Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan celebrate approval of merger as Diocese of the Great Lakes

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 28, 2024
Diocese of the Great Lakes deputies

The deputation from the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan gather on the platform in front of the House of Deputies on June 28 after the deputies’ vote authorizing the dioceses’ juncture as the new Diocese of the Great Lakes. Photo: Scott Gunn

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] A nearly five-year journey of experimentation and collaboration between the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan culminated in jubilant votes June 28, as the 81st General Convention authorized their merger as the new Diocese of the Great Lakes.

“We are very happy to celebrate with you and to say thank you for your prayers and your support as we experienced the waves of change and navigated through the new waters of our church,” Ellen McVey, an Eastern Michigan deputy, told the House of Deputies after it voted by acclamation in favor of the merger resolution, C025. The House of Bishops adopted the resolution later in the afternoon.

McVey was joined on the House of Deputies platform by the rest of the two diocese’s deputations, including the Rev. Jennifer Adams of Western Michigan. Adams, in her remarks to the house, summarized the dioceses’ partnership, from the initial agreement in 2019 to weathering the leadership upheaval of disciplinary cases against two successive bishops. In the end, the diocese concluded, “we are better together,” Adams said, and now they offer their experience to the rest of the church as one hopeful model for the future.

“We are working hard to provide a more sustainable and lifegiving way forward for The Episcopal Church in this time and in our place,” Adams said, “adapting our structure to serve our church’s mission, rather than then other way around.”

The Great Lakes diocesan merger reflects a growing spirit of collaboration among dioceses across The Episcopal Church. The three dioceses in Wisconsin also received approval for their merger request June 28 at this General Convention and reunited as the Diocese of Wisconsin. Other partnerships are in various stages of alignment and include the dioceses of Indianapolis and Northern Indiana; the dioceses of Central Pennsylvania and Bethlehem; the dioceses of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and the two dioceses where Presiding Bishop-elect Sean Rowe currently serves, Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York.

Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan became an early bellwether of this trend when they voted in October 2019 at their respective conventions to establish a formal partnership, including sharing Western Michigan Bishop Whayne Hougland Jr., who was elected bishop provisional of Eastern Michigan.

Hougland, however, was suspended for one year in June 2020 after admitting to an extramarital affair. A year later, the two dioceses announced they had chosen not to welcome him back as their bishop. Instead, they sought a new bishop provisional and elected the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh to that role in October 2021. Singh, formerly bishop of New York’s Diocese of Rochester, began serving the two Michigan dioceses in February 2022 but resigned in September 2023 to face allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wife and two adult sons under the church’s Title IV disciplinary canons for clergy.

Retired Bishop Skip Adams agreed in November 2023 to serve Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan in the interim as an assisting bishop as the dioceses worked toward juncture, the canonical process for diocesan mergers when two dioceses have not previously been a single diocese together.

Curry and the Great Lakes deputies

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry poses for a photo with the deputies of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan on June 28 before the House of Bishops’ vote authorizing their juncture as the Diocese of the Great Lakes. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Western Michigan was founded in 1874 after separating from the Diocese of Michigan, while Eastern Michigan separated from the Diocese of Michigan in 1995. Eastern Michigan has not had a diocesan bishop since 2017, when the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley resigned to join the presiding bishop’s staff as head of the Office of Pastoral Development.

The Diocese of the Great Lakes will take its first official steps in October when it holds its first diocesan convention and approves a constitution and begins discernment for calling a new bishop. Unlike the Diocese of Wisconsin, which merged immediately after certification of the June 28 votes, Great Lakes will come into being when its new constitution is approved, filed and accepted by the church, according to diocesan leaders.

“We would like to thank all of you for your prayers and support through this process,” William Fleener, a Western Michigan deputy, said on the House of Deputies floor before its June 28 vote. Fleener, invoking Rowe’s closing sermon at Holy Eucharist earlier in the day, said the new Diocese of the Great Lakes “will be required to put down some old things, but the glory is that we will be able to pick up some new things.”

He offered the two dioceses’ story “as a small example of what the future of the church will look like.”

Adams said after the vote that the new name, Great Lakes, was by far the most popular choice between the two dioceses. She acknowledged that this newly merged diocese isn’t the only one that can lay claim to these great Midwest bodies of water – 11 dioceses touch at least one of the five Great Lakes, she said – but it perfectly summed up the two dioceses’ combined identity.

The two deputations concluded their time on the platform with a bit of pageantry involving their matching T-shirts. The front of the shirts read “The Episcopal Dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan” at the start of their remarks, but the message was written on flip-able sequins. At the end of the speeches, all the deputies flipped the sequins, so they now read the name of their new diocese.

“We are becoming the Episcopal Diocese of the Great Lakes,” the deputies said in unison.

“So, ride the wave with us,” Adams said, to cheers from the full house.

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