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Candor Breaks Out at Kanuga

Candor Breaks Out at Kanuga
2017 Spring House of Bishops -- Day 5

Confessions of a Carioca
March 14, 2017

The Spirit blows where the Spirit blows. Some sort of spirit certainly blew here today. Whether it was the Holy Spirit of God or something else is unclear to me without first getting some distance. (Isn't that how the Holy Spirit tends to work? Discernible clearly only in hindsight?)

We began with another table discussion of generous length (about 30 minutes, as I recall). Each table was given a sheet amalgamating all the feedback that had been turned in on sticky notes yesterday concerning how we think we're meeting the personal and institutional challenges of dealing with the way we tend to systematically marginalize individuals and groups based on criteria over which they have no control ("Who I am" rather than "What I do").

This went well enough, and then the plenary floor was open to sharing from the table discussions. All was going according to plan. Then one bishop (whom I will not name, though he probably wouldn't mind) got up and said, in effect, "There's an elephant in the room, and we're ignoring it in favor of a bunch of navel gazing." That's when everything went off the rails. A handful of others got up and said, "Yeah. There's an elephant in the room, and we need to talk about it!" Except ... nobody actually named the elephant. And I was getting the feeling that those who were giving their Amens to the original comment were all talking about different elephants, but I didn't know for sure. Was I the only one who was clueless? So I went to the microphone myself and said, "We have a set of Core Values in this House, one of which is to speak directly. But here I am listening to a bunch of us saying that there's something we desperately need to talk about, and I have no idea what it is."

After a few more speakers, we took a break while the Presiding Bishop, the members of the Planning Committee, and the chaplains all hung heads together to figure what to do. During the break, several bishops greeted me enthusiastically and thanked me for saying what I did, because they were equally clueless. It felt good not be alone in my ignorance.

Then the bishop who had made the comment that got the whole ruckus started came up to me and clarified what he meant. It was all about the Bishop of Washington's sermon on Sunday, and her remark about the number of her own parishes that are slowly (or not so slowly) withering away, without even a spark of the sort of vitality that would be attractive to those seeking a deeper spiritual life ... and here we are spending four days talking about our feelings and our childhood memories. I was glad to hear this clarification, because I had been afraid that it had something to do with the ongoing post-election anxiety level in the country and among many Episcopalians, and that's not a weed patch I would have been particularly happy about getting down into. (I suspect that some of the Amen-voicers were coming from such a place, however.)

In the round of plenary discussion that followed the break, I went to the mic and said something like this: "Only a handful of us in the room today, if that, were in the House 25 years ago on the occasion of that last 'blowup' in relationships. Bishops almost came to blows during General Convention, and the room had to be cleared of observers. Since then, the House has focused more on 'process' concerns, building collegiality, and less on 'content' issues. Perhaps what we've seen this morning is a sign of pent-up rebellion against dealing with topics of secondary and tertiary importance while not being given an opportunity to talk about the really urgent concerns that we have in this church. I, for one, believe there is still a great deal of truth that yet needs to be told about the events surrounding the massive departures from our church over the last 10-12 years. I know many are in quiet anguish over the issues of congregational vitality that Marianne Budde raised in her sermon. And I know as well that there are some among us who wish we could speak a word of hope into the political anxiety that has enveloped our society. So perhaps this moment is a test. Perhaps it is a test of whether 25 years of focusing on process concerns and relationship building has actually made us more mature in Christ, whether it has equipped us to once again engage difficult subjects with clarity and candor but still be faithful to our vows to 'respect the dignity of every human being.'"

We broke for lunch at noon, but were seriously off our agenda. When we got back together at 1:30, the head of the Planning Committee reported on the deliberations of the group. This did not include a detailed plan, but, rather, a strong assurance that everything that had been said would be taken into consideration as future meetings are structured. But ... wow, I'm not sure anybody saw this coming.

We then plowed through a list of things that we were supposed to have been dealt with in the morning:

Greetings from the new CEO of the DFMS (aka the "church center" in New York).
• A report from the Commission on Impairment and Leadership (this group deals with issues of addiction, mental illness, and personality disorders among bishops).
• A report on the Episcopal-Methodist dialogue. There will be a proposal for a "full communion" agreement in front of the next General Convention.
• A report from the Diocese of Texas concerning some of the planning details of the 2018 General Convention, to be held in Austin.
• A report from the Standing Committee on Structure and Governance. To be honest, I can't remember much of what was said, but it wasn't anything momentous. I think it had something to do with finding ways of measuring the vitality of dioceses.
We took another break, and the reconvened in an official business session (hence the photo above of the officers of the House looking more formal than they usually do), with proper parliamentary procedure. It was mostly pretty humdrum stuff on the order of approving a spate of upcoming retirements and resignations. But the skunk at the garden party was a report from the Task Force on Episcopacy, created by a 2015 General Convention resolution. Their broad mandate is to consider the ways that bishops are selected, formed, and deployed. To everyone's relief, they have already concluded that bishops should continue to be elected rather than appointed, and that the various dioceses should still be responsible for the electing process. Whew! But they are also considering, among other things, the creation of a pool of candidates who have already discerned a potential call to episcopal ministry, and are pre-screened, with background check results at the ready. Dioceses looking for a bishop would be encouraged to fish in such a pond. It would all be optional of course, but I can certainly foresee tremendous informal pressure put on dioceses to do just that, with failure to do so coming at the potential cost of difficulties in the consent process for whomever is elected. The driving concern, of course, is for greater diversity of gender and ethnicity among the members of the House of Bishops--a laudable goal, perhaps, but it should be allowed to develop organically. This development is scary, and it should be nipped ferociously in the bud.

As per custom, our final dinner was a bit upscale, with many of the bishops dressing up. Bow ties were particularly in fashion tonight. Me ... I just swapped out my hooded sweatshirt for a corduroy sport coat. I'm on the 0530 airport shuttle in the morning. This HOB is in the books now.


Pre-approved Bishops: A Nursery for Ambition

By Frederick Schmidt
March 16, 2017

In a report from the meeting at the House of Bishops for The Episcopal Church, Bishop Daniel Martins notes that the bishops are considering creating a pool of prospective candidates for the episcopacy.

As Martins describes it, this pool of would-be bishops would be a list of prospects who are vetted ahead of time, and dioceses electing a new bishop would be encouraged to use that list. Martins also infers that dioceses choosing to look beyond the list provided them would run the risk of failing to receive approval for their bishop-elect.

As a priest and a theologian, I view this development with a considerable amount of dismay and I hope that -- after further reflection -- the House will abandon their plans to create a pool of candidates in this fashion.

There are several reasons for my misgivings:

One, in our polity, a call to the episcopacy (like a calling to the diaconate or the priesthood) requires a process of discernment with the prayerful help and wisdom of the church. It is difficult to imagine how this might be done in a vacuum, on a church-wide basis, without a parish or a diocese to cooperate in the process.

Two, because -- more often than not -- our bishops are called to provide leadership for a single diocese, the early stages of discernment are narrowed with the creation of a list of this kind. The life and history of a diocese should shape the process from the beginning.

Three, historically our denomination and our tradition have been misled in the selection process from time to time by electing bishops who were "born to the purple," either because of familial or social connections. While a pool of candidates might be chosen on other grounds, this proposal will inevitably re-create that dynamic, if not formalize a system that has not always served the church well.

Four, it is difficult to imagine a list of this kind that is not driven by ideology or ambition. Martins article does explain how or by whom these candidates would be identified, but one can imagine a whole new series of informal behaviors designed to get one's name on the list.

Five, the proposal disenfranchises the laity and most of the clergy at one level, by pre-judging who might be considered. Historically, some of the church's strongest and most notable bishops were not on anyone's list and often the best of them have been elected to that office against their own instincts or has pulled them into the office from relative obscurity. One can imagine that the appeal of the proposal being considered by the bishops is the notion that this process will eliminate political machination from the selection of bishops. However, what it does, in fact, is simply move those machinations to another playing field or venue, where there is even less opportunity for public scrutiny.

Creating another smoke-filled room or a nursery for ambition in the church is a profound theological and spiritual mistake.


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