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Should the Presiding Bishop be a diocesan?

Should the Presiding Bishop be a diocesan?

A continuing series on the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church and the 2015 General Convention.

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.

Other items leading up to General Convention 2015: TREC report  and Executive Council cuts “asking“.

Posted by Ann Fontaine


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Ian Montgomery

I can only imagine that Bishop White spent relatively little time travelling outside the Diocese of Pennsylvania — or even the Parish of Christ Church. One notes that our PB has for years spent a great deal of time (and the Church’s money) traveling around the world in a quasi-Archbishop of Canterbury role. One never hears of the Primate of Canada or Australia making pastoral visits to the middle east or the bishops of the church in New Zealand holding meetings of the house in Alaska. It strikes one that a lot less is needed from the PB’s office and the National Church generally as so much comes down to local action not national program staff and primatial travel. I think I would also remove the requirement that the PB visit every diocese nationally.

As for TREC — I agree with many who say that the proposals seem to be assuming decline not mobilizing for growth and the measures suggested seem more like embalming than enabling mission. Just saying the word “Mission” and attaching it to everything does not actually accomplish anything. To paraphrase my GTS Ecc’l History, the death of the missionary movement in the Episcopal Church occurred with the establishment of the DFMS and the decree that we are ALL missionaries. As Fr. Gilbert and Bishop Sullivan put it, “When everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody!”

Ann Fontaine

Ian: do you read the Canadian Anglican Journal? You will see their equivalent to +Katharine does travel. She serves on several inter Anglican bodies which require her to represent us in those councils. Re: travel for TEC — the canons require her to visit all the dioceses (and some of those are in Central America and Europe as well as Taiwan.)

Jack Zamboni

an important issue with the election of a Suffragan in a new PB’s diocese as Tobias and Jared suggest is time. Our current process for the election and consecration of any Bishop, including Suffragans, takes a minimum if 1.5 years, usually more. If a PB is elected at GC and formally takes that office with its current huge responsibilities within a few months as happens now, his/her diocese would be without a functional on-the-ground bishop for a year or longer. Perhaps an interim assisting bishop could be appointed for the short term. Still, the issue of time needs consideration.

Tobias Haller

Jack, I agree time is an issue, but I’ve long felt we take far too much time in the “discernment” process for all clergy — with little evidence of an improvement in outcomes — from the times when there were no coadjutors and dioceses were able to elect within a couple of months: and that was for diocesan bishops! I think it is high time we examine not just the structures by which we do things, but the how and why — in fact, I think those questions should be answered first. We may find that the principle of work expanding to fill the time allotted is not serving us well…

Ian Montgomery

I agree Tobias that we generally take too long on all aspects of official discernment in the Church with no discernable improvement in outcome. The most recent discernment of the election and call of a suffragan bishop in Maryland clearly shows that no matter how long we take and careful we are we can still elect, call, and consecrate sub-optimal people to the episcopate. England has a running list, centrally kept of “episc-abile” and they seem simply to spit them out the top of the list when one is required at a moment’s notice — with no discernibly worse results than we get taking 12 times the time.

Tom Downs

Indeed it is a long list of duties. How ever did the PB’s before 1943 ever accomplish them? I suspect they were handled other ways or simply not thought worth doing. The duties expanded with advent of the corporate model and the dramatic growth of the church. With the church shrinking to where it was in the 1940’s perhaps this job could shrink as well.

Jared Cramer

I would echo Tobias’ comment. I see no reason why the Suffragan in the PB’s diocese has to be an unelected appointment. The diocese could then decide whether they would choose a retired bishop or elect a presbyter to this role. All candidates for election would have to know that upon retirement of the PB, they also would submit their resignation so that the diocese could elect a new diocesan. I am sure immensely qualified and capable candidates could be found, as the job they would take on would still be a nine-year job, after which they could discern where God is calling them next, whether it is to stand for election as the diocesan or to move on to a new cure.

James Yazell

I suppose I’m still unclear on how the Pope is able to run the entire Roman Catholic Church while being bishop of Rome but the Presiding Bishop would have to much on their plate being a bishop and running The Episcopal Church.

How has Rome resolved this problem and is there a way we can emulate it?

David Allen

It’s called the Roman Curia;
“The Roman Curia is the administrative apparatus of the Holy See and the central governing body through which the Roman Pontiff conducts the business of the entire Catholic Church.[notes 1][1] It acts in his name and with his authority for the good and for the service of the particular Churches and provides the necessary central organization for the correct functioning of the Church and the achievement of its goals.”

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