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A Word About Assessments

Beloved in Christ,

As you read this, most of the Eucharistic Communities of the diocese are putting the finishing touches on financial planning for 2021, having completed a pledge drive or every-member-canvas or whatever terminology was used. Just a couple of days ago, the forms were sent to treasurers and Mission Leadership Teams for indicating the level of financial support that the diocese might expect for the coming calendar year. And … my office has just responded to a similar question from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS), aka the “national church.”

It’s pretty easy to see an equivalence, a sort of parity, between the various levels at which money changes hands: households giving to the parish, parishes giving to the diocese, and the diocese giving to the DFMS. At first glance, it seems like a simple hierarchy, like those ceramic Russian dolls that nest inside one another. And it’s not unreasonable to expect, then, that the “rules” for giving at the various levels should bear some resemblance to one another.

The matter is compounded by the fact that the Diocese of Springfield has, since 2003, given to the DFMS considerably less than the General Convention has asked us to give to the DFMS (and, most recently, “asked” via a mandatory canon). You may recall a particular crisis that year which consumed the Episcopal Church. While the temperature has cooled, the issues driving the crisis (sexuality and marriage) have not even come close to being resolved. Now, people’s angst was really directed at General Convention, but since General Convention can’t be “punished,” the DFMS is the closest surrogate. This is not entirely fair, since there’s a great deal that the DFMS does that no one would find controversial, and the DFMS is not responsible for the actions of General Convention. But, human nature is what it is, and the Diocese of Springfield voted to withhold its formerly full contribution to the DFMS budget, diverting the funds toward locally-approved outreach. Parishes were given the option of determining what proportion of their share of the diocesan outreach budget should be sent to the DFMS, and those parish determinations have driven what we actually send.

Over time, what began as a virtue morphed into a necessity. As we began to shrink numerically and financially, the outreach budget diminished as well, and we found ourselves in the position we’re in today, which is that, if we were to pay the DFMS what the canons require, it would drive our operating budget further into the red to the tune of several tens of thousands of dollars. In recent years, diocesan leadership has endeavored to steadily raise the outreach line item in our budget, which has the effect of raising our DFMS contribution, since it’s an aggregate percentage of the outreach budget.

I’m going to get to these questions, but, first, I need to put on my teacher’s hat and set a theological framework–to be more specific, a framework of ecclesiology (the “theology of the church”).

For Christians in the Catholic tradition, which includes Anglicans, the diocese is the fundamental unit of the church. ¬†As long ago as the second century, St Ignatius of Antioch, who might possibly have known the Apostle John in his old age, wrote in his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, “Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God. Thus, whatever is done will be safe and valid.” The bishop is, in effect, the personification of the entire Church Catholic in a local area, representing the universal to the local, and vice versa. It is even traditional for a bishop to adopt the name of the diocese as a formal ceremonial surname, as this very letter is signed “Daniel Springfield.” Among ecclesiologists, the expression “local church” doesn’t refer to what we could call a parish, but to a diocese.

Structures that are either smaller than the diocese (like parishes) or larger than the diocese (like “national” churches) are for purposes of pastoral expediency and missionary strategy. When we’re spread out over thousands of square miles, not everybody can come to the cathedral in Springfield for worship, so we have parish churches. And since it behooves us to be in communion with Christians beyond central and southern Illinois, and because there are advantages to larger networks of accountability and support, we are in union with the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which is manifest as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

With that bit of theological context, then, we can return to the question of giving and assessments.

Christian households give of their financial resources in support of the community in which they are regularly fed in word and sacrament. The standard (and biblical) norm is 10% of a household’s disposable income. Even though the parish is the recipient of these offerings, we think of them as holy gifts to God and not something like “dues” to a “club” we belong to. Tithing is a matter of spiritual principle and practice.

Eucharistic Communities take a share in the support of mission and ministry at a diocesan level. Sometimes wardens and vestry members ask a question like, “What do we get for the money we send to the diocese?” Well, the perhaps too-simple and too-obvious answer is, “You get a bishop.” If St Ignatius was right, you get a personified connection to the Body of Christ dispersed throughout the world, and, through the Body, to the Head, who is Christ himself. The Eucharist at a parish church altar on a Sunday is but an extension of the bishop’s Mass wherever the bishop is. But there’s a more profound answer–indeed, a “harder” answer–which is that the question itself is flawed. Theologically speaking, the parish exists for the sake of the diocese and not the other way around. (Of course, both diocese and parish exist for the sake of the gospel.) A diocese is not a federation of parishes. It exists in its own right, and creates parishes to serve the missionary and pastoral strategy of the diocese.

Dioceses appropriately contribute to a larger structure of accountability–in our case, the General Convention and the DFMS. But, unlike the relationship between parishes and the diocese, the Episcopal Church (a term of convenience that denotes the concrete realities of the General Convention and the DFMS) is a federation of dioceses. It exists to serve the needs of the associated dioceses, which, together, sustain its being. It is nothing in and of itself; it exists only inasmuch as it is continuously “called into being” by the dioceses it serves. Dioceses are not creatures of General Convention, but quite the opposite; General Convention is a creature of the several dioceses. A diocese has subsistence innately, as the local manifestation of the Body of Christ, with the baptized faithful gathered around their bishop. A “national church” is entirely contingent. It exists to serve the local churches that create it. Hence, financial support has implications that are practical–one might even say, political–rather than being a matter of spiritual principal, like household tithing or support of the Church’s fundamental unit, the diocese.

I realize I’ve had to get kind of technical to explain all this, and I apologize if it has seemed turgid! What I’ve hoped to convey is that, while it initially looks like there are parallels between household stewardship, diocesan assessments, and the DFMS canonical asking, that appearance is deceptive. There are very distinct principles in play at each level. As Eucharistic Communities consider that matter of the diocesan assessment, I hope this letter sheds some light.

 

Faithfully in Christ,

+DANIEL Springfield

Advent 2020

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