Navajoland’s request for missionary diocese status receives committees’ unanimous endorsement

By David Paulsen
Posted May 1, 2024
St. Christopher's

St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Bluff, Utah, is one of the churches that make up the Episcopal Church in Navajoland, which includes parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Photo: St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] The 81st General Convention’s Governance & Structure committees voted unanimously April 30 to recommend creation of a new missionary diocese led by Navajo Episcopalians after hearing testimony in favor of the move from Navajoland’s church leaders and their supporters.

The church created an area mission known as Navajoland in 1978 to serve Episcopalians in regions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah where the Navajo Nation reservation is located. Elevating The Episcopal Church in Navajoland to a missionary diocese would allow church members there to elect their own bishop while continuing to receive financial and other support from the wider church.

“As I have reflected on the history and life of Navajoland and about where we are today, I’m quite aware that God is leading the people into a new time, into a new direction, into a new way of being church,” the Rev. Cornelia Eaton said during the online hearing for Resolution C009. Eaton is Navajoland’s canon to the ordinary and president of its standing committee.

Others who testified at the hearing included the Rev. Cathlena Plummer, a Navajoland priest and daughter of the late Rt. Rev. Steven Plummer, who was Navajoland’s only Navajo bishop, serving the area mission from 1990 until his death in 2005.

“I am acknowledging his legacy,” Plummer said as she explained her father’s vision of a day when the Navajo, or Diné, would be able to sustain their own diocese financially and lift up their own leaders.

“We are very much born and raised Episcopalians, just as much as the next person,” she said. “What this resolution means for our Diné people is the ability to be seen and heard by the wider context, and we believe that we have a spirituality to share that needs to be heard by the wider church.”

And the Rev. Leon Sampson, a Navajoland priest, said he was “humbled and inspired” by his people’s resilience and their faith in God, as exemplified by their request to become a missionary diocese.

Cornelia Eaton

The Rev. Cornelia Eaton, canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Church in Navajoland, testifies April 30 at a hearing of the Governance & Structure committees.

As an area mission, Navajoland’s bishops are appointed by the House of Bishops rather than through a local convention. Former Northern California Bishop Barry Beisner has served Navajoland as bishop provisional since May 2023. He echoed the Navajo leaders’ testimony while underscoring that as a missionary diocese, Navajoland would remain “a special responsibility” of the wider church.

“We’ll function much as we have,” Beisner said, “but it will be a profound step forward in self-determination, in dignity and empowerment for the people of Navajoland area mission.”

General Convention is a bicameral body that divides its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Bishops and deputies also serve on parallel legislative committees assigned to about two dozen topic areas. Though distinct, the parallel committees typically hold joint hearings and meetings. Bishops’ and deputies’ vote in favor of Resolution C009 forwards it for a floor discussion and vote when the 81st General Convention convenes June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

These latest developments follow a previous resolution, approved in 2022 by the 80th General Convention, entrusting Navajoland “to establish its own rules and procedures for a process of discernment for the calling of a bishop that reflects the values, teachings, and traditions of the Diné.”

This year, Resolution C009 was proposed in January when Navajoland leaders voted at a special convocation to request missionary diocese status. Episcopal leaders there had worked on the plan with the church’s Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons. The Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, the House of Deputies vice president, chaired a subcommittee of the standing commission that assisted Navajoland in the process.

A missionary diocese is “40 years coming for the Diné,” Taber-Hamilton affirmed in her testimony in favor of C009, though she broadened the scope to The Episcopal Church’s ongoing efforts to atone for centuries of complicity with colonialism, white supremacy and racism toward North America’s Indigenous tribes.

“This is over 400 years in the making,” said Taber-Hamilton, who is Shackan First Nation and serves as a priest in the Diocese of Olympia.

The Episcopal Church’s ministry on the 27,000-square-mile Navajo reservation dates back more than a century to medical missions established in Fort Defiance, Arizona; Farmington, New Mexico; and Bluff, Utah.

Unlike an area mission, a missionary diocese is empowered to adopt its own constitution and canons, in compliance with The Episcopal Church Constitution and Canons, while also holding an annual diocesan convention and electing a bishop, standing committee, and clergy and lay deputations to General Convention.

“The convention of a missionary diocese shall also adopt an annual budget and program for the diocese, and provide for the means of its administration throughout the year,” the canons says, “and shall make provision for the review and approval of requests for grants in aid from the Executive Council or other sources of funds, both toward current operations and for capital needs.”

The proposed 2025-27 churchwide budget plan includes $800,000 over three years for a bishop serving Navajoland and an additional three-year block grant of nearly $1.5 million to support Navajoland’s congregations and ministries.

The Rev. Nancy Koonce, a deacon and deputy from the Diocese of Idaho, also testified in support of Resolution C009. She works as an accountant and has assisted Navajoland on its financial management for the past decade on behalf of the church’s Province VIII. She assured committee members that “it is time for this next step,” toward making Navajoland a missionary diocese.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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