with an average Sunday attendance (in 2008) of 16.600 people. We have congregations in Central America, continental Europe, and in Asia.
The Episcopal Church, in turn, is part of the world wide Anglican Communion, made up of 38 “Provinces” - The Episcopal Church is one Province. In addition, we are “in full communion” with several other denominations including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravians, the Old Catholics, and the Philippine Independent Church. Full communion means among other things that our clergy are also their clergy and vice versa.
Our church is a rippling out of concentric circles of relationship. The farther from the center you get, the more different we are. Yet, we are all connected. We all care about each other. We all support each other in God’s mission.
In one of our congregations, some members are careful to give their gifts in ways to make sure “the diocese” doesn't get any of their money. But when another church down the highway needs to be painted, they get it painted. The money is a medium of caring, like the chemical base that contains medicine. What matters is the medicine. What matters is the caring.
Our relationships in the Diocese of Nevada have not always been smooth. We are after all “battle born.” We have hurt each other at times and no doubt will hurt each other again. We have scars. But by the grace of God we do care about each other. We do work together for God’s mission. We preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. We feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit the prisoners. We do it at vast distances from each other, separated by 154 mountain ranges, but bound together by the love of Christ.