By the end of this week the Episcopal Church will have a new Primate, Chief Pastor and Presiding Bishop. Isn’t it odd that when we try to avoid lengthy high sounding titles we arrive at something equally convoluted?

There are two potent symbols of Bishop Katherine’s new vocation. One is a rather down at heels sky-scraper on 2nd Avenue in New York City. The other is the faux gothic National Cathedral in Washington DC, built in the days when the manifest destiny of the Episcopal Church and the USA seemed obvious. It might not be the national church, but it was to be the church which guided the nation in wisdom, common sense and perhaps good breeding and taste. There’s still the air of the patrician about it as there is about much in TEC. Patricians don’t have to be conservative.

The first building is that of a corporation. Despite its chapel, it’s a corporate office, filled with people who do what corporate officers do. Elevators usher the visitor to various floors where may be found experts in parish or clergy development, the ecumenical movement and relations with other Anglican churches. The latest liturgical texts filter through those concrete walls, and structures to give Episcopal relief and provide development jostle with minority ministries and sermon services. High up may be found the offices of the corporate leader and even higher up a penthouse apartment to which the chief executive officer may retreat when time permits. Nothing of this size or scale may be found in any other Province of the Anglican Communion. Leaving New York would be an abdication of power.

The second building, as we have noted, is the National Cathedral. It’s an extraordinary place, an assertion that anything Europe can do, we can do better. It’s a labor of love, a place of on-going craftsmanship in stone, and glass, sculpture and fabric, music and dance. Its gothic pretensions seem to lay claim to a former day, to the concept of democratic Christendom. As a house of prayer for all, or at least most people, it alternates as an ecumenical center, a nation state shrine and a vast funeral chapel. It lacks that aura of prayer and holiness which only the long years provide, but neither are much marked commodities in contemporary life.

Washington Cathedral – an exclusive title – is indeed the site of the cathedra of the Bishop of Washington, a seat the present occupant shares from time to time with the Bishop of Virginia, who has no cathedral. This weekend it will do nicely as a place where the new Primate of TEC may also place her slim fundament. Of course it is not her church, not her seat, not her cathedral. But it is not quite not her seat and cathedral. When TEC began to be enamored of corporate models, the job of Presiding Bishop was shorn of jurisdiction. In a sense a PB becomes an un-bishop: something crucial about the nature of episcopacy was removed. One doesn’t refer to function alone. Part of the nature of episcopacy is taken from whatever bishop ascends to the primacy. They become a driver forbidden to drive. Apart from the Canadians, who trot along after American Anglicans in awed fealty, no other Anglican Province has stripped their primate of immediate jurisdiction as a diocesan bishop. There’s a theological problem here but what the hell.

Actually the Presiding Bishop has a cathedra, a cathedral and a jurisdiction. It is in Europe! There on Avenue George V in Paris, within JP Morgan’s statement to the French, the throne of the Primate of the Episcopal Church is located. It is usually used by her suffragan, the Bishop in Europe. When Bishop Griswold voted to confirm the Bishop of New Hampshire, he did so as occupant of the Parisian chair, much to the chagrin of the other Bishops in Europe..

As in Alice, things get curiouser and curiouser. So far we have a person called to be an executive, housed in corporate offices, who is installed to office in someone else’s cathedral. In the job description a good deal of space is given to the task of getting things done. Every three years, as we know, General Convention comes up with a budget, allocations and programs In between the Executive Council supervises that work, and the Primate and her staff enable the work of this and a host of committees, commissions, task forces and advocacy groups..

The Primate must also make sure that bishops are correctly consecrated, speeches made, the position of the Church on this that and the other articulated. She must fly the globe imparting instant wisdom, meeting with people who may well not want to meet with her, and from time to time remind +Rowan that he is only primus inter pares, however holy he may be.

The Presiding Bishop presides over the House of Bishops when it meets at Convention and when it meets outside Convention. That’s all that is left of the original job description. Behind the scenes she will perhaps seek to give advise and counsel to a growingly independent minded episcopate, many of whom, whatever their Cause, sit lightly on Canon Law and strongly on their own local regulations which may not always have much to do with Canon Law.

What the Episcopal Church does not encourage is the ideal of primacy which comes to us from the past. The American primate is the head of a parliamentary majority, a winning faction and is called to be a true believer. The Primate is not everyone’s Primate.

Ironically this eminent platform for advocacy has been provided at a moment when what Presiding Bishops actually say about almost anything is only heard by the first two rows of the audience an David Virtue. True, PBS will do some interviews from time to time, but the leaders of the parties, those who exercise power in Congress, in business, even in education can’t hear a thing being said by the church at large and its leaders. The Presiding Bishop, the General Convention, prominent “prophets” in fact preach to the choir and if anyone is upset, it’s that part of the choir that turns up for Rite I.

In short, the office of Presiding Bishop is impossible. It has grown, but it has not been shaped and it has become neither fish, fowl nor good red herring.

Into this situation now comes a very intelligent, warm, gifted woman of faith, perhaps not yet in tune with the Anglican world: TEC is so isolated and so eccentric. God bless you Katherine.

One Response

  1. ‘Flesh, fowl, nor good red herring’ I think, Tony. I well remember visiting the Parisian pro-cathedral in ’61 with my first wife Janet, back when that old Virginian churchman, Somebody Lee Something DD was Dean, and they had a Sunday morning service of blessing the flag + Morning Prayer. After the chaps from the Embassy had presented the flag, his Deanship preached to the Americans present about how ” Moral standards here are not what we are accustomed to at home so try not to be too shocked.” Meanwhile, the three guys on loan from SHAEF with ‘Eternal Vigilance Is the Price of Freedom’ on their shoulder badges were all huddled against each other asleep in their pew. We stifled our merriment and crept away to Paris.

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