The Episcopal Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York voted Oct. 26 to share a bishop and a staff for the next five years as they explore a deeper relationship focused on creating new opportunities for mission.
The move was formalized when Western New York elected the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania, for a five-year term as its provisional bishop. Rowe will assume the office upon the retirement of Bishop William Franklin in early April.
“History will judge us as to the right and wrong of the choice,” said Rowe, in a brief address before the vote was taken. “God? God will bless us in our faithfulness to the Gospel call—no matter our choice. And that’s all that matters.”
During the first three years of the partnership, the two dioceses will work together to deepen relationships and develop shared mission priorities. In October 2021, they will re-evaluate the partnership and in October 2024, decide whether to continue it.
“We have all experienced the new energy that the conversations about this partnership have created, and we have felt what this infusion of energy could mean for our ministry here in Western New York,” said Franklin, who has been bishop of Western New York since 2011. “It’s created a kind of electricity and given many of us a renewed, missional hope for the future of the Episcopal Church in this region.”
Rowe will maintain offices in Tonawanda and Erie and make visitations in both dioceses. Elected leaders in both dioceses will continue to exercise their canonical functions. Each diocese will maintain its cathedral and send a deputation to the 2021 General Convention.
“This partnership has the chance to infuse invigorating energy into all of us,” said Danielle Bane, of St. Stephen’s Church in Fairview, Pennsylvania. “And with that renewal, we can do God’s work with greater generosity because of increased efficiency and a marvelous synergy. I know it will include some hiccups and challenges, but the light that results will shine brighter. A little vulnerability and faith are always part of terrific innovations.”
The vote was the culmination of a 14-month process of consultation. More than 500 people attended eight listening sessions in the two dioceses last winter to discuss the proposed partnership. In May, the standing committees of the two dioceses unanimously voted to support the idea.
“We can credit the work of the Holy Spirit to bring the joint energies and the talents of two dioceses under the dynamic leadership of one bishop,” said the Rev. Luke Fodor, rector of St. Luke’s Church in Jamestown, New York. “Sean Rowe is the best possible candidate we could have found to be our provisional bishop. And now, we look to the future of serving beside new colleagues. May this border crossing moment open our eyes to the way that God is calling forth new realities in our midst.”
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies gave the convention’s keynote address. She said the restructuring initiatives were afoot throughout the Episcopal Church, and described the proposal voted on today as “bolder and more thorough than most.”
“The world might swirl around us, but we know who we are, and we can stretch our identity, our faith, and, yes, even our structures to accommodate the changes we need to make,” Jennings said.