Monday, March 11, 2013

Electing a Bishop (of Rome)

A few months ago, I saw an article from The Tablet, the Roman Catholic periodical published in the UK, in which the editors and church officials offered their strong criticism of the Church of England's proposal to permit women bishops. When I read it, I felt a strong defensive reaction--not because of my opinion about equal-opportunity access to all three orders of ordained ministry but because of my opinion that denominations should leave each other's polity alone. I recognize that bishops are historic "symbols of unity" in the wider church, but, since the Roman section of the body of Christ doesn't acknowledge Anglican ordinations of any sort, I didn't think it was their place to offer public criticism of the CofE's plans.

Pot calling kettle black, I have my own observations on the election of a bishop that I'd like to share on the eve of the papal conclave.

In the Episcopal Church, we elect our bishops publicly, and I believe the Roman Catholic Church would make significant strides toward overcoming the bad press of clergy sex abuse and reversing the decline of the church's relevance in the modern world if they did the same.

I write as an individual who has helped elect two bishops. Although important, neither of those elections held a candle to the roaring fire of importance that the papal election holds. But the model is informative. Here are some observations I have made, and I offer them as suggestions to the next Bishop of Rome:

1.  Make the Results of Each Ballot Public

How many news stories have you read in the last two weeks about the secrecy of the papal conclave? I must admit one positive from this centuries-old (and thoroughly outdated) system of electing the Bishop of Rome--media fascination. There's an undeniable mystique about it all, but that's exactly what's wrong with the process. In this moment of heightened scrutiny, wavering loyalties, and outright anger, the best thing the Roman Church could do is publish the tallies of each ballot for all the world to see. When the public can see how the will of the Spirit and the will of the electorate coalesce around a candidate, speculations about back-room deals and party politics (a la  the NYT's Romans vs. Reformers) evaporate. More than anything else, this would be a signal to the world that the RCC isn't ashamed of how God works through its princes to elect a pope. That restores confidence in the papacy and in the church hierarchy as a whole.

2. End the Communications Ban

Sure, votes should be private. How I voted in the past isn't public information, nor should it be. But I should be free to discuss the process and my sense of the Spirit's leadership with whomever I wish. By setting up jamming devices to prevent any incoming or outgoing communication reinforces the sense that what happens in the Sistine Chapel stays in the Sistine Chapel. Friends, this isn't Vegas. The world should know what priorities the leaders of the church hold most dear. Right now, all we have is speculation. Some people think this group wants an affable fellow to wear the white cassock. Some people think another group wants a strong, take-charge autocrat to hold the reigns (keys). But why can't they tell us that themselves? In the Episcopal Church, we hold communications during the actual balloting, but, in the days and weeks before and after the election, we are encouraged to share our own reflections and seek the input of others. Isn't this an opportunity for the RCC to show the world what it really thinks is important?

3. Take Longer than Fifteen Days to Hold an Election

Needless to say, this election is a big deal. It should be. So why, then, do we think the cardinals can go from the shock of the pope's resignation to the election of his successor in less than three weeks? That's insanity. Sure, the world moves fast, but, in this case, it shouldn't. I know, I know--there are lots of papal bureaucracies (like accepting a bishop's resignation) that only the pope can do, but they can fix that. In the Episcopal Church, we have Standing Committees to take up the slack when a see is vacant. That might be going too far, but can't the church acknowledge that a decision of this magnitude deserves at least a month or two of consideration? Let Catholics from around the world have input in the process. Let someone who doesn't sleep in red underwear voice an opinion that gets heard. Although I'm not suggesting that the Cardinals have a Walkabout (aka "dog and pony show") in which candidates are interviewed by the worldwide church, but I do think the whole world should be given time to think and pray and talk about what the church might need in its next pope.

There are other things to think about. In the Episcopal Church, we have two houses--clergy and lay--that elect our leaders. We permit women to serve in all levels of leadership in the church. We do lots of things that might help our Roman brothers (and sisters), but let's start small. And by small I mean with three earth-shattering changes. Let us see how the balloting works. Stop muzzling the cardinals who want to talk about how God is speaking to them. Pause long enough to let the whole church offer input into the process. It might not make for very good television, but it could make for a much better church.

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