September 28, 2010

Episcopal Election Plan Gets Chilly Reception

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh held its first pre-convention hearing last night. As usual, much of the presentations and discussions was boring. However, a resolution to begin the process of electing a new bishop prompted a spirited discussion. That resolution can be read here.

It has now been two years since the Diocese of Pittsburgh lost many of its congregations and leaders to what has mutated into the Anglican Church in North America. Three bishops have assisted us in those two years in getting back on our feet. A certain amount of hurt and mistrust remains, but the Standing Committee believes it is finally time to move on, and it has put forth Resolution 2, which outlines how we would, if it is passed, select our next bishop. The goal is to elect the next Bishop of Pittsburgh on April 21, 2012.

Interestingly, the discussion last night was not about whether Pittsburgh is ready to elect its first diocesan bishop since Bob Duncan. I suspect we could quibble about the timing, but we have to get on with the election process eventually, and I doubt anyone is going to mount much of a crusade to postpone the inevitable any longer. Instead, we debated the wisdom of the particular process the Standing Committee came up with. That process was certainly designed with the knowledge of recent episcopal elections in Pittsburgh in mind, elections that, in retrospect, led the diocese in the wrong direction. The procedures advanced by the Standing Committee are, we were told, “intended to promote prayerful deliberation and the highest possible degree of openness and transparency.” We were also told that no other diocese has ever used a process like the one being proposed.

Having already been assured by our provisional bishop Ken Price that nominations from the floor would not be allowed—Bob Duncan had been nominated from the floor—I had been complacent about the actual proposal, which I had not read before attending last night’s meeting. I wasn’t even listening carefully as it was being described. I was therefore surprised when the Rev. Harold Lewis, rector of Calvary Church, got up to speak. Harold was clearly on a mission. He was upset over the dual-mode nominating process embodied in Resolution 2.

Here, I must briefly describe what the Standing Committee proposed. The essentials are the following:
  • The Standing Committee is to appoint a Nomination Committee to solicit and screen episcopal candidates and to put forward a slate of at least four nominees.
  • The Standing Committee is to appoint a Transition Committee to manage all the logistics from the time the nominees are announced through the consecration of the new bishop.
  • The two committees will be advised by a Diocesan Consultant selected by the Standing Committee.
  • The Standing Committee is to prepare a budget for the process, which will be approved by the Board of Trustees and financed from diocesan reserves.
  • Concurrently, as the Nominations Committee is doing its work, episcopal candidates may be put on the ballot by petition from three lay convention deputies and three clergy representing at least two parishes. Candidates nominated by petition are automatically added to the final slate if they pass the usual background checks. No one may sign more than one petition.
Harold’s point was that the two nomination modes have two different standards. Candidates who enter the process by petition are not vetted according to the standards established by the Nomination Committee. In the discussion, it was also mentioned that the petition process favors internal candidates or candidates outside the diocese with strong personal connections to the diocese. (This might include ultra-conservative former Pittsburgh clergy who, rather than following Duncan into the Anglican dessert, chose instead to flee to safe-haven dioceses such as South Carolina and Dallas.) Moreover, the dual-mode process encourages candidates to take the sure-fire petition route if at all possible—only six signatures are needed, after all—rather than trusting to the uncertainties of committee deliberations. In fact, the Nomination Committee could be reduced to initiating background checks on candidates nominated by petition.

At the end of the discussion someone suggested taking a straw poll as to whether nomination by committee and nomination by petition should proceed in parallel or serially. The parallel procedure received a single vote in a room of 50 people or so. It will be interesting to see if the hearings tomorrow night and the next night reveal similar misgivings.

Some Personal Thoughts

Allowing nomination by petition at the same time the Nomination Committee is deliberating seems to me to suggest, even before the committee has done its job—or been formed, actually—that the committee cannot be trusted. I would hope, on the other hand, that the committee can be trusted. Petitions are usually solicited only after a slate of candidates has been announced. They are a mechanism by which those unhappy with the overall slate of candidates can propose an alternative. The submission of petitions represents, in a way, a failure of the nominating committee to offer an attractive slate acceptable to all factions in a diocese. In a well-run selection process, there should be no petitions. Alas, what the Standing Committee has proposed actually encourages nomination by petition.

Additionally, nomination by only three clergy and three laypeople seems a very low standard for inclusion in an episcopal election. Each additional candidate in an election costs the diocese extra money, and the proposed process could generate a lot of candidates. Also, why cannot laypeople who are not deputies be part of the petitioning process. The proposal does not explain this particular quirk.

The requirement that the Nomination Committee should not indicate who was selected by the committee and who was put on the ballot by petition is curious. My own rector, Lou Hays, said that he would want to know who was in which category, simply because one group presumably had been through a more vigorous screening process than the other. Lou had a point, although I suspect that it will be hard to keep secret who has been nominated by petition, if only because people will have to be asked for support and some will say no and others will say yes and talk about it.

I was surprised that the Standing Committee did not offer a time line for the electoral process. It has a specific end date, and I assume there are projected dates for intermediate milestones on a document somewhere. Doesn’t the convention need to see how the Standing Committee thinks this process will play out? Particularly if the process is modified by the convention, it is important to know that the election date can be preserved (or not). There are other details one would think the convention would like to know, such as how many people will be appointed to the Nomination Committee and what is the clergy/lay balance on it.

I have a more general objection to Resolution 2. Although some provisions are carefully laid out in the resolution—the provision for “contemporaneous Nomination by Petition and Nomination by the Nomination Committee,” for example—other details are only found in the “Explanation,” which is not technically part of the resolution. For instance, the number of signatures required for nomination by petition, if the resolution is adopted as is, is not actually determined by the convention and might end up being other than what we are being led to expect. The Nomination Committee, according to the resolution, is “to implement the Standing Committee’s Guidelines for contemporaneous Nomination by Petition and Nomination by the Nomination Committee.” What are those guidelines? Are they what appears under “Explanation,” or can the Standing Committee change them at will? This is not my idea of transparency.

Finally, there are parts of the resolution and discussion that are poorly worded, although this isn’t too big a deal. Consider this sentence: “Any three canonically resident clergy, with any three laypersons certified at the time the petition is presented as Deputies to Diocesan Convention, from at least two different parishes, may submit a Nominating Petition in writing to the Nomination Committee.” Does “from at least two different parishes” apply to clergy, to lay deputies, or to both? I don’t know because the sentence is ambiguous.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to have the convention micromanage the election process. Transparency, however, requires that convention know what it is voting for, and this resolution makes that all pretty indistinct.

What would I like to see? I would like to see a short period allowed for submission of petitions after the slate is announced by the Nomination Committee. Ordinary laypeople should be able to participate in submitting a petition, which should need a relatively large number of signatures. I would hope that, under such a system, no one will feel the need for nominating a candidate by petition.


  1. We had a bad experience with our "consultant" - she piled on a lot of unnecessary steps and processes IMO. As to petition nominees - we required a cross section from each region (deanery) of laity (any) and clergy (canonically resident) from several churches in each region. Some dioceses have required up to 50 signatures, others fewer. Do not believe that your search committee will have any less "politics" than the petition process.

  2. Thanks for your very helpful comments, Lionel. I would expect that our Standing Committee will want to do some perfecting of the resolution before Convention--and then, of course, there may well be a robust discussion of alternatives on the floor of convention itself. We spent a lot of time looking over the many "processes" used around the Episcopal Church, and at our own past experience here in Pittsburgh, and did our best to reflect prayerfully our conclusions from that study. There are no perfect processes. And it is also true that a flawed process can have a good result, a good process a bad result. The Episcopal Church has developed a system where, by and large, we elect relative strangers to this highest and most serious of offices and ministries. And in a situation where the skill-set that seems to lead to a success in "getting elected" is very substantially different from the skill set necessary for a successful episcopate. We all will be doing the very best we can, I know. But to some extent we're skating on very thin ice, no question about that . . . .


  3. I agree that process can help but cannot guarantee a happy outcome. In the episcopal election process, the skill-set disconnect you cite may be real, but it is at least less extreme than it is in typical civic elections. More significant is the problem of looking at the accomplishments of a priests and predicting that person’s success as a bishop. Bishop Price has shown that a skilled bishop is a precious asset; we should consider looking at candidates who are already successful bishops.

    I think Resolution 2 needs some pre-convention tweaking, lest convention either reject it out of hand or amend it unwisely. (It is upsetting how little time is allowed for debate on momentous issues.)

    There is also the matter of the rules of order for electing a bishop. Are we to assume that the ones in place are the ones we will use or not? Some consider the rules to be very unsatisfactory.

  4. Yes, I do think the "Peter Principle" is often at work. Great parish priests aren't necessarily great bishops--just as great teachers are not necessarily great school administrators, great lawyers great judges, etc. In my view the key characteristics are more related to deep emotional and spiritual maturity, and a clear sense of personal stability--and this not something that always communicates well in the "search process."

    Bruce Robison


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