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Sink, swim or walk on water: election of the next Presiding Bishop

Sink, swim or walk on water: election of the next Presiding Bishop

by George Clifford

Debate has commenced in earnest about the election of The Episcopal Church’s next Presiding Bishop (e.g., Next Presiding Bishop: caretaker or visionary?). I’ve even contributed to that conversation.

In one sense, the selection of the next Presiding Bishop is so unimportant that the Church could rely on a serendipitous selection. For example, the Nominating Committee might place the name of each eligible and willing bishop on a slip of paper and then draw nine of those names for its slate. The House of Bishops might draw one of those names and then elect that person the next PB with the House of Deputies voting by acclamation to affirm that choice. Although this approach may comply with the letter but not the spirit of the canons, it is certainly biblical (remember the selection in Acts 1:21-26 of Matthias to replace Judas?) and would save upwards of a quarter of million dollars.

Sometimes God does work through serendipitous events. Drawing names would eliminate all electioneering and God knows that the poor, the spiritually empty, and many, many others could benefit from increased funding of missions and alms.

I suspect that the most strident and vocal objections would come from individuals and groups heavily invested in preserving our existing institutions and forms. Having watched three general conventions and been part of several dioceses, a relative handful of insiders – both volunteer and paid – dominate the proceedings. Constituencies that include clergy, special interests, elected lay deputies/delegates, and staffs all have the most at stake in the selection of the next PB.

Quite frankly, their concerns (and I share more than a few of them!) should not determine who is chosen as the next PB. We are increasingly a remnant, burdened with an oversized and underutilized physical plant, and supported by a diminished endowment and giving. A gifted manager might slow – at least temporarily – the rate of decline. Someone who shares my values might promote causes and ministries important to me. But business as usual is not going to keep this Episcopal ark from sinking.

When I see the other mainline denominations suffering from problems similar to ours, I recognize that expecting a new PB, organizational restructuring, or other management changes to fix the leaks and other problems is delusional. Reviewing our previous repair efforts, and those of other mainline denominations, reminds me of the definition of stupid, i.e., repeating an action while continuing to expect a different result.

Is there hope for The Episcopal Church? I believe so. The signs of new life that I observe are not in national or diocesan structures but in local communities of Christ’s people. A sea change is underway. The internet, social media, and increasing individualism are flattening hierarchy and making committees and legislative processes anachronisms. The hope – the only real hope – for The Episcopal Church comes from bottom-up rather than top-down change.

Let’s recover our charisma. We institutionalize the Church’s charisma – the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus expressed in our via media – to help us transmit that charisma from one generation to the next. Over time, we begin to confuse the institutional form with the charisma, inevitably stifling the charisma. In vibrant expressions of Christ’s body, the charisma is visible in changed lives, healing people eager and excited to engage in mission.

Let’s prioritize mission over ministry. The Episcopal Church does not exist for itself or its members. We exist to be Christ’s body, Christ’s physical presence in the world. Ministries that serve the Church and its members properly fill a secondary, supportive role for our mission of bringing God’s love to the world. Yet, a quick analysis of volunteer and staff time, and of funds expended, reveals the support “tail” of ministry now dwarfs the “tooth” of missions. We care for one another and our legacies (buildings, societies, etc.) instead of boldly going into the world without purse, bag, or sandals.

Let’s become nimble. Yearly diocesan and triennial national budget, decision-making, and program cycles are too slow, ponderous, and cumbersome in the information age. Rector search processes that require twelve, eighteen, or even more months do not increase the likelihood of congregational growth, revitalization, or even longer tenure.

Let’s redeploy our resources. National and denominational offices once essential for sharing resources and best practices, fostering effective coalitions, and producing results are now mostly superfluous. Today, few people call headquarters for help. Instead, they – including Episcopalian laity and clergy – grab a smartphone to search for resources, best practices, contacts, and networking. Many congregations could similarly redeploy their assets to achieve greater results for God.

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.

If our next PB is such a leader, a woman or man formed in Jesus’ image with clarity of vision and purpose, who courageously communicates and incarnates Christ’s charisma to a broken, secular world, then the choice of the next PB matters hugely. Such a leader may do little to resuscitate our leaking institutions. But with such a leader as our chief pastor, we will hear and answer God’s call to be agents of resurrection, bringing good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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Maplewood

Umm...is it me, or is the choice of a presiding bishop actually a pretty important thing? Really?

Kevin McGrane [added by ed.]

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Chris Arnold

Dear Fr Clifford,

This is not the first essay to compliment the energy of the local over and against the larger elements of the hierarchy. I think it's unhelpful to set them against each other. Many good things are done at the diocesan, the provincial, and the Communion-wide level. Many parishes are ossified and lifeless. It's not enough to claim that we should simply leave the funds at the local level because that's where the good stuff is happening. Rather, we must identify where the good stuff is happening and then fund it. Ironically, the identification, the communication, and the funding are best handled by diocesan and larger elements of the hierarchy.

We all need each other. I agree with you completely about the absurdity of the PB search process. What's needed there, I think, is a conciliatory moderate.

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Adam Wood

Let me get this straight...

A committee decides what they are looking for.

Then that committee seeks out specific bishops they think fit the bill.

Then, only bishop with a certain level of ambition and insanity respond that they would be willing to be considered.

And that's just the beginning...

Jeez.

Lock the Bishops in a room. The last one standing gets the job. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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Ann Fontaine

Actually will probably be closer to $500,000 according to Mark Harris' blog

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harry

Chaplain Clifford...Your comments are right on target. As a former Executive Council member and lay deputy from the Diocese of Kansas, I have observed the need to restructure the Episcopal Church from the bottom up. There is much spiritual wisdom that has never been tapped. I want a Presiding Bishop who has no agenda other than to be as Christ-like as he or she can be, and be a compassion leader to all who call themself Episcopalians.

[harry, please sign your name when you comment. Thanks, editor]

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