Several friends have chimed in on the upcoming election of the Presiding Bishop (PB). I’m especially fond of Scott Gunn’s post, which not only provides some analysis of the process but also some opinions on what sort of PB our church needs. He wrote that post before the slate of nominees was released. The nominees were chosen by the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop after almost three years of work. You can read about the nominees here.
This post isn’t about picking favorites. It’s about the process. I won’t go into why one nominee is better than the others. You may have seen that, on the day the nominees were released, I named Ian Douglas as the candidate I thought most likely to win, but that isn’t necessarily an indication of who I think would be the best candidate. It’s just my guess of which candidate the bishops will elect.
And that’s the focus of this post. The next PB will be elected by the House of Bishops and only by the House of Bishops. [As an aside, you may not know the Episcopal Church’s highest decision-making body is the General Convention, which, like the United States, is a bicameral legislature split between the House of Bishops (all bishops in the Episcopal Church) and the House of Deputies (four lay and four ordained deacons or priests from each dioceses).] After the bishops have made their choice for PB, that decision will be brought to the House of Deputies for and up or down confirmation. And to me that’s a process that makes perfect sense if the PB is just that—a presider over the House of Bishops. But our PB is much more than that, and that’s why the process desperately needs to be changed.
Here’s a question for the typical pewsitter: what does the PB mean to you? We pray for her by name every Sunday. We certainly don’t pray by name for the president of the House of Deputies. (But we all should! Please, pray for Gay Jennings and her ministry and work in the church!) If we’ve been paying attention over the last 9 years, we know that the PB meets with all the other PB-equivalents from across the Anglican Communion to discuss issues that affect us all. If we’ve been to the ordination of a bishop lately, we probably noticed that the PB was there since her office includes the role of chief-consecrator at all bishops’ ordinations. If we are from a part of the church that has been embroiled in controversy, there’s a good chance that we realize that the PB plays a distinct role in the disciplinary process for bishops. If we follow any church news outlets like Episcopal News Service or Episcopal Café, we know that the PB often speaks on behalf of the church.
Here are some of the roles of the PB that most of us probably don’t think of. She is the CEO of the business side of the church, known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS). She’s in charge of all of the staff who work to carry out the operations of the DFMS. Although she has the support of her staff and Executive Council and lots of other groups, the PB is in charge of the day-to-day running of the church. She’s also the bishop for all the other bishops, which means she is their pastor, encourager, and accountability partner.
Although it’s not necessarily part of the job description, the PB is also expected to be the visionary leader for the Episcopal Church. Much is changing in our Christian context. The Episcopal Church is working hard to be a part of those changes, and we are trying to change from within. What will that mean for us? How will we get it done? What is important? What needs to be left behind? All of those difficult (impossible?) questions are in the fore of what the church is doing, and we need a PB to guide us through that.
But what sort of person can possibly do that? And how should that person be chosen?
For starters, we need to decide whether one person can accomplish all that the church is asking the PB to do. Personally, I doubt it. When I have participated in the election of a diocesan bishop, I have assumed that the right candidate will do a little bit of everything but primarily focus in particular areas that are strong needs in our diocese. I trust that the elected bishop will surround him/herself with others who can do the rest of the job. But our canons haven’t figured out how to split out those roles. The TREC report offers some suggestions on this (particularly changes to the size and role of Executive Council), but I don’t think they’ve fully addressed the problem. I’d like to see some canonical changes that empower the Executive Council and the presiding officers to select a COO for the church—someone other than the PB who is in charge of running DFMS.
If we do, however, decide that our PB should be everything it is now, we need to fix the way the PB is chosen. I applaud the Nominating Committee for their work. That combination of bishops and deputies has worked together (one presumes) to publish a list of four nominees—any of whom could be our next PB. But, excepting the possibilities of a nomination from the floor of General Convention, that’s where the input from anyone other than a bishop stops. But the PB isn’t just for the bishops. The PB is my PB, too. And it’s yours as well. He or she presides not only over the House of Bishops when it meets. I pray for that person by name every day. I am invested in our PB as our primate. But no one other than bishops gets to make that choice. No wonder the PB’s role has become a confused tangle of impossible jobs. When we only allow bishops to choose the PB, we’ve set that office up for ineffectiveness. The election itself isn’t the only problem, of course, but it is emblematic of a deeper divide. We have a PB whose office is built upon a church structure that isn’t applicable anymore. The election is just a symptom of that. But fixing the problem starts with fixing the election.
We are a democratic church. That’s why we have two houses. That’s why they are supposed to meet separately. (I’ll write about my feelings about the proposal of a unicameral body later.) Lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops are all important in our church. Our primate needs to be a reflection of that. We need to find a way for all orders in the church to elect our primate—not just confirm an election with an up or down vote. Until we fix the problem, my inclination is to vote against the confirmation—no matter who or how qualified that person is. I am not sure about that, and the process of being at General Convention and gaining some insights from others in the church often changes my perspective, so I’m open to change, but, for now, it feels right to approach this election with the recognition that it’s broken and that my vote should reflect that brokenness.
Should the bishops be allowed to choose their own presiding officer? Of course they should. Should they be the only ones who elect the primate, CEO, prophet, and spokesperson for the church? Absolutely not. We must either split those roles or invite the whole church to be a part of the election by including the House of Deputies in the vote. Once we let the whole church have a real stake in the election, we invite the possibility of transformation—real structural change that can make our church something more than a legislative, bureaucratic quagmire.