October 5, 2010

Additional Thoughts on the Plan to Select the Next Bishop of Pittsburgh

A few days ago, I wrote about the discussion at the first pre-convention hearing regarding the resolution setting out the ground rules to be used for searching for the next Bishop of Pittsburgh. (See “Episcopal Election Plan Gets Chilly Reception.”) Apparently, the two subsequent hearings were also spirited in their discussion of Resolution 2, the resolution proposed Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh sealfor adoption at the October 15–16, 2010, convention. There was less consensus at those meetings, however, about the wisdom of the proposal of the Standing Committee.

In fact, the Standing Committee is going to meet later this week to revisit Resolution 2. Others in the diocese are discussing possible changes that might make the resolution acceptable to more people. Meanwhile, I have been thinking about the Standing Committee proposal and would like to offer additional thoughts on our situation and on where we might want to go from here.

What Went Wrong?

I should begin by pointing out that there is a good deal of anxiety about the episcopal election process because there is a strong consensus in the diocese that something went wrong the last time we selected a diocesan bishop. I was a deputy to the convention that elected the Rev. Canon Robert Duncan, so I have some first-hand insight into what happened. I have also talked to others who were involved, and, although I may not be in a position to write the definitive history of that election, I suspect that many in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, even those with whom I often disagree, will have few quibbles with at least the broad outlines of my analysis.

Robert Duncan was nominated from the floor at a 1995 special convention and eventually was elected bishop, defeating all the candidates proposed by the nominating committee. (Few readers of this blog need ask why that outcome was unfortunate.) Duncan was canon to the ordinary at the time, and there was a widespread feeling that his coming to the diocese had done much to rescue Pittsburgh from the depredations of the administratively challenged diocesan bishop, Alden Hathaway.

But what, exactly, went wrong? Not everyone agrees here, certainly not on the relative significance of various events. Did the nominating committee, operating by consensus, fail to provide a diverse and exciting slate of candidates? Certainly, a lack of enthusiasm about the candidates presented by the committee made it easier to turn to Duncan, someone widely known throughout the diocese, as a possible bishop. The committee had considered and rejected Duncan as a candidate. What did its members know, and why did they keep that knowledge secret? There is even reason to believe that they realized that failing to propose Duncan as a candidate risked having him nominated from the floor and elected with the benefit of a substantial sympathy vote for his having been, as we might say now, disrespected.

And yet, the committee members were perniciously silent. In selecting candidates, they certified that, by some criteria, those persons were qualified to be bishop. If the committee members had reason to think Duncan unqualified, did they not have an obligation, once Duncan became a nominee, to say what negative information about him had been discovered in the course of their work? (Or, at the very least, what reservations they had?) After all, deliberations were in the Committee of the Whole, and outsiders were excluded. Committee members could have even “leaked” what they knew without having to announce it to the entire convention. Was the silence of the committee the fatal mistake in the election process?

What is probably not well known outside the diocese is that Bob Duncan did not appear to be strongly partisan; he certainly evidenced no obvious antipathy toward The Episcopal Church. I suspect that most of the people who encountered him in the diocese in those pre-election days would have been hard-pressed to characterize Duncan as liberal or conservative. Instead, he seemed genuinely interested in having every parish succeed at whatever it considered its mission to be. To many, that was an attractive quality in an episcopal candidate. Having been nominated from the floor, however, deputies had not had the benefit of being able to ask Duncan questions qua episcopal candidate, nor could they compare his performance in Q&A sessions to that of the other candidates. How important a factor was that?

Some of those who managed the nomination and election of Duncan almost certainly had a pretty good idea of what they were doing and what direction Duncan’s episcopate would take. Others, I suspect, were duped by Duncan’s performance as canon to the ordinary and wronged victim of the nominating committee.

There is virtually no sentiment in the diocese now for allowing nominations from the floor. That Duncan would be so nominated in 1995 was not widely known, and many deputies were ruffled by the development and were then caught up in the emotion of a convention loosed from its moorings. Was allowing such a nomination the fatal flaw in the system?

Fixing the Problems

At the recent hearings, members of the Standing Committee asserted that they want to make the process of selecting our next bishop as transparent as possible. There is no reason to disbelieve this declaration, but neither should the diocese be willing to accept their initial proposal, particularly after they have told us that no diocese has ever used a procedure like the one they are suggesting. Perhaps there is a reason for that.

What everyone wants, I think, is a process designed in such a way that whatever problems marred the last episcopal election cannot occur or are unlikely to occur this time around. How that desire manifests itself as we consider the details of the electoral process may depend in part on how significant we feel particular problems were last time. It is possible that some members of the diocese are looking to design a process that somehow encourages the election of a person to their liking, however understood. Thus far, however, I see little evidence that people are trying to game the system or to create a system that can be gamed. I think people are genuinely looking to create a fair system likely to present the diocese with a slate of candidates in which everyone can find one or more persons they can support wholeheartedly.

The election process proposed by the Standing Committee has some obvious virtues—the lack of nominations from the floor and the insistence on the use of a consultant, for instance. One wonders if the Standing Committee wasn’t trying too hard, however. In an attempt to give even small minorities a chance to put a candidate favored by them on the ballot, the proposed rules, arguably, make it much too easy to clutter the ballot with improbable candidates, a situation that can introduce a disconcerting element of chance into the election.

Consider some specifics.

Issues Raised by Resolution 2

The most surprising feature of the process set out in Resolution 2 is the simultaneous nomination by committee and by petition. While the Nomination Committee is soliciting names of potential bishops, vetting them against some desired profile and checking their backgrounds, three clergy and three lay deputies from at least two parishes can, by petition, force a name to appear on the ballot, subject only to a background check. (Resolution 2 is ambiguous, by the way, as to whether the clergy or both the clergy and lay deputies must be drawn from at least two parishes.) What are the virtues and deficiencies of this system?

The parallel-mode nomination process—this is what I will call running the two methods of nomination at the same time—saves time, though it isn’t clear that we need to be in so much of a hurry. It is “inclusive,” in that it makes it relatively easy to get someone on the ballot if you are willing to do a little work—very little, it turns out. (I suspect that, by the time the convention passes a resolution to begin a bishop search, any petition process will require more than six signatures.) From the outset, the process relieves the anxiety some might feel as to whether a candidate of their choice might get on the ballot. Because the Nomination Committee need only run background checks on candidates advanced through the petition process, the parallel-mode process saves the committee work, likely a good deal of work that it might otherwise have to do to research candidate backgrounds.

It has been suggested that if one knows of a candidate one genuinely believes would make a good Bishop of Pittsburgh, one needs to act on that knowledge in some effective way, and the parallel petition process makes that possible. The process might even increase the diversity of the slate. Waiting until after the nominating committee announces a slate to accept petitions makes a candidacy so initiated seem, at least to some people, like a bit of an afterthought. Moreover, such a candidacy is necessarily distinguished from one predicated on the work of the nominating committee, which could reduce the credibility of the candidate.

I have already enumerated disadvantages of the parallel-mode nomination process, but I will repeat them here:
  1. Particularly because the ballot is not to distinguish candidates by nomination mode, the process creates two classes of nominees, one of which has been subject to considerably more scrutiny than the other. The process encourages nomination by petition if at all possible, simply because that assures nomination.
  2. The requirement that candidates not be identified by mode of nomination hardly represents transparency. Rather, it obscures what some would consider to be important facts. (It is unclear that the distinction could be kept secret, in any case.)
  3. The process favors candidates within the diocese, who are likely to have an easier time being nominated by petition.
  4. The process suggests a distrust of the nominating committee. Given the diocese’s history, we would do well to encourage trust, rather than distrust.
Additionally, the parallel-mode process provides no recourse once the slate, consisting of those nominated by one mode or the other, is announced. If, for example, people put their faith in the committee, restraining what will be a nearly irresistible temptation to nominate by petition, and the committee produces a dreary slate of candidates, the diocese will be painted into a corner, and the convention might even be forced to reject all the candidates and start the process over.

Although some have suggested that there be no nominations by petition, I think that most people would view the need for a petition process as a given. Even the best nominating committee can overlook or under-appreciate an excellent candidate. Given the widespread belief in the diocese that the last nominating committee bears some—perhaps even most—of the responsibility for the diocese’s having made a terrible choice of bishop, the safety net represented by some other means of putting a person on the ballot would seem an essential element of any credible episcopal election procedure.

If nomination by committee and nomination by petition are not to proceed in parallel, they must run serially. Before anyone is nominated, a profile must be drawn up that characterizes the diocese and its needs in a bishop. Perhaps this is to be done by the Nomination Committee, although Resolution 2 does not say anything about how the needs of the diocese come to be represented. (Many interesting questions could be asked here. Who has influence over this process? How involved is the Standing Committee or other diocesan bodies? Is there to be any public review of the profile once drawn up? Inquiring minds want to know. I understand that, at the last hearing, someone asked about this and was told that no profile would be drawn up until a series of meetings, probably at every parish, takes place. For whatever reason, this was not set out either in Resolution 2 proper or in its explanation.) If the two modes of nomination are to be carried out serially, either one, at least in principle, could proceed first.

To my knowledge, no one has suggested that a season for nominations be followed by one during which the Nomination Committee selects nominees, but this scheme is not obviously flawed. In such a system, people in the diocese place candidates on the ballot, after which the committee can offer alternative candidates, rounding out, in some sense, the slate. In some dioceses, nominations are made only by petition, so this process duplicates that one while adding an additional safeguard. But if one is inclined to be suspicious of committees—it is worth noting that Resolution 2 does not indicate how big a Nomination Committee is to be appointed by the Standing Committee or how members will be selected—then one would have reason not to trust the committee to round out the slate.

I believe a more attractive way of implementing a serial-mode nomination process is to have a period during which nominations may be made by petition after the Nomination Committee has done its work. People with strong feelings about potential candidates will, of course, submit names to the committee, which will measure the candidates against the profile and evaluate their backgrounds, presumably recommending some for consideration as our next bishop and filtering out others. If this process works well, most people should be happy with the resulting slate. If some are not, a period of, say, 30 days could be offered during which nominations by petition could be accepted.

Advantages of this scheme include the following:
  1. It encourages people to trust the Nomination Committee, rather than presume that it will fail to do the right thing.
  2. It puts in the hands of the diocese at large the responsibility to “fix” any last-minute problems, that is, to round-out the slate of candidates as may be necessary.
  3. It will likely result in more candidates being thoroughly vetted by the Nomination Committee and fewer candidates avoiding such close scrutiny by means of the petition process. The committee, after all, has both greater responsibility and more resources to investigate fully proposed candidates.
This serial-mode process makes it impossible to keep secret who was nominated how. I consider this positive, but some may think otherwise. The process also necessarily takes more time and makes more work for the Nomination Committee.

Other Loose Ends

Resolution 2 says nothing about the existing rules of order for electing bishops. It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss those rules of order except to say that they will not be acceptable, if only because they provide explicitly for nominations from the floor. Resolution 2 or the accompanying explanation should indicate that the rules of order will be revised.

I have already mentioned that I think six signatures are too few for any petition, and I fully expect this number to be increased. I would also like to see signatures from non-deputy laypersons to be required on petitions. Moreover, signatures should attest that not only do signers believe the person to be a good candidate but also that that person’s credentials have, in some sense, been personally evaluated. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that petitioners will have the inclination or wherewithal to examine candidate qualifications as thoroughly as could the Nomination Committee.

Neither the parallel-mode nor the serial-mode process overcomes the objection that not all candidates are subject to the same careful scrutiny by the Nomination Committee. In fact, in the last election, all candidates underwent the same vetting process, but whatever negative information found about Duncan was never disclosed. There is a serious problem here. I have a suggestion to address this concern, though one likely to be controversial.

If the diocese insists on the parallel-mode process, the deadline for petitions should be early enough that the Nomination Committee has time to investigate all candidates equally. The committee should be allowed to flag candidates as not meeting its own standards and/or be free to disclose what its members consider negative information discovered about particular candidates nominated by petition. Notice that such an ability given to the committee, whether used in a parallel-mode or serial-mode process, discourages all but the most serious nominations.

If a serial-mode process is adopted—I assume here that petitions are accepted after the Nomination Committee has done its work—the situation is trickier. One option would be to require the names of potential petition candidates to be submitted in advance, so that the candidates can be evaluated by the committee, whether or not the committee puts them on the ballot. (This does create possibly wasted effort on the part of the committee should a particular candidate never be nominated.) Another option would be to allow a period after the petition period during which the candidates nominated by petition could be vetted. As before, the committee should be free to disclose what it knows.


In consideration of all the foregoing, here are the changes I would like to see to Resolution 2:
  1. The resolution should specify how many people are to be on the Nomination Committee. (As of now, I have no strong feelings about what those details should be.)
  2. A period for nomination by petition should occur after the Nomination Committee offers its slate. The period should be not more than 30 days, after which the Nomination Committee, which cannot disqualify a candidate so nominated for anything other than a failure to pass the background check, is given time to vet each petition nominee according to the same criteria used for other candidates.
  3. The Nomination Committee should be free to make any statement about a candidate nominated by petition that it feels necessary for the convention to carry out its charge.
  4. The Nomination Committee should be free to recommend to petitioners that a petition be withdrawn, based on its investigation, but the recommendation need not be accepted.
  5. Nominations by petition should require at least four clergy, four lay deputies, and 10 other lay signatures. In each case, at least three parishes should be represented. Signatures should attest to the fact that the person signing has examined the qualifications of the person nominated and sincerely believes that that person is qualified to be Bishop of Pittsburgh.


  1. But the question still remains - Will a candidate nominated by petition, be vetted as thoroughly as one presented by the Nominating Committee?

  2. As you indicate, Lionel, the SC is meeting later this week to assess the conversations about Resolution #2 at preconvention meetings and elsewhere. The concerns you are raising here are all significant and are a good contribution to the forward trajectory. Our hope of course is to offer a plan for the election of a new bishop that will have the confidence and support of the diocesan family, that will promote healthful common life. We're all in this together, and it's a learning curve.

    Again, many thanks,

    Bruce Robison

  3. Lionel

    All and all an accurate accounting of the election of Bishop Duncan in the fall of 1995, I was there as well. I was told by a member of the Nominating Committee that an internal rule operating during the process was that at every paring of the candidates at least ¾ of the 15 person committee had to approve of each and every candidate going forward. The final four were Dennis Fotinos former rector of Trinity Cathedral and the preferred candidate of most progressives, Gary Nicolosi preferred candidate of many evangelicals especially the large church rectors, David Anderson preferred candidate of the charismatics and Bob Duncan the only “local” candidate. Bob received 11 of 15 votes ---one shy of the needed 12 and was off the final list. A member of the Nominating Committee commented to me some years later, “I knew then and there (after the committee voted him off) that we had just assured that Bob Duncan was going to be elected to be the next bishop”.

    The strategy of the conservatives was to vote for whomever they supported on the first ballot and then come behind the strongest among Duncan, Nicolosi or Anderson. Duncan had a plurality after ballot one in both orders. On the second ballot he had a majority in the lay order and was one vote shy in the clerical order. Ballot three it was made unanimous.

    Why was Duncan elected? As you alluded primarily it was his work with the medium and small parishes (75% of the diocese) in discovering their mission. This was the first time in a long time that anybody from Oliver Avenue had showed them any support or encouragement and worked with them. And each small or medium parish had three votes –one clergy and two lay and they added up to more than the larger parishes totals.

    I realize that you perceive Bob Duncan to have been a terrible choice for bishop. But he really was the people’s choice and his election was made unanimous by conservatives and progressives alike. It is only with 20-20 hindsight that you might perceive it all as terrible. But the process and the results were fair and honestly achieved.

  4. David,

    Thanks for your helpful comments. Members of the nominating committee have been, as a group, very reticent about telling what happened in committee, so your information is very welcome.

    Of course, I did not mean to suggest that anything improper happened during the last search for a bishop.

  5. It seems a long time ago--it was a long time ago, and I know memories fade and can be shaped by subsequent events.

    Gary and Heather Nicolosi were old friends from the time of my service in the Central Pennsylvania diocese. He was and is a fine priest and general good guy, and I was glad to support and say good words about him through the run-up to the election and on the day.

    Once the laity had come to such a clear decision on the second ballot, though, I, like many, shifted to +Bob on the third ballot, and I was glad to stop in at the Duncan's home over on N. Linden later that evening, with a great crowd of others, for a word of congratulations and a celebratory glass of wine.

    My memory is that +Bob was not perceived as a "party" nominee. His supporters, and those who didn't support him seemed mostly to be motivated by more personal aspects of relationship. I certainly knew several folks over the the "progressive" side (I think we called them "liberals" in those days) who strongly supported him in the election. As David notes, these were mostly folks from smaller parishes who had been very impressed with the way +Bob would roll up his sleeves and work with them on the challenging concerns of small church ministry. And I knew several more conservative folks who were clear in their opposition to his election from the very beginning.

    I do agree with you, Lionel and with David that the decision of the Search Committee not to include +Bob on the ballot, for whatever reasons, and by whatever "count" (I've heard a few stories, and they all differ) established a sympathetic dynamic which fueled support for the from-the-floor nomination and for the election.

    Some have said that without that "sympathy" factor--the sense that an injustice had been done to a person who had demonstrated strong local support--Bishop Duncan would not have been elected. I'm skeptical of that, though it's the kind of thing we'll never know.

    Probably the strongest factor in +Bob's favor was the fact that the three nominated candidates each attracted support, but really none motivated much enthusiasm.

    One thing I do think, though, is that the language about "betrayal" that emerged from this election (spoken by some members of the Search Committee, when they felt the Convention had inappropriately overruled their judgment, and by many supporters of +Bob when the Committee originally announced their slate of three nominees) colored the tone of the beginnings of Bishop Duncan's episcopate and in some ways encouraged the later trends of polarization.

    There were, though, many stresses and divisions through Bishop Hathaway's tenure as well, not to speak of tensions already rising in the wider ecclesial contexts, and I'm not sure we can say that the 1995 election was really "the beginning" of anything. It's been a rough and tumble generation, as Jeremy Bonner describes very effectively in his history.

    Bruce Robison

  6. Well thought out, Lionel. I'm in favor of the sequential arrangement of publication of nomination committee candidates followed by a call for petition candidates, if there are any. After the call for petition candidates is closed, there should be at least a month's vetting time so that all candidates are known prior to the election. I brlieve this is what Bishop Price suggested at the first preconvention hearing.

  7. Just so we are clear, Bob Duncan's name was not placed in nomination "from the floor" of the convention. It came with the requisite number of convention deputies signing a petition (As BMR+ correctly reports: both Liberals and conservatives) and with background checks completed by Oxford Document Corporation. It was also promulgated thoughout the diocese weeks before the special electing convention in early December 1995. The final slate of three was announced on the second Saturday of November at the regularly scheduled Diocesan Convention. So sometime in the four weeks between conventions Bob's nomination by petition was publicly announced.

  8. Thanks, David. I can't remember exactly the parliamentary form of Bishop Duncan's nomination. I do remember some kind of action on the day of convention to add the name formally to the ballot, but that part is all a little hazy. I do entirely agree that the process was in accord with the rules of the election and--quite obviously--widely supported. I think the main reason the '95 election is worth remembering now for us on the TEC side of the stream, as we prepare for an election, is to recall the stresses that resulted from the Search Committee's decision not to include Bishop Duncan on the original slate of nominees.


  9. Bruce IMHO (and in perfect hindsight) I beleive had Bob been kept as a finalist on the slate proposed by the Nom Cmte, it would have been a much closer election and maybe even a different result.

    I also have a sense that you don't have to be concerned with any surprise moves in your selection of your next bishop.

  10. Thanks, David. I agree that had the Nominating Ctte included Bishop Duncan on the final ballot, things might have been different. Or maybe not. Goodness. He was well liked and respected throughout the diocese and had shown real giftedness in pastoral oversight and administration. We all may have had "favorites" or some kind of hierarchy of preferences for the other three nomineets, but he was the only one large numbers of us knew "in real life."

    Per "surprises" in the coming election in our Pittsburgh-TEC diocese, I think the critical thing will be a commitment of those in leadership to use what will inevitably be an imperfect process to serve the best interests of the whole Body, with real spiritual integrity. There will always be opportunities to misuse any process to promote personal agendas.

    What we of the Pgh-TEC diocese have in common is that we are members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh who chose not to "realign." Beyond that, there are manifold diversities, and the dust from the time of division has not settled yet sufficiently to allow us really to have a clear view of our identity. What that means--as I think you can see in Lionel's piece on the Resolution coming forward to Convention--is that anxieties continue to be fairly acute, trust levels not very high. We need to move very slowly and maintain a high degree of transparency.

    Bruce Robison

  11. I pray it all goes on without a hitch and the one whom God has intended for you is raised up and made your first elected bishop following the realignment.

  12. Thanks, David. Our prayers will be the same.

    By the way, the proposed procedures for electing our next bishop have been tweaked a bit by the Standing Committee. You can read about the revised Resolution 2 in my latest post, “Pittsburgh Standing Committee Responds to Concerns.”


Anonymous comments are not allowed. All comments are moderated by the author. Gratuitous profanity, libelous statements, and commercial messages will be not be posted.