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Re-imagining the Office of Presiding Bishop

Re-imagining the Office of Presiding Bishop

The history of the Office of the Presiding Bishop (PB) shows a variety of configurations and responsibilities as well as length of term. Currently the Presiding Bishop is the chief pastor and primate of the national church and its nine ecclesiastical provinces, is charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating, developing, and articulating policy and strategy, overseeing the administration of the national church staff, and speaking for the church on issues of concern and interest. She is the President of the House of Bishops and is elected by the church’s General Convention to serve a nine-year term. (from the Constitution and Canons) As the Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) looks at various models of doing church, one wonders how our leadership model might change. As TREC reports to General Convention 2015 and we elect a new Presiding Bishop (or re-elect the current one), is this the time to make changes?

The Rt Rev. Daniel Martins considers this question at his blog, Confessions of a Carioca:

…it seems a propitious moment to suggest that a sensible way forward invites us to take a step “back to the future.” Until the 1940s, the Presiding Bishop was simply the senior active member of the House of Bishops. Upon assuming the office, he held onto his day job as the actual bishop of an actual diocese. He wasn’t in any substantial way a figurehead and CEO. That is no longer permissible under the canons as they are presently written. But we can change that.

…we could elect a Presiding Bishop without requiring that person to resign his or her see in order to take up the new position. Of course, we would need to re-write the canonical job description to make this practically feasible. Removing the requirement that the PB visit every diocese during a nine-year term would be the major component of this revision. Removing the expectation that the Presiding Bishop serve as chief consecrator every time we ordain a new bishop would be another big piece. It would probably also be necessary to come up with a way of aiding the diocese whose bishop is elected in calling a suffragan or assisting bishop to take up some of the load.

In response to Martins’ blog, the Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, writes:

The provinces that do not have independent Primates either have a rotating presidency, like Jerusalem and the Middle East, or else invest primacy in a particular diocese, like Canterbury. None of the other provinces have as many dioceses as we do per capita, on the other hand, which makes presidency much more complicated.

And would any diocese be willing to have a suffragan in charge (something I know about) imposed on it?

For me the question remains, what are the needs of the dioceses they cannot meet for themselves? Answering that will then suggest a path that will blend new ideas on organization and communication tools with ways we have been church before, “bringing out of our storehouse treasures both old and new”.

George Clifford reflects on the office and the future here.. Clifford offers a model based on Jesus:

Jesus provides a role model for inspirational Christian leaders that we would do well to emulate:

He had clarity of vision and purpose. He came to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. Through prayer and time alone, he maintained his focus and strength in the face of adversity.

He embodied courage. He unflinchingly faced an entrenched power convinced that it could coopt or destroy him.

He was a dynamic, effective communicator. Crowds of thousands of spiritual seekers flocked to hear his message of God’s life-giving love.

He incarnated charisma. People – Jews and Gentiles, children and women and men, the religious and the secular – in their relationship with him, experienced God’s transformative love.

Finally, he inspired others to join him. He saw people’s gifts, recruited the willing, and shaped them with love. Then the gospels report that Jesus sent out the twelve and the seventy; Matthew ends his gospel with Jesus exhorting his followers to change the whole world. Jesus ministered to his followers that they, in turn, might embrace and join him in mission


Other questions:

Why did the church change the role in the 1940s?

Is there a desire in the church for contact with with leadership that is chosen by the whole church? (Each House of General Convention elects its own presiding officer. The election of the Presiding Bishop must be affirmed by the House of Deputies.)

What are the essentials of the Office of Presiding Bishop for the Church? Is the administrative portion more important than the role of presence? Which of course leads back to who has authority in between General Conventions? Executive Council? PB? Chief Operating Officer – all of which seems very unclear. (as one person said – if you did an organizational chart of the church – it would look more like a Picasso painting).

Would General Convention make the changes to the canons that would be needed?

What are your thoughts?


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tobias haller

Susan, to answer that last question, and not speaking for +Dan but for myself, I think there is a problem with removing the bishop (any bishop) from being part of a real local community of faith. Even if the suffragan does most of the work, keeping the PB connected with the life of a diocese is for the good of the incumbent, and perhaps the diocese, too. Regular contact — even if attenuated — with the matters of discernment for ministry in the orders of deacon and priest, and then the actual ministry of those folks, along with the lay leadership struggling with the local realities that constitute 99% of the actual work of the church, would be, to my mind, salutary in helping to focus exactly what the “international” level can best do in order to empower that ministry.

Susan Snook

The Presiding Bishop now has three distinct roles: (1) Presiding Officer of one house of General Convention; (2) Primate of The Episcopal Church and our representative to the church, the Communion, and the world; and (3) Chief Executive Officer of a complex staff structure. I believe that the first two roles absolutely need to be held by a bishop; the third does not. In fact, the third role – Chief Executive Officer – is problematic as it now stands, because it is too large a role to be held by one person in combination with roles (1) and (2), and the task is necessarily delegated to another person. The person in charge of staff (and I am not talking about particular personalities, but about organizational structure) therefore is accountable only to the Presiding Bishop, and not to the whole General Convention, which is the body that makes policy for the staff to carry out. I believe the Chief Executive Officer (i.e., chief of staff) needs to be accountable to General Convention, and in the interim between Conventions, to its agent, Executive Council. I think that role should be separated from the first two roles and should be either an elected (by General Convention) or an appointed (by Executive Council) position. It is incoherent for the staff to be accountable only to one person elected by only one House of General Convention.

Interesting as Bishop Martins’ proposal is, I don’t see what we gain by having the PB also be the diocesan bishop of a particular diocese (in name only, as the real diocesan power would be delegated to a suffragan). I’m not sure how that helps the difficulties of the present role.

Susan Brown Snook


“Currently the Presiding Bishop is the chief pastor and primate of the national church and its nine ecclesiastical provinces”

The Episcopal Church is worldwide now, and its primate has responsibility for many areas outside our domestic jurisdictions.


Nigel Renton (added by editor)

Jim Naughton

I’m aware that this is my view of the elephant, so I offer it as observation rather than diagnosis:

It is difficult to think about the Office of Presiding Bishop in the abstract and not in relation to the person who holds it. So I acknowledge that my perception that the church seems to enjoy and benefit from having a Presiding Bishop who is an appealing public figure may be colored by the fact that I think our current PB is such a figure, and that her abilities as a public speaker and as our primary spokesperson have been a great gift to the church.

And it may be my observations of our current Presiding Bishop and the opportunity that I have had to work with each of the last two Presidents of the House of Deputies that makes me believe that the people of the church have a hunger to interact with these churchwide leaders. It is impressive, if not alarming, that they maintain the travel schedules that they do. I think the people who hold or have held these positions have the opportunity to pastor the church by public appearance, public statements, and the cultivation of confident diocesan and church wide leadership. I don’t know that I would want to see that opportunity taken away from them.

My concern isn’t with the churchwide scope of either of these offices, but with the blurry lines of authority within the upper reaches of the church. I’d like a clearer definition of what overall executive functions the PB and the PB’s staff are responsible for, and which ones are the province of Executive Council.

tobias haller

In 2012 a resolution (B013) was put forward that would have permitted (not required) the PB to retain the existing see, and as amended, to empower election of a suffragan to do the work of the diocese without further permission being required.

Most of the debate was not to the point, and got sidetracked into “no diocese could afford it” discussions. In any case, the motion failed. People simply didn’t want even to allow the possibility, much less require it. In many ways we are prisoners of our Canons, as they require things which may have been good at one time, but which are not necessary. The whole issue of being “nimble” means being able to move. As it stands, the next PB must resign her see, and if her successor is to be even allowed the possibility of keeping her diocese, that could not happen until the end of the term of the PB elected in 2015. All talk of change at this point is just that… talk. It is good to talk, but I had rather we do a wholesale review of the constitution and canons to see what requirements might be removed that prevent (but do not require) change. For example, removing the Constitutional requirement that the houses meet and delibarate separately makes action in a joint session impossible. Removing the requirement would not mean a change to a unicameral model, but would at least allow occasional experience of what it might be like. But since this is a constitutional change, even if adopted in 2015, it could not take effect until 2021! That doesn’t sound nimble to me.

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