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ELECTION DAY: Some thoughts on making bishops

Of the making of bishops there is no end. So it seemed today when synods in California-two of them- Eastern Michigan and Tennessee met to choose new bishops. For the Diocese of Tennessee this was for the third time of asking and its electors failed again.

All the hype about the California election disappeared with the first ballot. No gay or lesbian nominee made the running. In Northern California and Easter Michigan local clergy were elected, known priests. Recently Albany went for a local rector of a typically sized ECUSA parish, and that means small “membership” to most other denominations. Today in Northern California and Easter Michigan local clergy were elected; known priests on the diocesan staff. Mind you the bishop of New Hampshire was a known priest on the diocesan staff when he was elected. Local doesn’t always mean non-controversial.

I have to confess myself something of an agnostic when it comes to popular theory behind the election of bishops. Anglicans have never really made up their minds on the subject. At the Reformation we kept the office and often the incumbent in the office as we swung backwards and forwards between varieties of reformation and counter-reformation trends. The monarch wanted them and that was good enough. Making bishops didn’t even make the short-list of sacraments, but their importance was enormous to the state. “No bishop: no king” slurred James I. He wanted no Reformed committees of Divines running his church.

Gradually two theories, always with the usual variations on their themes, emerged among us. Those more Catholic believed that bishops in Apostolic Succession represented an institution essential to a true Church. Where there was no bishop, there was no church. Those more Evangelical believed that the Apostles died out and were not succeeded. Yet to them episcopacy was a very convenient and excellent form of church government. This didn’t prevent autocracy among evangelical prelates or servanthood among Catholic chief pastors and vice versa. There came a time when episcopacy came to be commended to other churches as one of those elements to be found in a future united Christendom. This Anglican bishops did at an early Lambeth Conference when it adopted an ECUSA document we now call the Lambeth Quadrilateral; one of those decisions of the Conference we all now take as Gospel. It’s in the American Prayer Book along with the Chalcedon Decree and the Articles of Religion.

Of late voices in our country have even suggested that our democratic way of electing bishops in some mysterious way makes them more commendable than other Anglican bishops and thus than most bishops elected since the time of Ambrose of Milan. I have no idea what that means in practice.

Viewed “politically” or even practically, the method employed to select and finally appoint bishops doesnt seem to make a whole lot of difference. Looking at large, and within our own Anglican history worldwide, one can discover saintly bishops and wretched bishops, effective bishops and duds, naughty bishops, under-age bishops, hereditary bishops, “prophetic bishops”, pastoral bishops, agnostic bishops and comical bishops.

So wherein am I agnostic? The fact that the individual characters of bishops have been so varied, or that some very wicked people have donned the mitre, doesn’t particularly bother me: I can always find a saints to restore the balance. After all, baptism produces a very mixed bag of people and there’s never been much doubt that baptism is the primary sacrament. Nor do I doubt that if episcopacy is of the “esse” or even the “bene esse” of the church it is necessary and requisite. My problem is with the very modern claim that the Holy Spirit actually produces the right person through whatever process is used to select such a person. I freely believe that the Holy Spirit has something to do with preserving the office. Like Lancelot Andrewes I am prepared to accept that episcopacy is part of the nature and reality of the Church and our church, unless a Christian community has been deprived of episcopacy by what we might term historical accident.

I also believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our assemblies, synods, conventions and councils. My faith wavers before claims which suggest that particular decisions made by any of these institutions assures us all that the Holy Spirit places an infallible seal of approval on such decisions in particular. If my mind changed, I’d become a Roman Catholic in short order. I don’t believe in collective séances.

I believe in the Holy Spirit and I also believe in the fallibility of human beings, however well-intentioned, however prayerful and indeed however holy. I believe that the Holy Spirit preserves, protects and proclaims the Church in its wholeness and in its mission, in its prosperity and in its misery, when it seems faithful and when it seems faithless. I believe that those categories go far deeper than contemporary issues and slogans, crises and agonies. For this reason I affirm the faith of the Church in the Creeds and I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life and thus through the Spirit I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and I believe in one baptism for the remission and of sins and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

But do I believe that the Holy Spirit has much to do with the failure of Tennessee electors to come up with a candidate they can elect? Nah!

One Response

  1. Nicely said.

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