Courting the Holy Spirit by practicing retail politics

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This article appeared earlier this week on the Times of London’s blog Articles of Faith.

By Jim Naughton

Last week, while the Church of England was dealing with embarrassing revelations about how badly the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had behaved while selecting the current Bishop of Southwark, I was observing the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D. C. as it prepared to choose the successor of Bishop John Bryson Chane, who retires in November.

The process that I witnessed was so different than the one described by the late Dean Colin Slee in his now-famous memo, that it seems almost unfair to draw comparisons. In filling the vacancy in Southwark, the English method of appointing bishops was clearly at its worst. Or so one hopes. A story of subterfuge leavened with a dash of Python-like absurdity, it featured a media leak meant to scuttle two candidacies, clumsy attempts to blame the leak on an innocent party, an investigation into the leak whose findings have been kept secret, and a delicious moment in which the Archbishop of York lobbied for votes while leading a group outing to the toilet. Little wonder that members of the Crown Nominating Committee were reduced to tears during the proceedings.

The process in Washington, on the other hand, has run relatively smoothly so far, although the election will not be held until June 18. Like most Episcopal Church elections, it has been a homey affair, featuring five nominees touring the diocese on a bus, visiting parish halls, a school gymnasium and a retirement community where they gave brief talks, answered questions, and engaged voters in a dance of mutual ingratiation. In the parlance of political reporting, this four-day program was an exercise in “retail politics”, and resembled our small-market political campaigns in which candidates woo voters at coffee klatches and community picnics, and futures are made and lost over crullers or ham salad.

The five nominees comprised a cathedral dean from Atlanta and rectors from Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Washington itself. Three were men, two were women, and one of the men was an African-American. They had been selected from a field of ten priests who had attended a three-day retreat with the diocesan search committee in January. Those ten had been chosen from a pool of some 80 would-be candidates who had either “allowed their name to go forward,” or had put their names forward themselves.

On the evening that I caught up with the candidates, some 300 people had assembled in the gymnasium of an Episcopal school located in one of the four Maryland counties included in the diocese. A crowd of similar size had greeted them on the previous evening at a church in Washington near the State Department.

The average Episcopalian is older than the average American, a fact evident in the gymnasium that night. But the crowd was more diverse than the diocese as a whole, as it had been the previous evening. While certain Washington churches are home to the capitol’s elite, the sometimes-tedious work of running a church or diocese falls here, as elsewhere, to dedicated, but largely anonymous believers. There were no talk show fixtures in the gym, no deputy undersecretaries, but, this being Washington, there were probably several lawyers on hand.

Episcopalians refer to these events as “walkabouts,” realizing that Australians mean something different when they use that phrase. The gatherings are instructive as much for the sometimes deliberate and sometimes unintentional ways the nominees give glimpses into their characters, their passions and their leadership styles, as for their responses to questions about controversial issues.

One couldn’t leave the gym that night without knowing that the Rev. Marianne Budde of Minneapolis is fired by the opportunity to meld the insights of her faith with the insights of psychology and organizational behavior in running a complex faith-based organization, or that the Very Rev. Sam Candler of Atlanta thinks as deeply and speaks as movingly about what happens when a person comes forward to receive the Eucharist than any five people you know, or that the Rev. Jane Gould has responded with pastoral acumen and sensitivity when trouble came to her door in the depressed former mill town of Lynn, Massachusetts.

Over the course of the evening, one couldn’t help but notice that the Rev. Canon John Harmon of Washington, the most formal of the nominees, has a particular rapport with older members of the audience, and a disarming way of talking about the ways in which mother figures had shaped his ministry, or that the Rev. Ronald Abrams of Wilmington, N. C. built his ministry one relationship at a time, and that his direct and unpretentious nature spoke of a genuineness that was probably most impressive in a smaller format.

This sort of information may be more valuable than knowing where the nominees fit in the grand scheme of church politics. Bishop Chane, for instance, was a leader of our church’s left wing, but enjoyed an excellent relationship with the leaders of the diocese’s most conservative parish, who felt warmly toward him on a personal level, even though they thought he was a heretic.

Some controversial issues, however, are matters of immediate pastoral concern. The nominees were unanimous in their support for permitting—but not requiring—parishes to offer Holy Communion to the unbaptized, though most expressed the hope that the reception of Communion would lead to Baptism. (If you are in need of someone to defend this position in a room-quieting, pulse-quickening kind of way, Sam Candler is your man.) I believe they were unanimous in permitting clergy to bless same-sex relationships throughout the diocese—although it wasn’t clear how most felt about allowing clergy to marry such couples in the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal. Canon Harmon’s answer was the most nuanced of the five on this issue—He spoke of “building on” the current permissive policy—and I am not sure that I understood him.

I don’t believe that the election in Washington will turn on the question of the Anglican Covenant because the document has been largely ignored at the grassroots level in the Episcopal Church, just as it has in the wider Communion. Only Candler and Gould, the two nominees who have played significant roles at our church’s General Convention, offered firm opinions on whether Episcopalians should adopt or reject the covenant. Gould, who helped design a comprehensive review of the document in her diocese, said that Massachusetts wanted no part of the covenant, calling it “legalistic and punitive.” Candler, knowing that most of his usual allies in the church differ with him on this issue, acknowledged the weaknesses of the covenant, especially the disciplinary provisions in the fourth section, but argued that the church should sign it anyway. “I am not afraid of the Anglican Covenant,” he said, expressing confidence in the Episcopal Church’s ability to remain true to its moral convictions whether it signs the covenant or not.

As a member of the diocese, getting some sense of the candidate’s characters, styles and priorities was important to me, but I wondered to about the lessons that an outsider, especially a member of another church in the Anglican Communion, would have taken from the evening. Here are four:

1. That those who say that the leaders of the Episcopal Church are less interested in Christianity than in liberal social engineering are making sweeping generalizations based on too small a sample. Each of the nominees spoke movingly about his or her religious upbringing or moment of conversion, call to ordained ministry and prayer life.

2. That Episcopalians are guided by two Jewish rabbis, one who has risen from the dead, and one who has not. The work of Rabbi Edwin Freidman in using the insights of family systems therapy to make sense of congregational behavior, set healthy boundaries and manage resistance to change, was mentioned several times in this gathering, as it often is when Episcopal clergy get together.

3. That Episcopalians realize that their membership is dwindling, that numerous congregations in every diocese may be too small to succeed, and that no one quite knows what to do about this beyond merging or closing struggling parishes.

4. That on the questions of doctrine that threaten to break the Communion, Episcopalians are comfortable with the notion that doctrine develops over time, that our knowledge of God’s will is culturally and historically conditioned, and that what is morally sound in one era is an outrage in another. They have gained confidence in their ability to worry complex issues through to a proper conclusion—one that usually involves room for disagreement. And after they do so, they believe it is wrong not to act.

The Episcopal Church’s system is not without flaws. We sometimes elect nominees who are better suited to running for bishop than to being bishop, and women and African-Americans are still underrepresented in the ranks of the episcopacy. I am sure that no English reader will be surprised to learn that there are limits to American wisdom. Yet I do not believe it is necessary to defend the proposition that that all Christians are responsible for the church’s flourishing and its fidelity, and from this conviction flows our ways of electing our bishops and governing our church.

It is tempting, of course, to argue that the openness of the Episcopal system throws a harsh light on the cruel and clownish antics described in Dean Slee’s memo, but no political process, whether it ends in election or appointment, can reliably claim to have discerned the will of God. For that reason it would seem best to let each province in the Anglican Communion chart its own uncertain course, each encouraging the other despite our differences. This is a sentiment so banal that I express it only because it is not widely shared. For those of us outside of the Church of England, the lesson of the see of Southwark is not that the English system for selecting bishops is broken, but rather that disputes within the Anglican Communion cannot be resolved as the covenant would have it: with a small panel of insiders meeting in secret under the guidance of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Jim Naughton is a partner in Canticle Communications and editor of Episcopal Café.

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Chris H.
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Chris H.

You mentions CWOB and same sex unions/marriage as controversial, but since all the candidates agree, I don't see the controversy. What topics will be the focus of the choice?

Chris Harwood

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Bill Moorhead
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"Episcopalians refer to these events as 'walkabouts.'" Actually, out here in the heartland, we call them "dog and pony shows." We say that with respect and with straight faces. So do the candidates themselves, including the one eventually elected. I've attended several of them over the years. The outcomes in retrospect have been very good, and have resulted in the election of very fine bishops who on paper may not have seemed the "strongest" candidate, but who in person seemed to have something of the Holy Spirit about them.

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Paige Baker
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Paige Baker

Jim--this is an excellent explanation of "how we do things"! And, as a former resident of the Diocese of Washington who loved and respected +John Chane, I am grateful for the perspective you offer on those who would replace him.

May God bless you all as you choose your next shepherd.

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