Admittedly, both the TREC and Episcopal Resurrection proposals involve more than just examining the episcopal selection process, but I am skeptical about how much study is needed. There is already a good deal of commonality in the search process from diocese to diocese—there may even be too much—and at least some of the variation arises from different views of what is needed in a bishop at particular times and places. The process can never be perfect because what is needed can never be precisely defined, the talents of candidates likewise cannot be exactly calculated, and, however, those properties are defined, there is never a perfect match. I believe that if dioceses relied less of consultants to tell them what to do and experimented a bit, letting the wider church know how things worked out, we might gradually improve the way we select out bishops. (There is a need for networking here.)
Of course, we didn’t need the example of Heather Cook to tell us that the episcopal selection process can run off the rails. Mark Lawrence provided an equally effective example, as did Robert Duncan and John-David Schofield. There are two most important defenses against selecting the wrong bishop are (1) transparency and (2) the consent process.
Cook may never have been chosen bishop had her history of alcoholism been known by the people who chose her. Likewise, Duncan was thought unqualified for quite specific reasons by the search committee. For that reason, he was not nominated by the committee. When he was nominated from the floor—Pittsburgh has learned never to allow that again—no words of warning were heard from the search committee. Candidates for bishop should expect that their lives will be open books and for their qualifications to be debated by convention deputies. If Candidates feel the need to hide something in that past (or present, for that matter), they should be asked to be excused from the search process. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
The need to obtain consents from the wider church is a safety mechanism in cases where a diocese has made a bad decision. The consent process prevented Kevin Thew Forrester from becoming Bishop of Northern Michigan. His involvement with Buddhism gave people the willies. He might have made a good bishop, but perhaps not. Why should the church take a chance? Mark Lawrence, on the other hand, represented a clear and present danger to the church. He failed to receive sufficient consents once. Unfortunately, Episcopalians’ pathological niceness resulted in his obtaining the required consents when the Diocese of South Carolina elected him a second time from a candidate pool of one. The church knew what to do, but it didn’t have the will to do it. A task force won’t fix that.
Perhaps some study of bishops and their qualifications is needed. I believe that the way we elect bishops, however, is not so bad. We don’t need to abandon what we are doing now, but it would help if we experimented a bit and we became more of a learning organization that could improve our process by analyzing both our successes and our failures.