Support the Café

Search our Site

Reflections on the election in Pittsburgh

Reflections on the election in Pittsburgh

Lionel Deimel, who has been active in the new life of the Diocese of Pittsburgh relates his thoughts following the election of their next bishop. Pending consents from the other dioceses, Pittsburgh will enter into a new stage of their life.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory:

It was, I think, the consensus view that the search process had run smoothly prior to this weekend. The nomination of Scott Quinn by petition was a bit of a hiccup, but the petition process seemed necessary to assuring fairness.


I believe that what had appeared to be a well-designed, well-run process, ran off the rails Friday night and Saturday. I have already reported on the Friday gathering. (See “‘Discussing’ the Candidates.”)

What happened? A liberal-conservative split clearly remains in the diocese, and it is, in part, a lay-clergy split. The laity, in any case, whether out of boredom, impatience, or naïveté, threw in the towel. Not only was I severely disappointed by this, but it made me think that the candidate we really needed was Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, who had the strongest skills and record of bringing divided communities together.

The sad reality is that Bishop Price, perhaps inadvertently, but surely with the complicity of others in charge of the search process, threw the laity under the bus. We were offered the poisoned Kool-Aid of Anglican niceness. Our bishop constantly asserted that an episcopal election is not a “political” process. We were implored to call the five priests standing for the election “nominees,” rather than “candidates.” We were told not to say anything “negative” about any of the “nominees.”

Of course an episcopal election is political! Any process by which a body of people selects a leader is, by definition, political. That the electors are Christians does not make it something other than political. The process can only be more or less successful in reflecting the will of the electoral body. If one believes in the democratic process—the election of bishops, perhaps more than any other element of our polity, distinguishes The Episcopal Church from most of its Anglican sisters—one should be interested in making that process as effective as possible. Among other things, electors should have as much information as possible and be able to exchange that information freely.

How could the process have been better handled (or better handled in the future)? Primarily, we should drop the pretense that an election is not an election, with all that implies, and is instead some mysterious and holy piece of magic. We are deciding in whose hands to place substantial power, both over the diocese and the wider church. If we believe the decision is that of the Holy Spirit—something I doubt anyone really believes—then we should simply draw lots and be done with it. Otherwise, we should recognize that we have responsibility for an essentially political process and should do our best to design a good process.

More than anything else, I believe that laypeople involved in choosing a bishop need a way of consulting with one another effectively while the election is in progress. Perhaps clergy and lay electors should discuss the election and vote in different rooms, coming together briefly between ballots to talk in plenary session. In any case, I hope that the next time Pittsburgh has an episcopal election, procedures will look different from what was done this time around.


All that said, I am on record orally, if not in writing, as saying that I could live with any of the candidates proposed by the Nominating Committee.

Read it all here.

What is your experience of bishop elections? If you are from Pittsburgh, is this how it was for you? What would you suggest for the process of election? Do you think bishop elections can work or not? Why?


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lionel Deimel


I didn’t mean to say that I thought the Holy Spirit wasn’t involved in episcopal elections. The Holy Spirit doesn’t cast votes, however. The Holy Spirit only works through people, who have to take responsibility for what needs to be done.

Organ Builder

“If we believe the decision is that of the Holy Spirit—something I doubt anyone really believes—then we should simply draw lots and be done with it.”

I’ve only been involved with one episcopal election (Diocese of Massachusetts, after the suicide of the previous incumbent), but I think I would take issue with this statement. I, for one, believe the Holy Spirit is involved a lot more than we sometimes care to believe–not always successfully, perhaps, but involved nonetheless. I think Lionel underestimates the laity of his diocese (and probably the clergy as well) if he truly thinks most of them DON’T believe the Holy Spirit was involved.

I was a lay delegate–the walkabouts were well attended by people from my parish and they were not afraid to tell me what they thought! I know what my rector thought as well, but secret ballots are secret for a reason. I certainly didn’t feel any undue clerical pressure, and would have simply side-stepped it had I done so.

I suppose what surprises me most about Lionel’s comment is that I normally find myself in agreement with just about every observation he makes…

Michael Morris


I’ve voted in three elections in two dioceses; and with seniority have watched many others. Only a few times have I thought, “The Holy Spirit missed on this one;” or, as I became more honest, “We missed the Holy Spirit on this one.” I’ve only come to that years after the election.

There is commonly a difference of perspective between clergy and laity because of the difference of relationship. At some point, there is an expectation that the bishop is supposed to be pastor to the cleric and his or her family. This is not to say that the bishop is not concerned with or able to be a pastor to individual lay members. It’s just that it’s not part of the expectations of the bishop, and “pastor to the clergy” is. Most make a concerted effort. Some are incapable (and so, I’ve been a casualty). But, one way or another, there’s some expectation that it’s a part of the “official duties.” We clergy may expect much or little. We may desire much or little; but that difference of perspective is real. It’s also the case that differences arise between voting delegates (both clergy and lay) based on how many dioceses the delegate has experienced. Different dioceses have different cultures that both shape and are shaped by episcopal elections. While it’s not all or nothing, clergy often have experience of more dioceses, both individually and as a group. That can also shape it.

The thing is that we have to rely on the Holy Spirit. That’s not to say that the process isn’t political, or that we don’t try to participate (not to say manipulate) as fully as possible. We have to rely on the Holy Spirit to work within the process because, really, there are too many factors that we just don’t control, can’t control.

Marshall Scott

Tom Sramek Jr

I think that if we are forced to choose between a political process and a spirit-led process, we are making a false choice. Political doesn’t mean evil or even secular, just structural. We have a way of doing these elections and we trust that the Spirit is at work in some way in them (though we may occasionally wonder what God was thinking…).

I also think that if there is a “failed process” option, it shouldn’t be a total reset, but a drop back to the last larger set of candidates. I’ve seen the disaster of a failed process in parish search processes and wondered “why not just rewind the process rather than staring over?”

In any case, the election process is ideally both political AND Spirit-led.

Jim Pratt


There is precedent for your idea, at least in the Canadian church. In Central Newfoundland a few years ago, the electoral synod was split, with several inconclusive ballots after the field had been narrowed to two candidates. The archbishop in consultation with the synod executive (equivalent of Standing Committee) adjourned the election, a retired bishop was appointed for a year, and a new electoral synod was convened a year later.

As to control by the clergy, the Canadian General Synod has a procedure for the election of the Primate, whereby clergy and laity, while in the same room, sit separately (this is apparently by custom, as it is not in the canons). While the orders are free to mingle in the hall or washrooms, there’s no direct pressure while the ballots are being marked. (In 2003, it was the laity, led by the youth, who had a clear preference on the first ballot, which eventually prevailed).

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café