How small does an Anglican diocese have to get before it ceases to be a meaningful entity? This is not an academic question. The Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan had 471 worshipers on an average Sunday (as of 2016). Only slightly larger is Scotland’s diocese of Argyll and the Isles, in whose churches there were 475 on an average Sunday in 2016.
In one sense, the numerical size of a diocese is not the be-all and end-all. You can be holy and small or big and corrupt. But, then again, it does matter.
This issue is particularly pertinent for the upcoming Lambeth Conference. A significant number of bishops from the Global North represent dioceses with tiny numbers of worshipers. Conversely, many dioceses, especially in the Global South, are very large. A good many are over a hundred times larger than Northern Michigan.
Beyond this, substantial Anglican communities, comprising thousands of people, are served by bishops from other dioceses that support them. Their voices are therefore especially under-represented at Lambeth, whilst the people of Northern Michigan have a megaphone.
An example from South East Asia provides an illustration of the issue. The Diocese of Singapore has been church planting in a range of Asian countries in recent decades. The fruit of that work is becoming clear in deaneries for Thailand, Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia, and Laos — all of which are overseen by the Bishop of Singapore. In 1975, the number of Anglican congregations in those deaneries could be counted on the fingers of one hand. As of 2015, they number over 100.
These may be deaneries in name, but in practice several are the size of dioceses. Nepalese Anglicans numbered 9,000 in Average Sunday Attendance by 2014, and surely there are more now. As of 2013, there were 30 Anglican churches in Indonesia, a dramatic increase compared to a few years before. Singaporean Anglicans number well over 20,000, yet they (along with Nepalese, Indonesian, Cambodian, Thai, and Laotian Anglicans) will send the same number of bishops to Lambeth as the diocese of North Michigan, namely, one.
In the Episcopal Church, alongside Northern Michigan, six other dioceses in the USA have fewer than 1,000 worshipers on an average Sunday: Eau Claire, North Dakota, Western Kansas, Navajo Missions, San Joaquin, and Eastern Oregon. A further 14 dioceses in mainland USA have more than 1,000 but fewer than 2,000 in church on an average Sunday. Likewise, of the seven dioceses in the Scottish Episcopal Church, three have fewer than 1,000 worshipers on an average Sunday (based on figures for 2016).
The size discrepancy between different Anglican dioceses present at Lambeth 2020 is problematic, but it is also politically significant. If the bishop of Northern Michigan attends Lambeth 2020, he will have a say in major decisions and a voice in the Communion’s affairs equal to that of the bishop of Singapore, despite the gross disparity between the number of people who worship in their respective dioceses.
On the one hand, we should acknowledge that all validly consecrated bishops share in the same episcopal character. One’s degree of episcopacy does not depend on the population of his or her see. And we should certainly avoid “weighting” the Communion’s bishops, so that small dioceses have less of a say than larger dioceses.
On the other hand, the Communion has historically expanded the episcopate as its mission has extended. Thus, many North American dioceses came into being in the 19th and 20th centuries. Conversely, as the number of the faithful has shrunk, dioceses have been merged in Ireland, North America, and England. The Anglican tradition has long practiced reform of number and size of dioceses to better serve ministry and mission. Even ancient English dioceses were new at some point in the past. To see the current pattern of episcopacy as set in stone is itself out of kilter with the tradition. New dioceses that better reflect the population and needs of the majority world are sorely needed, and all the more so as the 2020 Lambeth Conference approaches.
We must also avoid the danger of suggesting that the bishop’s role is simply to represent the views of his or her people, as if the Communion were a representative democracy. Such a stance would make bishops beholden to the “will of the people,” even though that “will” is far from easy to discern and has a disturbing tendency to parrot the spirit of the age. It would leave little or no room for seeing bishops as those who teach with authority the faith handed on.
I would strongly endorse the view that stresses bishops as guardians of tradition, but this has its shadow side. Emphasizing tradition can become a way of ignoring the need for legitimate reform. The Lambeth Conferences of prior to 1968 did good things, but were attended overwhelmingly by white bishops, even as dioceses in the Global South were multiplying. No one seriously suggests that was a legitimate state of affairs, nor that it was wrong to call it into question.
The organizers of Lambeth 2020 have many difficult matters to tackle. But the gross disparity between the number of worshipers in the different dioceses is a question that needs to be faced. As things stand, the net result is continuing to privilege the voices of small numbers of white Westerners while side-lining swaths of the most missional and poorest Christians in the Anglican Communion. To rephrase George Orwell, in the current Anglican Communion everyone is equal, but some people are a great deal more equal than others.
David Goodhew is a Visiting Fellow of St. Johns College, Durham University, and Vicar, St. Barnabas Church, Middlesbrough