by Pierre Whalon
On an online forum for bishops and deputies, a number of people have been debating the status of the Presiding Bishop: should we return to the Presiding Bishop being a diocesan bishop? I am honored to be asked to expand on my contribution to the discussion.
It needs to be remembered that the manner of selection of bishops in The Episcopal Church is different from many other provinces, as is the selection of head bishops (the primate), who are variously called archbishop or presiding/president bishop or moderator.
At first in 1789, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was chosen by rotation. William White served first, then Samuel Seabury, then Samuel Provoost. In 1795 it was decided to designate the senior bishop of the House as Presiding. William White served again, from 1795 to his death in 1836 — also continuing to serve both as Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, and Bishop of Pennsylvania! In 1919 it was decided that the Presiding Bishop be elected for a six-year term; in 1943 it was ruled that the elected bishop needed to resign his see and serve until retirement. The 1967 General Convention voted to limit the term to twelve years and required retirement at 65; the 1985 Convention raised that age to 70. The 1994 Convention lowered the term to nine years and in 2006 raised the retirement age to 72.
In other words, changing the office has been done before, many times.
There are a number of reasonable arguments advanced for returning to what was before 1943 the status quo ante. First, most other provinces of the Anglican Communion continue to name as archbishop or presiding/president bishop or moderator someone who is already a diocesan bishop of the province. Most notably, the Archbishop of Canterbury still functions as Bishop of the Diocese of Canterbury, including making pastoral visitations. (Pope Francis has re-emphasized that the Pontiff is first of all the Bishop of the Diocese of Rome.)
In small provinces like Jerusalem and the Middle East (4 dioceses) or Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (3 dioceses), the presidency rotates ever so often among the bishops. In others, the presiding bishop is elected for a term of years. The province of West Africa has tried to implement a double archepiscopacy: one for the eleven dioceses of Ghana, and one for its other dioceses, who also serves as primate. In the Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia, three archbishops serve together, rotating as primate. Nigeria has fourteen archbishops heading fourteen different provinces, and one is elected to serve as primate.
Only in The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada are the primates deprived of their sees once elected. The Archbishop of Canterbury has the Bishop of Dover to run the diocese, in effect; other large provinces have various arrangements.
If we were to adopt this model, then we would have to decide either:
a.) one diocese in particular shall permanently become the Presiding Bishop’s see, or
b.) the Presiding Bishop’s diocese will need to have an assistant bishop not elected by the people of the diocese and paid by the General Convention to oversee it, or
c.) General Convention dramatically cuts back the Presiding Bishop’s responsibilities.
Neither (a) nor (b) seem possible in a church where the dioceses elect their own bishops. Bishop Peter Lee once told me that in 1940, the Diocese of Virginia apparently offered to give over four parishes in order to allow the PB to retain a diocesan role. This may be a possible compromise. That diocese is unlikely to make the offer again, but what about others?
And despite the ambiguities of Canon I.15 (“Congregations in Foreign Lands”), there is no reason to believe that the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe does not already serve as the Presiding Bishop’s “diocese.” On the day of her election, I got Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to promise to visit one of her churches in Europe every year. I pointed out that she would never have the opportunity to “just be the bishop” anywhere else (except in the four congregations in Micronesia). Furthermore, this position gives the PB the right to vote as a bishop exercising jurisdiction in the House of Bishops. (The Bishops in charge act like the Bishop of Dover, exercising ordinary jurisdiction in Europe and Micronesia.)
Which leaves option (c) — drastically cut back the PB’s responsibilities. Above all in this discussion, I would not want the debate about diocesan status of the PB to become a way around directly addressing the definition of the office’s role. The Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church Report commends a specific view of the office:
The Presiding Bishop & Primate of The Episcopal Church is the chief pastor, spiritual leader, principal local and international representative, and prophetic voice of the Church. Within the scope of his or her duties and responsibilities, the PB also has a chief executive role in the Church-wide organization as President of DFMS and Chair of the Executive Council. This role is equivalent to a chief executive officer within the bounds of the Constitution and Canons of the Church, and it is exercised in congruence to the highest ethical call of the Gospel to be a good steward of the gifts, talents, and treasures entrusted by God to the Church. As such, the PB should be retained as the CEO of the Church, Chair of the Executive Council, and President of DFMS, with clear managerial responsibility for all DFMS staff. (ENGAGING GOD’S MISSION IN THE 21ST CENTURY: FINAL REPORT OF THE TASK FORCE FOR REIMAGINING THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH, page 13f.)
All that, and oversee a diocese too? This office’s job description is what General Convention needs to debate and decide first, and then we can talk about how someone, anyone, can possibly do the job.
The Rt. Rev. Pierre Whalon, Bishop in charge and Suffragan to the Presiding Bishop, Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe
Pierre Whalon served parishes in Pennsylvania and Florida before becoming the first elected Bishop in charge of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe in 2001. He has authored several scholarly articles in various journals, and is a columnist for Anglicans Online and the Huffington Post in both the American and French editions. He currently chairs the House of Bishops Ecclesiology Committee, and is a member of its Theology Committee, as well. Bishop Whalon is presently mourning the Pittsburgh Steelers’ loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs, but hopes to assuage his grief next season.
Posted by Ann Fontaine