The Rev. Elizabeth Yale is Priest-in-Charge of St. John’s Church, Franklin in the Diocese of Northwestern PA.
Clergy conferences are different everywhere you go. Diocesan culture changes from one region to another. Some groups can’t wait to be together: everyone knows each other and is friendly and helpful. Other places are so big or full of competition or conflict that going into a conference makes everyone wary about what might happen. I have been in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania just over a year now. I have been to three clergy conferences and each one has been different from the last. Last year, the clergy met with the clergy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh at Antiochian Village. In the spring, we met by ourselves at Olmstead Manor, and last week, we met with the clergy of the Diocese of Western New York at Chautauqua. I have been nervous going into each one, not knowing what to expect or anything about the location, and knowing that I wouldn’t know half the people in attendance. Of the three of them, this last one was the best. Even though I only knew my colleagues in NWPA, there was never the sense of being an outsider or a newbie. There was a friendly attitude throughout the conference. It was interesting because as much as any of us thought we knew what was going to happen, there were surprises for all of us along the way.
Bishop Sean Rowe and Bishop Bill Franklin brought together the clergy of their dioceses to make a suggestion and gather our input on the idea. The idea is a rather radical one, especially currently given the Episcopal Church’s history of autonomy and continual splitting up into more dioceses. The idea is as the letter from the Executive Committees stated it, that when Bishop Franklin retires (announcing his retirement date of April 3, 2019) the Diocese of Western New York vote Bishop Rowe as the Provisional Bishop for five years and see what the dioceses can do together in the next five years.
Now I have to own my own baggage. I realized at this conference that my entire ordained life (all three and half years of it), I have been canonically resident (priest-speak for which diocese we belong to) in a diocese sharing a bishop. I was ordained the day after Bishop Sean was approved as the Provisional Bishop of Bethlehem and then transferred to the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania. During that time I worked in the Diocese of East Tennessee as a seminarian and in the Diocese of Texas as a curate, two very different dioceses. What I have noticed though is that the effort of collaboration and innovation of working together and sharing resources between the Diocese of Bethlehem and the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania has had good and lasting effects for the people of both dioceses.
We considered the idea to the best of our ability. There is always vulnerability with thinking about something new and innovative and being able to face that and express it is helpful for everyone instead of getting defensive or fighting about aspects of the idea. We considered it with all the wisdom we were able to muster… and probably a little extra thrown in by the Holy Spirit. We took an idea seriously which hasn’t been tried before, because we know what a difference it might make, not only to our dioceses, but also to the national and international church. Things we do and learn and try and experiment with may someday revolutionize the way the church works. We don’t know what the future holds exactly. What we do know is that we want the Episcopal Church to be a part of it. Adaptation and innovation will help us get there.
What I saw was Brene Brown’s gifts of imperfection at work. I saw courage, in facing a new and scary idea. I saw compassion, for each other in the face of what might have to change in order for the idea to work. I saw connection, as we talked through how we might work together for God’s kingdom. I saw excitement for something that brings us together and progresses the kingdom of heaven. I saw acknowledgement that kingdom work ain’t so easy. I saw grief at the impending loss of a good bishop and a relationship which will be changing.
Yet, we also acknowledged that we know our future is going to require working together with other people and groups. We have to model this for those in our future. Seeing us work together, with those like us and those who are not like us will make a huge difference to how well the Episcopal Church weathers the years. The details of how we do this are important and many would argue they are the crux of the matter. I would say that the heart of the matter is the love which God has given us as a gift to share. Working from a place of love and unity, as does our Trinitarian God, we can make all things work together for good with those who love God. (Philippians 4:13)
I don’t always like being stuck in a windowless room for long periods of time listening to someone else talk, more or less simply because I like looking out windows. Yet, what happened in that low beige windowless room was much more remarkable than what it would have seemed. We walked into that room not knowing what was going to happen, simply we knew we had been brought together by God and our bishops to work together… and what we started was looking at a very intentional bonding together of people who can work, share, and play together. It was good to see people who don’t really know each other being vulnerable together and working together and thinking about something new together. It was good to meet new people who could be resources for each other and support for each other in different ways. I don’t know where it will lead, but I’m looking forward to exploring the future together.