More than 500 people attended one of eight listening sessions held this winter to discuss the proposed partnership between the Dioceses of Western New York and Northwestern Pennsylvania.
“The listening sessions were enlightening and challenging,” Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwestern Pennsylvania said of the gatherings held between January 31 and March 20. “There is a great deal of enthusiasm for a partnership between our two dioceses, but also some skepticism about why we should change the way we’re doing things now.
“I’ve been glad to hear hard questions, because if we go forward with this plan, we’ll need to look our collective challenges squarely in the eye and experiment with new ways of responding,” Rowe said. “As I’ve said before, this isn’t a move for institutional survival only. This is for the sake of the Gospel, and it won’t always be easy.”
Six listening sessions were held in western New York and two in northwestern Pennsylvania. Rowe spoke at all eight sessions, while Bishop William Franklin of Western New York spoke at the two sessions in Northwestern Pennsylvania. Members of the host standing committee also attended the meetings.
Now that the listening sessions have concluded, what comes next?
According to the timeline established last fall, the “discernment phase” of the project continues until the standing committees of both dioceses meet in May. In the Diocese of Western New York, standing committee members will vote on whether to nominate Rowe as bishop provisional of the diocese, while in Northwestern Pennsylvania, the standing committee will vote on whether to grant permission for Rowe to seek election as bishop provisional in Western New York.
If elected, Rowe would assume office in Western New York when Franklin retires next April.
Jim Isaac, president of the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Western New York, says that the information gathered by standing committee members at the listening sessions is now being consolidated into a document that will be provided to clergy and lay leaders of both dioceses. “Creation of this document is a key part leading up to the decision that we will make in May,” Isaac said. “The goal of the listening sessions was that no one could say, ‘I never got a chance to ask my question or voice my opinion.’ I think we accomplished that goal.”
If both standing committees vote in the affirmative, Western New York’s clergy and lay delegates will vote on Rowe’s nomination at a joint diocesan convention in October. If either standing committee votes no, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Western New York will begin the search for the diocese’s next bishop.
Between now and May, the project’s timeline calls for leaders to undertake legal, canonical and financial analysis of the proposal, to continue supporting the discernment through prayer, and to plan the convention, which will be held jointly regardless of the standing committees’ votes. Work is on schedule, Rowe said.
“We have consulted widely with our chancellors and also received counsel from churchwide resources,” he said. “There is no canonical impediment to our plan, and we are pleased to say that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry supports our process. In addition, there are no legal issues with either New York or Pennsylvania state law.”
Staff from the dioceses’ financial offices have met to exchange information so that they, Rowe and the diocesan treasurers can begin to create financial models for the partnership.
Planning for the joint convention, scheduled for October 26-27 at the Niagara Falls Convention Center in Niagara Falls, New York, is also underway.
“We’re looking forward to welcoming clergy, lay delegates and visitors from across both dioceses,” Canon Vanessa Butler of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania said. “We’re especially pleased that House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings will be our keynote speaker at what we hope will be a historic event for both of our dioceses.”
More information about convention, including registration materials, will be available this summer.