Christ Church Plano’s Paul Donison on new Anglican Provincial Cathedral

249

Christ Church Plano has been an active part of the Anglican realignment and a prominent resource for church renewal since it was first planted in a pastor’s living room in 1985. The Texas parish grew to have the largest congregation measured by attendance in the Episcopal Church. Later, it helped launch the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) in 2009.

This week Christ Church was elevated to the status of Provincial Cathedral for the ACNA. What is a “pro-cathedral” and what will Christ Church’s new role entail? Christ Church Rector and Cathedral Dean Paul Donison chats with IRD Anglican Program Director Jeff Walton about ministry in one of the ACNA’s largest parishes amid a season of political and COVID polarization.

Links from the interview: resources from Christ Church Plano here.

Transcript (lightly edited)

JW: Hello, this is Jeff Walton from the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC where I serve as the Anglican Program Director. I’m joined today by Dean Paul Donison from Christ Church in Plano, Texas, one of the largest congregations in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). This past weekend Christ Church was announced to have a new role within the ACNA as a provincial cathedral. Paul has kindly agreed to speak with me today about that new role and some of what it will involve. Thanks so much for joining me today, Dean Donison.

PD: Jeff, it’s a joy, this is great. We’re excited about this news and it’s great to be able to talk about it.

JW: Christ Church isn’t actually new as a cathedral – you’ve served as a diocesan cathedral for Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) which is your diocese. What will be the new role as a provincial cathedral and how does that change from your existing role as a diocesan cathedral?

PD: Yeah thanks, Jeff, that’s a great question. We’ve had a lot of people ask about the pro-cathedral language. First of all, one major difference is we’ve moved from being in Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO) as their pro-cathedral — and we were a pro-cathedral there as well and I’ll explain that in a moment — but now we’re actually under Archbishop Foley Beach as pro-cathedral for the province. That meant a canonical transfer, so we’re actually no longer under C4SO but we’re now directly under the Archbishop’s episcopal oversight but again as a pro-cathedral.

A pro-cathedral is a little bit like — it’s a nomenclature issue — technically, traditional cathedrals, for those who know these things, are established as kind of a household for the bishop, a household of the diocese more in a monastic, collegiate sense. Traditional cathedrals when you think of England especially whether it’s Canterbury Cathedral or Essex [Chelmsford] or just different, famous cathedrals throughout the UK. These were actually established over time as cathedrals in and of themselves separate from a parish identity. People would attend services there, but they weren’t really built to be parishes: they were meant to be sort of the “mother church” for the diocese, the seat for the bishop. The cathedra is the bishop’s chair. That’s a traditional, almost monastic, kind of way of thinking of a traditional cathedral.

Today in North America most of our cathedrals really are pro-cathedrals — or at least function more like pro-cathedrals in the sense they’re either established parishes that then become established or elevated as pro-cathedrals or they’re put in place provisionally. That’s where “pro” really ties in with the word — they’re provisional in the sense that they’re meant to be for a time, not permanent. If you think about the idea of a cathedral (we’re gonna use the term cathedral locally in the sense that we talk about “the cathedral”) but of course obviously in anything official we’ll always use the technical terminology of “pro-cathedral”. But the idea here is that, in the 21st century, I am not sure that there’s going to be a whole lot of ability to build traditional cathedrals in the historical sense. Because in one sense who would pay for them? In a missional Anglican context in North America, where would we come up with the money just to build a monastic kind of cathedral center in a diocese? We in fact want to see our cathedrals or specifically pro-cathedrals be active parishes, parishes that can model a picture of what it means to be on mission, what it means to be building into these kind of resources as a model to our diocese and in our case to the province. That’s maybe a long answer to the pro-cathedral question but my argument will be that most of our cathedrals are, in fact, pro-cathedrals. Probably, as we go forward as missional Anglicans, “pro-cathedral” will be a term that we’re going to be using a lot more often. That’s probably going to fit our purpose better as a missional province and just in the way that the congregation is governed.

JW: Christ Church will still continue to have a vestry rather than a cathedral chapter?

PD: Absolutely. That’s one of the key differences as far as polity is concerned. For the people of Christ Church Plano nothing changes as far as our corporation bylaws and the way that we go through the process of calling a new rector. These kind of questions where, you’re right, in a cathedral chapter set up in a traditional cathedral setting it’s a very different quality. What I like about this is also it’s scalable, it’s transferable. As we model what it is to be a provincial pro cathedral we can actually see other dioceses in ACNA that perhaps don’t have cathedrals. They can look at this as an example and say “now we’re seeing a picture of how we could take one of our more established, perhaps larger churches and help it grow into this pro-cathedral without radically changing the way it functions on a day-to-day basis. That would make almost every good vestry member very nervous about we’re going to lose a sense of our leadership and governance control in the establishment of the cathedral. That’s why I think that the pro-cathedral model in fact is the way to go from a missional perspective in most cases.

JW: I could be mistaken, but isn’t St. Peter’s [Anglican Church] in Tallahassee [Florida] which is the Diocese of the Gulf Atlantic cathedral — that’s also organized as a pro-cathedral?

PD: I believe so, I’m not sure. That’s one of my projects going forward as the new provincial pro-cathedral dean is to start creating relationships with all the other cathedral deans within the ACNA. We’re hoping to actually get together the deans soon so we can begin creating a network and a set of relationships and maybe begin asking the Lord together, “what does it mean to be cathedrals within a missional North American 21st century Anglicanism?”

JW: You just mentioned a term that’s probably good to explain to viewers: a rector is the head of a parish, a vicar is the head of a mission and a dean is the head of a cathedral. In each case they refer to the seniormost pastor but it just represents the kind of institution that they serve?

PD: That’s right, and to be clear, in our context when we were pro-cathedral for C4SO, and now as provincial pro-cathedral, whenever I put my name and title I always put “Rector and Dean” just to be clear because, again, the history of how cathedrals function. In some cases we want to be clear about who we are and how we operate. I’m both the rector in the corporate bylaw sense and the spiritual oversight of the parish but I’m also the dean under the bishop or, in this case, now the archbishop of the cathedral.

JW: In regards to your new position facilitating and building relationships with all the cathedral deans in ACNA, do you have a loose idea of how many dioceses in ACNA have cathedrals? My own Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic doesn’t have one, but many do. Do you have any idea of how many that might be at this point?

PD: Actually, I’m not sure. My understanding is that the majority of our dioceses do have a cathedral or pro-cathedral named, but there are several that don’t and Mid-Atlantic is a perfect example of one of those. So we’ve got to figure out how we begin having this conversation because we want all the dioceses to have an opportunity to be included. We may be gathering those who are deans of pro-cathedrals or cathedrals and then also gathering, at the bishop’s recommendation, a rector of a church that maybe one day could become a pro-cathedral at least to be part of that conversation.

JW: What does it look like to be leading a cathedral in regards to you’ve mentioned of course that historically cathedrals have a unique role from parishes but what will the aspect of leading a cathedral look like now that you’re on the provincial level and, in addition to facilitating these relationships, what do you and Archbishop Foley hope to achieve by having this transition to the new role?

JD: First of all, the commitment that the Archbishop and I made — and that was very important for my vestry here — our concern is that Christ Church Plano is able to continue to flourish as a local missional parish in what we’re doing here. We don’t want suddenly all of this provincial work to sidetrack us from those missional goals. That’s number one. In one sense I assured the parishioners this last weekend when we announced this that our day-to-day life is going to look very much the same. We’re going to continue doing the things we’ve done all the way along but, from the provincial level, we’ll simply be doing this on perhaps an elevated platform where more people will be watching, more people will be observing what we’re doing. But as well again language like modeling we’re trying to model both within our we have in our own diocese but now within the whole province we’re trying to model what we believe is effective faithful excellence in missional Anglicanism. Some of that will be in the sharing of resources. We’ve developed several resources that have already been shared at the province level with many other churches and even internationally things like our pray daily which is a short four Anglican offices short booklet. So someone who’s not quite ready to use the whole prayer book could take the prayer book offices in a shorter form and at least begin that process of learning. Because Christ Church Plano, like I’m sure many of the ACNA churches out there, we have a whole lot of converts from other traditions: Baptists, Methodists and others coming in and learning this Anglican way of discipleship. This is a tool that we’ve created that could be shareable: things like our Praying with the Saints podcast where we’re actually going through twice a week one of the commemorations or saint days and putting that in the context of an evening prayer office. Things like our foundations curriculum: we built an eight-week brilliant (and I say brilliant because I didn’t build it — it was my staff that built it) this wonderful eight-week foundations program that’s a catechetical preparation for confirmation. It’s kind of our new members program. Dr. Jonathan Bailes, who’s my cathedral theologian here, has put that together. Father Bryan Biba, who used to be on staff here, piloted it. Together they put together what is a beautiful program for new members to Anglicanism. That’s the kind of resource that’s easily shareable, not to mention our weekly bible study teaching. I’ve got, again, Dr. Jonathan Bailes teaching our video small group bible study curriculum each week of the year and that’s just available on our website. These are just some small ways that we can model and share these resources with the province. But again, obviously hosting events, hosting guests, being able to put on display for worldwide guests the best of the ACNA. You could say having Archbishop Foley come in and have beautiful worship services and the rest to host them — these are ways that we can hopefully bless the ACNA movement broadly in the world.

JW: Christ Church has been a very formative part of ACNA. For people who are unfamiliar with your congregation who are watching this, that was where the first archbishop of ACNA, Bob Duncan, was invested. It’s also been a regular, recurring part of provincial life: you all organized and hosted Provincial Assembly in 2019 and there have been innumerable ways in which Christ Church has been involved in the life of the province.

PD: My predecessor Father David Roseberry, it was really his visionary leadership well before ACNA was formed, back to Common Cause[Partnership] and moments like “A Place to Stand” and other gathering moments that David, through his visionary leadership, was able to see this congregation grow but also to be able to use that growth and that life and that vitality as a servant to the life of the province. So I stand amazed at the way that Christ Church has been used by God and, I think, truly grown by God for the purpose of being of service to the broader missional movement of this province.

JW: You’ve been at Christ Church for six years now?

PD: Almost, yes, coming in March.

JW: My understanding is Christ Church Plano was — you mentioned David Roseberry — that it was planted in his living room.

PD: 1985.

JW: Yes, and in the 15 years following that it grew from a church plant into what was then the largest single parish within the Episcopal Church?

PD:  That’s right.

JW: …and then there was a transition in 2003 [editor’s correction: 2006] in which you negotiated as a congregation with the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas to transition out of the Episcopal Church with your property — which was done amicably — and then you became a cornerstone towards what became the ACNA when it was formed in 2009.

PD: That’s right. I can’t guarantee on the call right now the 2003 date, I’d have to run through — I’ve got all these dates running through my head, but, yes, somewhere around there we did negotiate to come out of the Episcopal Church in Dallas and yeah we were at the front end of this whole movement and for our parishioners it’s those who go back that far we’ve — by God’s grace — have had a lot of new folks come in over the last six years that I’ve been here that don’t even know that whole story. That’s wonderful because we don’t want to be a church that’s constantly looking back on what happened back around the turn of the century and the rest with Anglicanism. People are being drawn in because they’re excited about liturgical, sacramental, evangelical gospel-centered worship in an Anglican context. But for those who do go back, they prayerfully and sacrificially –in their generosity in their commitment to service — that was very much the very heartbeat of the church, a willingness to walk with their rector and their clergy through that whole season of transition. It’s been amazing to see how the Lord has helped continue that flourishing story over these many years.

JW: In recent years, of course, Dallas has grown by a massive population influx. Plano specifically has grown within that by quite a bit. Who are the populations that you’re meeting who are new? Who are you ministering amongst in recent years?

JD: Yes, it’s it’s incredible to see what was happening here in Plano in the 1980s and 90s with just this massive swell of growth that has continued to grow. We’re seeing just north of us in Frisco and then up in Celina and Prosper and give it a couple more years and you’re gonna have basically Dallas stretch right to the Oklahoma border. I mean that ability for these flourishing, growing communities and what’s happening you’re right is that we’re seeing the world, the nations, on our doorstep more and more. You’re seeing a lot of South Asians and Southeast Asians moving into Plano, Dallas and north Dallas and the surrounding region to the point — where we are now in Plano — is actually becoming more and more multi-ethnic which is an exciting thing. I think it’s always going to be a challenge as a church tries to make those transitions of how does it move from a primarily sort of typical north Dallas Anglo ministry which is where we were for many years, although always very diverse — we always have had diverse ethnicity within the life of Christ Church — but how do we transition and I think God by his grace has helped us do that in many ways organically and naturally over the last few years. I’ve watched over the near six years I’ve been here that are more multi-ethnic groupings within Christ Church have actually grown a lot. We have a large Nigerian population within our church — my chancellor on our vestry is Nigerian, he’s a former Senior Warden. We’ve got a growing number of south Asians. The number of Indian families coming to the church is growing and Pakistani families and others as well as we have so many southeast Asians coming. It was interesting, we had [Egyptian] Archbishop Munir [Anis] here on Sunday preaching when we announced that we were now the provincial pro cathedral. It was a fun moment, a beautiful moment at the end of our 11 o’clock service where he leaned over to me and said “could I do the final blessing in Arabic?” and I said, well of course, and he did: he gave the final blessing in Arabic and I watched a young boy about 12-13 years of age over on the side chancel with his parents get so excited because I knew that family is Egyptian and this would be for example the first time that he would have heard an Arabic blessing prayed over him in his own church and so you know that’s kind of a picture of the already more diverse nature of what’s happening in our own congregation. But more work is needed and I will say although I’m willing and ready to partner with other specific congregations that are focused solely on specific ethnic groups our intention here at Christ Church is continue to learn how to be a multi-ethnic congregation. We really want to see sort of a Revelation 7:9 vision of the church together here.

JW: One of the things — thinking about different groups of people coming together to worship — in the last two years we’ve of course had congregations affected by COVID and also by a volatile political moment in our nation. It seems like there’s sort of a “self-sort” taking place where people are shifting around between different churches and different traditions even. In that sort of season of polarization we’ve had both politically and with COVID and different expectations of people, how have you navigated that as a very large church with a pretty big umbrella of different people?

PD: Yes, I think the polarization that we’ve seen in our nation in the last 18 months or two years almost we’ve seen it in our own church, I mean that’s the first thing to say. We’ve experienced instances of anger and disagreement and distrust around leadership decisions we’ve made. I mean, we know that polarization. We’ve seen it: my inbox at times has been full of it and we’ve worked through it and I think the first thing I’d say is that we’ve attempted to model charity in our responses. Our first and primary response has been “how do we respond as church leadership when we run into anger and distrust?” and these kind of questions that have emerged. Let me be clear, I mean we’ve had a very supportive congregation and people have been — the overwhelming majority been — very supportive and excited about and on board with the decisions we’ve made surrounding COVID protocols and the rest. But you know there’s always going to be — especially in a large church — folks who are going to have different opinions and so we’ve really, as a staff and clergy and vestry, sought to be charitable in our responses that even if you get someone will tell you basically ultimatums of “unless you change this I won’t come back” or these kind of statements to not allow them to not treat those statements as final statements, to treat those moments pastorally, to recognize that these people are hurting, they’re struggling and it’s been amazing how much we’ve been able to give a charitable response that, give it some time, and those families don’t end up leaving the church necessarily. They even sometimes come back and say, “you know, I’m sorry, I was in a bad spot there.” So that’s been part of our response but also in teaching and preaching we’ve brought up the polarization question a lot. We haven’t talked about the issues as much from the pulpit. Often times what we’ve tried to do (and I’ve been criticized by some for this) but the stance I’ve taken is let our sanctuary be what that word means: a sanctuary that people come in the door every Sunday. They don’t want this to be a continued sort of news feed from either CNN or FOX News from the pulpit. They want to come in and find sanctuary. They want to hear the gospel. They’re being attacked and wrecked by the world. They want to come in and hear the gospel. I mean, the gospel is political, we speak to these issues of injustice, but a lot of times our focus has been to speak to the polarization as it touches each of our lives. You know Alexander Solzhenitsyn, you know the line between good and evil runs right through every human heart you know concept of approaching these questions to say “how do we as individuals how do we as families need to repent of the ways that we’ve pressed into and contributed to this polarization?” So we’ve just finished 10 weeks on fruits of the spirit in our small group curriculum with Dr. Bailes walking through christian virtues: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These approaches in preaching and teaching have been very important for us to sort of call out that we need to live Christianly in the face of our culture and that’s the way, I think, ultimately that we’re gonna beat back this polarization and sort of fill the world, our communities, afresh with a gospel people.

JW: Just before readers can get this I’ll provide links in the show notes to some of these resources from Dr. Bailes. What’s the website for Christ Church Plano?

JD:  Yes, it’s christchurchplano.org. You can go in there and find some of our prayer resources, our podcasts, our teaching, our video teaching, our live stream is on there. These are all different resources that we’re happy to see used broadly within the province and beyond.

JW: Great. Thanks so much, I really appreciate your time today. I know that you’re a busy man with a very active parish, thanks so much for taking the time to explain the role that the cathedral will be fulfilling in the Province. I’m very excited for you all.

JD: Thanks, Jeff and I appreciate the opportunity because, as I said at the beginning, we’re excited about this work. We, from the beginning of the ACNA, have been so excited about this work of God of bringing together this North American province of biblically faithful Anglicans. I’ve always wanted to hitch my cart to the province, as it were, despite challenges we face and controversies and the challenges that we all are aware of if we’re paying attention on social media to what’s been challenging in the last two years of polarization with our nation and we’ve certainly been touched by that in the ACNA but I’m just so excited that we can really as announced  here at Christ Church, in an even more intentional way, hitch ourselves to the Archbishop of the province and say that “as for me and my house” we are excited about the ACNA, we’re excited about what God is doing here, and we’re ready to serve and contribute towards it.

JW: I’m glad to hear it. Thanks so much, I appreciate your time.

PD: Thanks so much, Jeff.