Interactive timeline traces all presiding bishops of The Episcopal Church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Oct 30, 2015

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[Episcopal News Service] The role of the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church has been evolving practically ever since the position was created.

The General Convention of 1785 was composed of a single house of clerical and lay delegates from seven of the nine states outside of New England.

Bishop Samuel Seabury of Connecticut and representatives from New England declined to attend a convention that had made no provision for episcopal presidency. Seabury, the only American bishop at the time, had been ordained in Scotland after the Church of England refused his ordination. The Episcopal Church in Scotland, unlike the English Church, did not require bishops to sign a loyalty oath to the sovereign.

The 1785 convention drafted an ecclesiastical constitution, adopted liturgical revisions consistent with the American Revolution and formulated a plan for obtaining American bishops from the Church of England.

In the summer of 1786 the English Parliament gave permission for the consecration of American bishops without requiring the loyalty oath.

The General Convention of 1786 supplied the necessary testimonials for bishops-elect William White of Pennsylvania and Samuel Provoost of New York to seek consecration in England.

Attempts to deny the validity of Seabury’s consecration were defeated and the convention avoided any actions that might prove injurious to future union.

The proposed ecclesiastical constitution was adopted by the convention with the provision that “a bishop shall always preside in the General Convention…”

The General Convention of 1789 took decisive actions to form a single national Episcopal Church. The first session of the convention affirmed unanimously the validity of Seabury’s consecration and created a separate House of Bishops as he advocated.

Seabury and delegates from New England attended the second session of the convention, which adopted a constitution, ratified a body of canons and issued an American Book of Common Prayer.

The first rule of order of the House of Bishops declared that “the senior Bishop present shall be the President” and Seabury presided. The General Convention of 1792 modified the rule and provided that “the office of President of this house shall be held in rotation, beginning from the north” and Provoost of New York took the chair.

Although White presided at all General Conventions from 1795 until his death in 1836, the rule of order providing that “the senior Bishop present at the opening of any Convention” was restored in 1804.

The first reference to the term “presiding bishop” is in the rubric before the consecration of a bishop added to the Prayer Book in 1792. In 1795 White signed the minutes of the General Convention as the “Presiding Bishop.”

In 1799 the canons used the title “presiding bishop” for the first time, authorizing the holder of the office the right to call special meetings of the General Convention. In 1820 canon law invested the presiding bishop with the privilege of taking order for all episcopal consecrations. The same year the General Convention made the presiding bishop the president of the new national missionary society and referred to the office as “of this church” instead of being restricted to the House of Bishops.

The presiding bishop’s role and duties continued to be expanded and refined during the intervening years. In 1895, the position was still to be held by “the senior bishop of the Episcopal Church, in order of consecration, who holds the office for life unless he resigns or is removed from office by the vote of a majority of the bishops,” according to the Constitution and Canons.

In 1919, the General Convention began the process to amend the constitution to provide for the election of the presiding bishop, and canons were changed to set an age limit for the presiding bishop and a term of office. This meeting of convention also made the presiding bishop the president of the newly created National Council with 24 members (now the Executive Council, with 38 members). The first elected Presiding Bishop, John Gardner Murray, took office on Jan. 1, 1926.

In 1967 General Convention for the first time used the term “chief pastor” to describe the theological responsibilities of the office of presiding bishop and gave the presiding bishop the right and responsibility to make a visitation to each diocese during the term in office.

The title of “primate” was added to the presiding bishop’s title by the 1982 meeting of General Convention to make clear that the office ranked with the leaders of the Anglican Communion’s other provinces. However, the General Convention declined to change the title to “archbishop.” The addition of the title granted no further authority or power to the presiding bishop.

General Convention reduced the presiding bishop’s term of office from 12 years to nine years in 1994. The change in term length took effect in 1997 with the election of 25th Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold.

The 1997 meeting of General Convention passed several canonical amendments, most of which form the basis of the canons still current today as to the role of the presiding bishop and the Executive Council. The presiding bishop was “charged with speaking for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.” In addition to being the chair and president of Executive Council, the presiding bishop became “the chief executive officer” of Executive Council.

Currently, the presiding bishop is chief pastor and primate of the church, chair of the Executive Council, and president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. The canonical outline of the presiding bishop’s election and term can be found in Title I Section 2 of The Episcopal Church’s Canons.

(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)

According to Title I Section 2, the presiding bishop as chief pastor and primate is “charged with responsibility for leadership in initiating and developing the policy and strategy in the church and speaking for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.”

The presiding bishop also “speaks God’s word to the church and world as the representative of this Church and its episcopate in its corporate capacity,” represents The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Communion, serves as chief consecrator of bishops, and leads the House of Bishops. He or she also holds a significant role in the discipline and changes in status of bishops, according to Title I Section 2.

Also, the presiding bishop exercises a significant role in the governance of the church by making appointments to various governing bodies, making decisions with the president of the House of Deputies, serving as a member of every churchwide committee and commission, and serving as chair and president of key church governing boards. He or she is the chair and chief executive officer of the Executive Council, which is the board of directors for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, according to Canon I.4, and oversees the execution of the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention and carried out by the Society.

The staff of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society report to the presiding bishop, who is the Society’s president, either directly or through a group of senior staff and officers who, according to canon, report and are accountable directly to the presiding bishop. (The office of the General Convention, by canon, maintains a separate reporting structure.)

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.