Tiny dioceses and bishopped subdeans / Diocèses minuscules et évêques-doyens. Georges francophone, pastoralia, theologia 2021-02-22
A couple of years ago, as I was studying in order to obtain my master’s degree in ecumenism, I was writing one of my essays about the steps the different Churches should take in order to achieve a worldwide full-communion agreement. One of my six key points was the episcopate. I was squeezing my brain to find a solution that would be acceptable to both episcopal and non-episcopal denominations. The solution I proposed seemed to work in the ecumenical context, and I dare put it again on the table, in the context of the financial crisis that the Churches are going through.
There should be put in place very small dioceses, of 3 to 10 congregations. The bishop of the diocese should be the parochial pastor of one of the parishes. As the parochial pastor, one should stay in the parish as long as desired, but as a bishop of the diocese, only for a limited mandate.
Let’s say there is a diocese of ten congregations, organised as five parishes: A, B, C, D, E. The parish church of A is the cathedral, because it is the most central. Nevertheless, Bishop Dana is the rector of parish D. Well, Bishop Dana will continue hir ministry in hir parish D, while, in addition, Dana would also be the bishop of the whole diocese of five parishes. Seven years later (cf. the biblical concept of “week of years”), Dana retires as diocesan bishop, but continues hir ministry in the parish.
Bishoply tourism should be forbidden. The first condition for someone to apply for the episcopal office should be to have been active, or at least present, in the diocese some time prior to the application.
Bivocational/non-stipendiary priesthood and deaconate should also increase, having in each congregation a high percentage of priests and deacons. The training for the holy orders should be much more accessible, so that many lay people who are involved in the parish may at the same time continue their family life and jobs, and train for presbyterate or deaconate.
In our example, let’s say that the parish B is made up of three tiny congregations of twenty regular persons apiece, which add up as about sixty regular attendees. Of these sixty, twenty should be ordained as priests or deacons, and besides, ten others should be subdeacons (lay Eucharistic ministers), ten other lay readers, cantors etc. The whole pastoral work and care should be divided among those twenty non-stipendiary clergy persons, and none would have to tread on anyone’s toes. Some work on night shifts and/or on weekend schedules, which means that the whole parish activity would get reorganised.
Let’s say the parish A is wealthy enough to pay a full-time priest. This should not hinder regular parishioners from training and ordination as bivocational priests for the same parish. They would do less for the parish, and the paid priest would do more, but the latter would do a great help to the former.
As in the early Celtic monachism, the abbots should also be bishops. It would not be difficult to create monastic tiny dioceses, with one abbey and two or three convents.
A couple of times every year, there should be only one Mass for the whole tiny diocese, in the cathedral church, namely for the Easter vigil, Whitsun vigil, Epiphany vigil, Maundy Thursday, and ordination Eucharists. As a rule, baptisms and confirmations together with the first communion would be easily celebrated only in the cathedral on the first three. For the lay people who do not wish to go to the cathedral after their baptism-confirmation-first-communion day, they would still have in their respective parishes the non-vigil Mass for Easter day and Pentecost day.
The early Church only had the diocese-parish in the city, with one bishop and many clergy serving at the one altar. Most of the people got baptised & confirmed & communed for the first time at the Easter vigil, on the same night, under one bishop. When Christianity expanded to the countryside, the priests went to serve the villages as “rectors” or “vicars” of the bishop, but this situation created many anomalies of which we still suffer today. On the one side, both in all the Churches of the whole East and in some parts of the West, the priest – and not regularly the bishop – presides at those three sacraments of initiation. On the other side, in most Churches of the West, the three sacraments of initiation are torn apart: the priests baptise, then the bishop confirms many years later, and the first communion takes place in between, according to the local custom. The Presbyterians and other protestants tried to go back to the early Church model, but their result is not entirely satisfactory everywhere.
When I saw, a couple of days ago, the difficult situation in which the Churches were financially, and read on internet the idea – that some viewed as a solution – to drastically reduce the number of the dioceses, I realised that what I had proposed in an ecumenical context should work even in isolation. If we cannot afford salaries for 120 bishops, the best solution – even if we exclude the sacramental side, which we may not do – is to divide the work, and have 2000 bishops without a bishop’s wage. Today we have deans, sub-deans, rural deans, assistant rural deans and the like. All these and many others should just be consecrated into the episcopacy.