For one reason or another, bishop elections have been on my mind lately. With the news out of Maryland, the coming election of a new Presiding Bishop, and the Dean of the Cathedral here in Denver being a finalist in Southeast Florida’s election I find myself wondering about the efficacy of all episcopal seats being elected ones.
As I look at the needs of the Church in the near future, it seems that a certain flexibility may be required in how we call bishops in the Episcopal Church. I wonder if every bishop need be an elected one and if every bishop’s office need be full-time.
My thought is this. If we were to retain elections for all diocesan bishops but allow the naming of suffragan and local bishops by diocesan bishops we could create a certain flexibility that does not now exist in our current process. More than flexibility we could also allow for more direct engagement with bishops and have the kinds of bishops named who might not otherwise be elected.
As we prepare to enter an election cycle in our nation, the issue of primaries and general elections comes to mind. There are candidates who would be excellent presidents who simply are not the kind of people we elect in our processes. Take, for example, the excellent Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. He is a brilliant diplomatic mind and good senator who represented a kind of politics that is lost in our electoral life (he was dislodged from office by a much lesser candidate in a primary). Senator Lugar ran for president ever so briefly but never got the kind of necessary name-recognition or generated the steam to be elected.
A comparison to national politics is imperfect but illustrative. Senator Lugar would, without a doubt, have had all of the skills and the temperament to be an excellent president – but he was ill-suited to be a candidate.
If we were to retain elections at the diocesan level, those bishops could be free to name a less “flashy” or conventionally “attractive” candidate to a local area or to a suffragan position where they could prove their talent and skill and be a more complete candidate later for a diocesan position. We could call pastors, theologians, organizers, and more who are doing innovative and spiritually rich work and give them a chance to grow and serve not because their work is the most “attractive” or because they lead “significant” parishes but because it is essential to sharing the Gospel in a changing world.
The kinds of candidates who could be named could be the kinds of candidates who do not, currently, represent the “norm” in our elections. Whether because they are younger, minority candidates, women, are in relatively unknown ministries, or simply aren’t that “charming” – there are a number of reasons that they might not be “electable” but would still be excellent bishops. In this way, we could take a chance on a different type of leadership and lay the foundation for those candidates to emerge later at the diocesan level.
This would have the benefit not only of raising up different kinds of candidates but do so in a much more cost-effective and responsive way. In a diocese as large as ours, in Colorado, one could easily see the value of appointing a local bishop for areas simply too far away to be regularly seen by our bishop (who works mightily to do this work). It would also allow for those local bishops to be not full-time bishops but perhaps be serving local rectors. In this way we could recognize the local needs of an area and find those with specialized gifts to pastor those areas.
This could happen in a number of ways. The simplest may be for the diocesan bishop to have the wherewithal to appoint a new bishop subject to the approval of the standing committee and, of course, consents from the House of Bishops. There are other, perhaps more convoluted ways to do such a thing, but if part of the goal is flexibility then creating many more hoops to jump through would not be all that helpful.
With this plan, a diocesan bishop could also appoint missionary bishops to work in underserved areas to look for ways to creatively plant and grow churches.
Of course the flexibility that this would create in the episcopacy would transfer to the flexibility we could use at the local level. As we look for ways to spur creative engagement with our communities it would be enormously helpful to have bishops who know their locales in a more intimate way and who can offer guidance and support that is informed by closer relationships and partnerships at the local level. Moreover, they will be formed in, perhaps, a more recent church climate and may better understand the realities of the current day.
There are a host of questions that such a shift would certainly raise but it seems worth the conversation.
At the end of the day though, a bishop is called not because we want management but because our local parishes are extensions of a bishop’s ministry and each Altar is an extension of the bishop’s. However we choose bishops in the future, my hope is that we can view the relationship as a Sacramental one first and a managerial one far below that primary unity.