For whom will The Episcopal Church (TEC) elect its next Presiding Bishop (PB)?
In one respect, the answer to that question is obvious. TEC elects its PB as its primate, i.e., we elect the Presiding Bishop to serve us – Episcopalians, Episcopal congregations, and our denomination – as our leader.
Given that answer, the choice of a PB seems of diminishing significance. TEC’s membership, influence, and resources have declined substantially; TEC appears unlikely to regain great influence. To the extent that Christendom ever existed in the US, it is now permanently gone. Like the mainline Protestant tradition of which it is a part, TEC is experiencing a long-term decline.
Appointment of a chief operating officer and moves to restructure the denomination further underscore the relative unimportance of who is chosen to be the next PB – if we expect our primate’s main constituency to be the TEC. Working with a chief operating officer can allow the PB considerable latitude to engage in other ministries or missions. Concomitantly, simplifying denominational structures should reduce overhead and maintenance demands on senior management. In sum, TEC does not need a PB who perceives her/his ministry as that of an internally focused chief executive.
Alternatively, the next PB might focus her/his tenure on being TEC’s chief cheerleader, seeking to energize TEC leaders, members, and structures for mission. This role also presumes a PB elected who focuses primarily on TEC.
A functional conception of the PB’s role as chief cheerleader is theoretically attractive, organizationally inescapable, and practically limited. TEC’s most important resources are its leaders and people. A chief cheerleader energizing and mobilizing those resources for missions could prove exciting and potentially transformative. A PB has multiple opportunities, many of them obligatory, to be chief cheerleader. These include officiating at the consecration of new bishops, chairing the House of Bishops, visiting dioceses, etc.
However, although TEC does have a connectional polity, today’s congregations and dioceses enjoy considerable autonomy. Opportunities for repeatedly and consistently communicating a vision to all of our members, congregations, clergy, and dioceses are limited, perhaps non-existent. Five thousand, mostly small, congregations spread across more than 0ne hundred dioceses limit the PB’s ability to be present simultaneously to all Episcopalians. In other words, a PB who concentrates her/his ministry as chief cheerleader on transforming TEC will have his/her effectiveness constricted by inherent structural limitations.
Other conceptions of the presiding bishop’s role as internally focused (e.g., chief theologian) run into self-limiting difficulties for reasons similar to those inherent in envisioning the presiding bishop as chief cheerleader.
TEC by most measures is today a healthier, more stable organization than it was nine years ago. Consequently, electing another internally focused PB will probably achieve diminishing gains. Furthermore, and almost without exception, internally focused organizations die. Internally focused churches not only die but have also substituted self-preservation for gospel-based kenosis.
What if in electing its presiding bishop, TEC changed its paradigm and did something different? What if TEC, instead of electing its presiding bishop primarily for what she/he can accomplish or bring to the denomination, elected its next presiding bishop for his/her potential ministry to non-members?
The next presiding bishop might function as chief missionary, an icon of Christ to a broken and hurting world, a symbol of hope in the midst of despair, a window through which God’s love might shine into a secular world. Conceptualizing the PB’s role as chief missionary extends the current emphasis on turning TEC into a mission organization.
Conceptualizing the presiding bishop as chief missionary differs from internally focused descriptions of the presiding bishop’s role in three critical ways. First, chief missionary clearly prioritizes the presiding bishop’s ministry and time. Reaching out to others should take priority over internal, organizational matters. Allow the chief operating officer and others to manage ongoing affairs. Personally perform only canonically required tasks or tasks in which the PB will have a farther reaching, more powerful voice than would a substitute. More so than any other TEC leader, a chief missionary PB has the potential public stature and platform to speak effectively on the national and international stages.
Second, chief missionary presumes that the rest of TEC – leaders, members, clergy, dioceses, congregations – join, to some degree, in the missionary enterprise. A presiding bishop with an unrelenting focus as chief missionary has more transformative potential through leading by example, following Jesus’ in seeking the lost, than does nine years of cheerleading, theological reflection, or competent management combined. Current organizational restructuring has prepared the way for electing a chief missionary PB.
Third, chief missionary incarnates Jesus. He came not for the ninety-nine in the flock, but the one who was lost (of course, in twenty-first century North America, perhaps the flock consists of fifty, or even twenty, and fifty or perhaps even eighty are lost). TEC must stop waiting for the thirsty, hungry, and sick to enter our buildings in search of help; instead, we must, like the paralytic’s friends who tore open the roof, tear down barriers and bring the gift of life to the dying. For such a time as this, we need a PB who will be our chief missionary.
George Clifford is an ethicist and retired priest in Honolulu, HI. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings