Bishop engages laity by modeling democratic institution found in local politics

Every March the ordinary people of Vermont gather to govern themselves. This system, called “town meeting,” invites each resident to discuss, debate, and vote on issues through an open process which has governed the state for centuries.

It is also what inspired Bishop Christopher Coyne to launch an experiment of “ecclesiology in action.”

In response to feedback gathered during a year-long Diocesan Synod held by the Diocese of Burlington (which covers the entire state of Vermont), Bishop Coyne hoped to foster two-way communication with Catholics by organizing six “Catholic Town Meetings” in accessible locations throughout the Diocese during January and early February.

“The idea is that everyone present gets to hear what others have to say in order to come to some consensus about what the community, as a whole, should do,” Bishop Coyne said in a statement from December 2018 on the Diocesan website.

A True Town Meeting?

Professor Emeritus Frank Bryan of the University of Vermont, however, says the Bishop employs the term “town meeting” incorrectly. “The fundamental purpose of a town meeting is to govern, not simply to speak,” the political scientist who studied town meetings for over 30 years said in an email.

While Bryan commends the Bishop’s idea, he suggests Bishop Coyne swap the phrase with the term “public meeting.” Former Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, who now serves as the moderator for his own town’s annual meeting, agrees that the Bishop’s meetings do not resemble a true Vermont Town Meeting. “The participants aren’t making decisions, they’re simply expressing their views,” he said in a phone interview.

Even if it is a misnomer, Bishop Coyne’s use of the term town meeting invokes a deeper discussion of the meetings and their significance to the future of the Church in Vermont. Since the Catholic Town Meetings draw their name from an institution with which Vermonters govern themselves, one may wonder whether the meetings, more than just offering participants a chance to speak, allow them to be a part of decisions which affect the Diocese.

While uncommon in some parts of the world, the notion of lay involvement in Church administration is not new to Bishop Coyne. The Catholic Town Meetings come in addition to previous efforts by Bishop Coyne to incorporate laity in the affairs of the Diocese, a goal which he started working on as soon as he became Bishop of Burlington in 2015.

The fruits of his labor can be seen in his organization of a Diocesan Synod, held in 2018, where Bishop Coyne met with selected delegates from each parish four times over the course of the year to discuss the state of Catholicism in Vermont. More recently, he assigned a lay task force to pore through files of all allegations of clergy sex abuse to determine which ones are credible. The committee will then release their findings to the public.

Bishop Coyne, however, separates the town meetings from these actions, saying in an email that committees consist of a small group addressing a specific question. “The Catholic Town Meetings are different because they are open to everyone and I listen to and discuss any topic suggested by those in attendance.”

Remaining true to his word, Bishop Coyne discussed topics wherever Vermont Catholics led him. Topics at the meeting in Bennington ranged from abortion to the observance of Divine Mercy Sunday, according to the Bennington Banner.

At the time of his email to the Rover, Bishop Coyne had attended three of six meetings, where he said that attendees primarily discussed the abuse crisis, women’s ordination to the priesthood, and clerical authority. Present in all these 90-minute meetings, however, remained the theme of communication between the clergy and the laity.

Hearing and Responding

Bill Fisk, a parishioner at St. John the Baptist Parish in North Bennington, attended the meeting in Bennington on January 28, where he voiced his concerns to the Bishop.

“There should be open communication and a role for men and women who are not members of the clergy,” he said in a phone interview. Fisk sees the clergy with “a vested interest in maintaining their power and control,” and says bishops must develop a new structure that responds to the “voice of the faithful.” Such a system, Fisk defends, would benefit the Church during times of scandal. Bishop Coyne agreed with Fisk when he made his comment at the meeting, an affirmation that Fisk appreciated. “He acknowledged that clericalism was part of the problem.”

While the Catholic Town Meetings may not ameliorate clericalism by themselves, attendees appreciated the opportunity to speak and be heard. Still, with the listening sessions almost complete, Bishop Coyne and the Diocese must synthesize the ideas expressed around the state and respond to them effectively in order to achieve the goal of the town meetings.

Bishop Coyne has already made a promise in the course of his meetings throughout the state: to hold office hours for all Vermont Catholics who wish to speak with him. According to Stephanie Clary, manager of Mission Outreach and Communication at the Diocese of Burlington, individuals will be able to schedule a half-hour meeting with the Bishop on the fourth Monday of every month. Spaces for appointments will be filled on a first come, first served basis.

Finding Solutions

Still, office hours and advising committees may not be enough for some Catholics frustrated by streams of news stories about clerical misconduct.

For Governor Douglas, a member of the United Church of Christ, the solution comes in the form of what closely resembles a true Vermont town meeting. “[At our annual meeting], the Congregation will make real decisions; electing offices and approving a budget,” said Douglas.

For Professor Frank Bryan, however, the issue is more complicated. “As a Catholic I consider church matters more sacrosanct than civic matters,” he noted in his email. “The word ‘Catholic’ is a universal one but one that also requires definition.” In short, “baptisms and ordinations imply and require limits.”

Those limits, however, have shifted throughout the history of American Catholicism.

The concept of trusteeism, practiced in Catholic immigrant congregations during the 19th century, signified a church that did not report directly to a bishop, but instead to lay leaders.

According to Professor John McGreevy, a historian of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, these lay leaders would oversee the management of the church and sometimes even hire pastors. The system fell apart when bishops asserted their position and took control from the trustees, shrinking the role of the laity and returning all oversight of ecclesiastical affairs to Rome.

Whether or not trusteeism deserves reimplementation, Bishop Coyne agrees that the system of clerical oversight needs some evaluation. “Bishops can’t be policing ourselves,” he said in an interview with the Bennington Banner.

A Helpful Tool

While questions of fundamental change regarding lay Church administration remain up in the air, all the attendees who were interviewed agreed that more town meetings would be productive.

Janis Yannotti, a parishioner at Sacred Heart-Saint Francis Parish in Bennington, felt that more meetings could expand the scope of discussion, half of which pertained to the sex abuse crisis, she said in an email. “If the Bishop makes these town meetings a recurring event the discussion can be more diverse. This meeting felt more like a way for some people to find healing.”

Fisk at first suggested that twice a year would be a good frequency for the meetings, but then retracted that number, citing the Bishop’s busy schedule.

The Bishop’s Catholic Town Meeting model appears to work well in Vermont, and attendees say success there could be an inspiration for other dioceses around the country to create their own Catholic Town Meetings.

Bishop Coyne would recommend the format only if his brother bishops approach the meetings with an open and non-defensive attitude. “Bishops will hear opinions and positions that are contrary to Church teaching and at times some of the comments may be quite personal,” he said in an email.

This certainly seemed to be the case in Bennington, where, according to Fisk, one woman told the Bishop, “I don’t want you in my uterus,” during a discussion about abortion legislation in Vermont.

While it might not be pretty, it is what the flock are demanding of their shepherds.

“Open, two-way communication with the community is something that is sought by our brothers and sisters in the Church,” said Bishop Coyne.

Both Fisk and Yannotti would approve of other bishops following Bishop Coyne’s example.

Proclamation to the Nation

Professor Frank Bryan believes in the promise of the Vermont Town Meeting, a tried and true form of democracy which sometimes seems more utopian than real in a modern political climate.

“Vermont town meeting is known for its proclamations to the nation about what the nation ought to be doing,” he extols in a YouTube video.

Perhaps Bishop Coyne’s Catholic Town Meetings will earn the same legacy.

Jack Lyons is a sophomore studying Theology and Journalism, and he has recently been engrossed by a video of a chameleon he found a couple of days ago.  Follow him on Twitter at @jacklyonsnd and get in touch with him at