The episcopacy, like many aspects of Episcopalian life, is rooted in scripture, tradition, and reason. However, what now exists in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is an unbalanced three-legged stool, or, more precisely, order of ministry.
The Book of Common Prayer and canons summarize TEC’s theology of the episcopacy. In the Book of Common Prayer, bishops at their consecration are enjoined to walk in the apostles’ footsteps and then instructed:
You are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church; to celebrate and to provide for the administration of the sacraments of the New Covenant; to ordain priests and deacons and to join in ordaining bishops; and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example for the entire flock of Christ.
With your fellow bishops you will share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world. Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.
National and diocesan canons provide specific guidance on how bishops are to fulfill many of those responsibilities, e.g., the canons specify processes by which individuals transition from aspirant to ordination and the process for disciplining clergy. The Book of Common Prayer also provides guidance for bishops (liturgies for ordination, confirmation, etc.).
As TEC faces seemingly inexorable decline, some of our thinking and traditions about episcopacy merit reconsideration. Each bishop has considerable discretion in shaping her/his episcopacy. As with any group of Christian individuals, this latitude sometimes results in exciting and innovative faithfulness and other times becomes a vehicle for expressing aspects of personality, thought, or practice not fully transformed by Christ. Additionally, many of our ideas about episcopacy are encrustations uncritically continued from earlier eras.
Scraping away obvious “barnacles” is a good starting point for reformation:
- Antiquated forms of greeting such as “Your Grace” or kissing an episcopal ring harken back to an era in which bishops constituted the ecclesiastical equivalent of feudal lords. The hierarchy, authoritarianism, and elitism implicit in that model are surely foreign to Christ’s ethic of human equality and mutual love. Episcopacy, like the diaconate and priesthood, connotes a functional role, not a qualitative spiritual distinction. Thankfully, these forms of greetings have become more common in memory than practice.
- TEC bishops, unlike some Church of England diocesan bishops, do not live in palaces. Compensation packages, however, sometimes echo the tradition of bishops living in style, with bishops’ pay and perks frequently exceeding the compensation of all or the vast preponderance of diocesan clergy. Bishops deserve to earn a decent living wage. Compensation in excess of a decent living wage raises questions about both a bishop’s promise to follow Jesus’ example and wise use of TEC’s increasingly limited funds.
These are just two of the barnacles encrusting our episcopacy. Ironically, these barnacles often enhance a bishop’s prestige among Christians in general and clergy in particular, thereby inappropriately distancing the bishop from people.
Some ambitious ecclesiastical Darwinian alpha (fe)males seek to dominate their tribe, a grouping defined in TEC by diocese rather than physical kinship. No longer do ambitious bishops wage actual war. Instead, the contest for dominance is a disguised “blood” sport that leaves in its all too familiar wake wounded, resentful clergy and crippled congregations.
Thankfully, some bishops work to reform the episcopate, trying to make it more faithful and relevant in the twenty-first century. They…
- Model trustworthy, gift affirming ministry that respects the dignity, worth, and ministry of each priest/pastor, deacon, and lay person
- Focus their and our attention on the big questions and ignore the little stuff (what the Lutherans call adiaphora)
- Support diocesan clergy through pastoral care, listening, assisting each cleric in finding a call that matches that individual’s gifts and abilities, etc.
- Minimize administrative overhead (time and money) that has remained constant or even grown while TEC is shrinking and instead maximize ministry and mission (aka good stewardship)
- Hold all persons within the diocese appropriately accountable for growing in Christian virtue and adhering to legal and moral behavioral standards
- With the diocese, set specific goals and metrics (e.g., frequency and purpose of parochial visits, number of new church plants, number of church closures, number of donors/pledgers, size of the average gift, increases in average Sunday attendance, etc.) and then periodically assess progress through mutual ministry reviews with their diocese (e.g., diocesan council or standing committee)
- Stop playing defense on sexual misconduct issues, hiding behind Church Insurance Group requirements; take the offense by implementing and consistently enforcing appropriately tough standards that embody respect for the dignity and worth of all people
- Strive to exercise power and authority in a Christlike manner, i.e., a truly life-giving way characterized by justice, mercy, and steadfast love.
Concern over the number of dioceses currently seeking new bishops and a possible shortage of quality candidates to fill those vacancies (cf. David Paulsen, “Bishop turnover puts dioceses in transition mode, fuels talk of ‘unprecedented’ challenge,” Episcopal News Service, Dec. 6, 2018) seems unwarranted. From among our five thousand plus active priests, TEC can surely find twenty or even one hundred gifted, qualified candidates to fill episcopal vacancies.
Simply filling the vacancies, however, begs the more basic questions of systemic change. For example:
- How many dioceses does TEC really need? TEC increasingly resembles the top-heavy US Navy, which now has more admirals than at the height of WW2 but fewer than one seventh as many ships. Indeed, today’s Navy has more than two admirals per ship. TEC for most of fifty years has lost membership and congregations without a commensurate shrinking in the number of dioceses. In smaller dioceses, should a bishop also serve as dean/rector/vicar of a congregation? Should small dioceses consolidate or share bishops? Are there other options? Can bishops function equally well with smaller staffs? How can a diocese more extensively utilize modern communication and office tools to reduce administrative overhead? TEC generally appears mired in nineteenth and twentieth century administrative practices. Too few bishops, empowered by the Holy Spirit, prudentially and courageously recommend bold answers to these questions.
- Is assured life tenure (at least until age 72) the optimal pattern for episcopal ministry or an anachronistic legacy of bishops being feudal lords? Would another pattern (e.g., provisions for leaves of absence or serving for x number of years, as does the Presiding Bishop) better support TEC’s ministry while concurrently improving care for bishops with mental health, relational, or spiritual difficulties? Would Jesus condone an episcopal structure that implicitly prioritizes a bishop’s tenure over diocesan well-being? What would Jesus say about a structure that lacks a protocol for removing a bishop from office whose personal difficulties prevent the bishop from performing his/her duties but who has declined offers of appropriate assistance or refused to take a leave of absence as part of returning to health?
Good leadership can frequently save a sinking ship. The church is the ark of our salvation. Sadly, that ark gives every sign of sinking. Let’s scrape off the barnacles and fix systemic problems. Then, instead of engaging in passive aggressive resistance to a bishop’s leadership, the rest of us should collaborate with him/her to improve his/her episcopate. With God’s help, we can repair the ark of our salvation by adapting the shape and practice of episcopal ministry to the needs, possibilities, and realities of twenty-first century life. The time has come for our bishops and episcopacy to shed the vestiges of feudalism and to become truly the servants of the servants of God.
George Clifford served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has an MBA, taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now serves as priest associate at the Parish of St Clement in Honolulu. He mentors clergy, consults with parishes, and blogs at Ethical Musings.