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Walking by Faith: A Diocesan Convention Wrap-Up

At a joint online convention last week, the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York passed operating budgets, elected members to numerous governing bodies and discussed a recent decision by the diocesan Standing Committees to extend the partnership between the two diocese for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We walk by faith, and not by sight,” Bishop Sean Rowe said, quoting Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians in his address to the conventions. This has been especially true during a pandemic that has forced the church to abandon many of its usual practices and adapt to new ways of worshiping and pursuing God’s mission, he said.

“There are most days when I wish I could see just a bit more and rely on faith just a bit less,” he acknowledged. But he said the partnership dioceses were “already being clothed with the heavenly garment,” and that there was a transformation underway in the two diocese “whether we see it or not.”

Rowe said he had hoped the two dioceses would have outlined a strategic roadmap for the future of the partnership by the end of 2020, but the pandemic made that impossible.

“Where we are today bears no resemblance at all to where I, at least, imaged we would be two years ago,” he said. “With all that has happened, how could it? But we are still on the journey, on the road together, still longing to be clothed with the heavenly garment, still longing to see the kingdom come into its fullness.”

Following the bishop’s address, the conventions, voting separately, adopted their respective budgets. Regarding increased expenditures on certain budget lines, Rowe explained that expenses for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops of the Anglican Communion were being held in the same year, an unusual circumstance attributable to the global pandemic.

The Western New York budget also includes one-time expenses covering lawsuits filed either after New York State temporarily extended the statute of limitations on cases of child sexual abuse, or when host congregations were named in the tide of sexual abuse lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America.

Rowe said that due to the pandemic, it was difficult to make “apples to apples” comparisons across recent budgets, but that contrasting the proposed 2022 budgets to the 2019 budgets was probably the most useful exercise. By that metric, he said, the partnership had increased its capacity for ministry by adding three full-time equivalencies to its staff while spending $20,000 less.

Much of the conversation at convention, which began with an acknowledgment of the native lands on which the dioceses’ churches sit and worship, focused on a presentation by the presidents of the two diocesan Standing Committees, explaining their groups’ recent decisions to extend the diocesan partnership by two years and postpone an initial evaluation of the partnership from 2021 to 2023.

Jim Isaac of Western New York and the Rev. Stacey Fussell of Northwestern Pennsylvania told the convention that the committees believed that an extension of the partnership was warranted because two of its first three years had been consumed by the pandemic, making it difficult to assess its progress and potential.

They noted that the pandemic began just a month after the Partnership Mission Strategy team began analyzing feedback received from more than 225 people who participated in a series of five regional “Emmaus Gatherings” held across the partnership in December 2019.

“We want a full evaluation of a full five years of activity,” Isaac said.

Several clergy and delegates from Western New York challenged either the wisdom of the Standing Committees’ extending the partnership without consulting the conventions, or the authority of the committees to act on the matter.

Fussell and others responded that the Diocese of Western New York could still terminate its relationship with Rowe through a vote of convention, and that the Standing Committee had only revised its letter of agreement with Rowe, which was in its purview.

After extensive conversation, the convention voted not to receive a resolution from the floor that would have declared “null and void” the decision of Western New York’s Standing Committee to extend the partnership.  The resolution also would have moved a final vote on extending the partnership to October 2022.

Isaac, however, suggested that discussions regarding the progress of the partnership be included in regional gatherings already being planned for the next 12 months.

In other business, the conventions elected new members to the diocesan councils and standing committees of both dioceses, the trustees of the Diocese of Western New York, and the constitution and canons committee of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, which also elected its representatives to the Province III synod. Northwestern Pennsylvania also passed a resolution setting minimum clergy compensation levels and four resolutions making routine amendments to its canons. Find the resolutions and listing of new leaders on the website.