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Letter to the Editor: For whom do we elect a Presiding Bishop?

Letter to the Editor: For whom do we elect a Presiding Bishop?

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


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Carolyn Peet

I’m wondering if any thought has been given to reverting to the “old” process, whereby the PB was simply the most senior bishop who was not age-restricted, and whose duty was really only to “preside” over meetings of the House of Bishops.

That seemed to work pretty well for many decades. Perhaps would even eliminate a lot of bureaucratic overhead and expense.

Professor Christopher Seitz

It would be a spectacular and obvious idea. Money-saving. Simple. Would give the PB a genuine hands-on role.

The Scottish Episcopal Church does this. TEC is no longer very big in terms of overall numbers.

It would send the signal that TEC really means to do mission locally.

Canon Kale Francis King, Tssf

While serving in a Western diocese I had the privilege to meet the late Archbishop Anthony (San Francisco; Greek Orthodox.) After the initial introductions he looked into my face and asked, “How is your congregation, Father?” I responded rather facetiously, to which he said, “No, Father. How is your congregation spiritually?” I all my fifty-some years of ministry no other bishop has ever asked me that question. Is that not the initial concern of the Church? Is that not the question rightly responded to that will catch the eye and ear of the non-Churched? Is that not the very first question anyone elected Presiding Bishop should ask when first speaking to any deacon, priest or bishop throughout his/ her term whether missionary or cheerleader?
We may deride attempts at “program” at every level. But I really doubt the spirituality of every level is even as good, more’s the pity.

Philip B. Spivey

Canon Kale: My sentiments entirely. I’m not a cradle Episcopalian. I came to the church 25 years ago because I was attracted to its theologians and its stated values; I came to this church because I sought spiritual growth and nurture. I regret to say that while I have worn the trappings of an Episcopalian, I can’t say my spiritual growth has profited greatly in situ, i.e., the church going experience. Rather, my greatest growth and nurture has emerged from one-on-one work with a spiritual director. Does this negate the potential for a satisfying spiritual experience at corporate worship on Sunday? Of course not. Liturgy, at its best, brings us closer to Jesus and the Trinity. However, it doesn’t necessarily bring us closer to one another—“our neighbor”—or to ourselves.

I believe we live out a somewhat conflicted mission on the path that Jesus walked. His fundamental exhortation to us in Matthew 22: In Matthew 22, is to us to first, love Him with all our hearts and mind and second, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus is clear that the second—loving our neighbors—as of equal value and weight as the first—to love Him.

What I’ve found missing in some established Christian communities is an emphasis on loving my neighbor down the block, across town, or across the globe; rarely is their emphasis on cultivating a relationship and love for our pew mates and our parish members. Church mission is always articulated as “outreach” or “engagement”. I think the Church and our Christian communities would profit more from spiritual “in-reach”. What would that look like? Archbishop Anthony asks the essential question above: “How is your congregation spiritually?”

And how is spiritual health achieved? By recognizing that all the healing needed does not exist outside our church walls. Instead, healing must start from within. St. Augustine is said to have noted that the “The church is not a hotel for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” I would add, somewhat more generously, that the church can be a place for healing pain, scars and brokenness through personal spiritual nurture. That can be possible with a particular kind of leadership.

I believe our clergy, including our Presiding Bishop, can provide spiritual leadership in the lengthy and difficult task of healing within our communities. What if the Episcopal Church became known for not only for its social mission, but primarily for its personal mission in the service of healing the mind, body and spirit of its members. That’s not a so bad Christian reputation to carry.

Justin Fletcher

So we elect a Presiding Bishop for…no one in particular? Think of the cost to notify our “non-members” that we have elected a new presiding bishop for them. The announcement should be interesting: “Dear non-episcopalians, in our great humility we have elected a new presiding bishop for you. He will be finding you soon in order to drop you through the roof. It will be free of charge. You’re welcome.” This is but an analog for ethical consumerism – it seems to be about others but it’s really about soothing the conscience — all while remaining a consumer.

The scriptural allusion proves the deep confusion. In story of the paralytic Jesus is in fact inside, teaching no less. If the new presiding bishop is to incarnate this example, I suppose chief theologian might not be so bad. But that’s not what this letter says. We can’t wait for people to come in. It’s the friends of the paralytic that bring him to Jesus, not Jesus himself. Jesus was at home.

Cheer leading is but the sloganeering of abstractions. If he’s right to suggest we don’t need that, then neither do we need this essay. Who can be against a less self-consumed, “mission” oriented church in the abstract? But with no account of mission, no commendation of the evangelical counsels, no championing of voluntary poverty for the sake of the gospels, not even a reference to prayer — the BCP catechism’s first mode of pursuing mission — or the prayer book, this has brought no nearer to a good description of the next presiding bishop.

Instead we have an abstract plea either a non-human or heretical leader. For if the new presiding bishop is to incarnate Jesus, he must either forego that basic human activity of reflection on one’s existence or reject the claim that when he incarnates Jesus he is incarnating God. Not only does this fail to bring us closer to a good description, it strikes me as a description of cruelty for both the church and the one whom it elects.

Perhaps it won’t be so bad, though. Maybe those non-members for whom we are voting will take kindly to a person confused about Jesus but lacking the capacity to sort through it.

But for ourselves, I think we can do better.

Professor Christopher Seitz

The return on expense of 50M for litigation is nowhere close to worth it in purely economic terms, and has taken up valuable time of the PB and her private chancellor.

Either hand this over to a firm and call for a better return on investment, or give it up. It is difficult to get 15% from dioceses as it is, with 40% having fewer than 3000 ASA. When people ‘get it’ that their contributions are going down the litigation drain, they don’t open their wallets wider for credible mission.

Can a new PB clarify how much time and investment will be drained away in the next 9 years?

Marshall Scott

While I understand your thought on this, I think we can’t know that the legal expenses have been poor return on investment. I was a priest of the Diocese of Michigan at the time of the departure of Mariners’ Church. In one sense, the diocese spent a good deal of money in initial case and on appeal, losing both times. On the other hand, the decisions demonstrated that Mariners’ Church had a unique history and a unique relationship with the Diocese, so that they prevailed. On the other hand, vestries of four or five other congregations were also thinking of departing at the same time. Having demonstrated that Mariners’ prevailed because of a circumstance that those congregations did not share, those vestries neither tried to depart, nor did they go to court. So, the Diocese “lost the battle and won the war.”

While we can’t calculate what additional departures might have cost other dioceses in our more recent division, neither can we say that additional congregations wouldn’t have tried. In vigorously defending in the cases we have, have we prevented further cases? It’s happened in the past – in our odd Episcopal-speak, an “historically recognized position.”

David Bailey

“TEC by most measures is today a healthier, more stable organization than it was nine years ago.” Can you provide the measures you are using for that statement?

David Bailey+
Diocese of Southern Ohio

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