May 20, 2015

On Electing Bishops

In her sermon yesterday at General Theological Seminary, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori said, “We can’t go on choosing leaders ‘the way we’ve always done it.’” There certainly is widespread concern that we may not always do a good job of choosing bishops, and I suspect this is at least in part what the Presiding Bishop was thinking about. Even for those who have not been particularly concerned about our episcopal selection process, the crash-and-burn end of Heather Cook’s ecclesiastical career has been something of a wake up call.

Mitre and shield
In all likelihood, the General Convention will have something to say about the way we elect bishops, and it will probably throw money at the problem. In Resolution A002, the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church proposes to spend $100,000 on a task force to recommend “a new process for discernment, formation, search, and election of bishops in The Episcopal Church.” The Episcopal Resurrection folks have offered a better thought-out proposal that calls for a task force that “will study the election, appointment, roles, and responsibilities of the Episcopate, including the use of Bishops Diocesan, Bishops Coadjutor, Bishops Suffragan, Provisional Bishops, Missionary Bishops, and Assistant Bishops in this Church.” This resolution carries a price tag of $150,000.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are not allowed. Gratuitous profanity or libelous statements will be removed. Comments will also be removed that include gratuitous links to commercial Web sites. Please stay on topic.