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The next Presiding Bishop

The next Presiding Bishop

by George Clifford

If someone asked me for a two word, thumbnail sketch of The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop (PB) and her two immediate predecessors, I’d respond:

• Ed Browning: Justice advocate

•Frank Griswold: Prayerful spirit

•Katharine Jefferts Schori: Gifted helmswoman

I’m confident that other Episcopalians, if asked the same question, would offer different thumbnail sketches of these three TEC (The Episcopal Church) Chief Pastors and Primates. That’s not surprising. Personal experience, individual knowledge, and encounters (actual or virtual) all shape our impressions of another person. Furthermore, no person – absolutely no one – is reducible to a single phrase. Thumbnail sketches dangerously lend themselves to caricatures, which if not offered in good humor and with genuine respect can convey an acidic attack upon a person’s dignity, worth, and competence.

However, the advantage to setting a complex job description in its historical context and then summarizing both context and performance in a single phrase is that the phrase can provide helpful clarity about who a person is and the primary gift or emphasis that she or he brings (or brought) to the position.

Under the Most Rev. Ed Browning’s leadership, TEC continued the process, which began prior to his incumbency, of transforming this denomination into a more inclusive organization that rightly stresses the gospel’s ramifications for individuals and societies in the present. During the Most Rev. Frank Griswold’s tenure, TEC focused on creating a healthy balance between spiritual and worldly concerns. I especially remember his efforts to heal division and animosity in the House of Bishops during a very tumultuous period.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori has sought to turn our focus to the future. She has encouraged us to face our numerical and financial declines, to adopt a more nimble, leaner structure (a task that should be well underway by the next General Convention), and to resolve the conflicts spawned over the last three decades. The recent Diocese of South Carolina’s declaration of secession quite likely represents the final, and based on outcomes elsewhere, presumably futile attempt by a diocese to withdraw from TEC. Apart from that one diocese, the 2012 General Convention’s adoption of trial rites for blessing same sex relationships happened with little visible angst. Although unanimity does not, and never will, exist, most of the people – lay and clergy – who cannot live with our present diversity and directions have already opted to leave. May God bless them – far from us.

Because of the ministries of these godly Primates, TEC is by many measures a much healthier, stronger, and faithful Church than it was fifty years ago. Our numerical and financial struggles, as much as anything, stem from the body of Christ freeing itself from unchristian social shackles and from the need for our organizational structure to keep pace with social change (for more on these subjects, cf. Episcopal Church Finances, Part 2: The Story the Budget Tells, and Rethinking Episcopal Church Structure Part II).

Adopting a nautical metaphor, TEC has cleared her decks for action. We’re ready to get on with the mission of being God’s people in the world, working to make God’s kingdom a reality. To accomplish that goal, using words adapted from Esther 4:14, what type of person with what agenda should we call in a time such as this to be our next Presiding Bishop?

Now is the time for this conversation. The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop is just beginning its work. The next PB, sine qua non, should be a godly person of deep spirituality, great ministerial gifts, respecter of the dignity and worth of all people, and a person being formed in the image of Christ. Since all potential nominees are already TEC bishops, I prayerfully presume that all of them – or at least the vast preponderance of them – satisfy those criteria. Yet their individual spiritualties and spiritual journeys vary widely; these criteria are too broad to provide much help in identifying particular nominees, let alone a final selection.

Similarly, the PB’s job description (found in Canon 2) is sufficiently broad to cover a wide variety of circumstances and leadership styles. For example, that job description has suitably encompassed the diverse ministries of Bishops Browning, Griswold, and Jefferts Schori. In other words, the job description offers no constructive specifics for those tasked with selecting the next PB. Most of our bishops could adequately perform these tasks, each in her or his unique style and with her or his unique personal emphases.

So, what do we want in our next PB? What combination of gifts, skills, and personality is God calling TEC to raise up as the next PB for this season in the Church’s life? The nine years from 2015-2024 will include several obvious challenges: completing the resolution of lawsuits and other actions in response to bishops, dioceses, and parishes that have sought to leave TEC in a manner that violates the canons; completing the restructuring now in its formative stages; and restoring TEC’s financial health. Concurrently, with the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion’s uncertain future has become even more difficult to discern.

However, an even more basic, more vital challenge should define the next PB’s ministry. TEC has a vision of its mission and ministry: to be the twenty-first century Anglican expression of the body of Christ in the United States (and affiliated overseas dioceses), incarnating an inclusive, radical hospitality that contributes to establishing God’s reign on earth. We’ve struggled over the last few decades to articulate that vision and there are various formulations of it, some more eloquent than mine is. Yet wide agreement about that vision of our mission and ministry exists, as evidenced by the ability of this year’s General Convention to act on several potentially divisive issues while maintaining a spirit of cooperation, unity in the midst of diversity, and fidelity to our historic Anglican distinctives. TEC has also initiated internal steps toward establishing the organizational structure and health to live into that vision more effectively (achieving its mission) and efficiently (with the fewest possible resources).

What TEC needs is a PB whose inspirational leadership, building on predecessors’ accomplishments, will enlist an ever-growing number of Episcopal bishops, dioceses, clergy, parishes, and laity in the exciting ministry and mission of living into our vision. This next Chief Pastor should not be primarily an organizer (++Jefferts Schori has most ably set the needed work in motion), nor a healer (we are blessed with continuing benefits from ++Griswold’s legacy), nor a prophet (++Browning’s ministry firmly committed us to justice with love). Instead, we need to turn our eyes from an internal focus on self and organization to an outward focus on a hurting, desperately hungry world.

The English word inspire has its etymological roots in the Middle English verb to blow into. Breath and wind are both metaphors for God’s spirit. Dwight Eisenhower famously defined leadership as, “the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” An inspirational leader motivates people to live into God’s vision for their individual and collective lives.

As an inspirational leader, The Episcopal Church’s next Presiding Bishop will spend his or her tenure communicating our vision to TEC and the world, and inspiring us to live heartily and fully into our vision. Everything else that needs doing – including the important tasks of finishing organizational restructuring, balancing budgets, negotiating Anglican Communion changes, etc. – is secondary and, as much as possible, delegated to others. The PB, borrowing a Presidential metaphor, has a bully pulpit. Bishop Jefferts Schori, an excellent communicator, has made good use of that platform. The next PB, an inspirational leader called by God for a time such as this, should concentrate her or his ministry almost entirely on that filling that bully pulpit, freed to do so by delegation and building on predecessors’ ministries.

TEC is at a critical juncture. Are we going to die? Or, are we going to continue to play an important role in God’s work? I don’t believe that TEC has reached the winter of its demise. I am excited about our vision and the steps we have taken to incarnate that vision. Selecting an inspirational leader as our next Presiding Bishop will, I hopefully and prayerfully believe, usher in a new season of fruitfulness for us and for this Church.

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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings.


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