Pre-approved Bishops: A Nursery for Ambition

 

imgresIn 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.

 

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Rueben Job Institute for Spiritual Formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and consulting editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, as well as several books: A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009), and The Dave Test (Abingdon, 2013). He and his wife, Natalie (who is also an Episcopal priest), live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with their Gordon Setter, Hilda of Whitby. They have four children and five grandchildren: Henry, Addie, Heidi, Sophie, and Drew, with a sixth on the way.