Episcopacy task force proposes ways to make a ‘healthy and representative’ House of Bishops

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 29, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church is episcopal because it has bishops among its leaders, and the upcoming 79th General Convention will consider many aspects of their formation, election and role in the church.

The word “episcopal” comes from the ancient Greek epískopos, meaning overseer. The first session of the first General Convention, held in 1785, consisted only of the House of Deputies. However, it adopted a constitutional provision establishing a separate House of Bishops, which joined the convention at its second session in 1789.

The Task Force on the Episcopacy, formed at the request of the last meeting of convention, has submitted 34 resolutions. They are in reply to convention’s mandate that it study “the election, appointment, roles and responsibilities of the episcopate.” To do so, they began at that 1785 beginning.

Those resolutions will be considered, first by the Churchwide Leadership Committee, when the 79th General Convention officially gets underway July 5 at the Austin Convention Center. Convention runs through July 13. The task force’s Blue Book report to convention is here.

Diocese of Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas, task force chair, told Episcopal News Service that the group had a huge job and “we had a lot of different constituencies represented.”

The Very Rev. Gary Hall, a task force member who is the interim rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara, California, said that range of constituencies made for “some real differences of opinion on the task force.” However, most members came to a “consensus place” on most of the issues, he said.

Some might think that the first part of the task force’s mandate – to examine the fact that lay Episcopalians and clergy elect their bishops – would have been a bit of a rubber stamp. However, task force member and Diocese of Fort Worth Deputy Katie Sherrod said it was a very serious discussion, especially when it was set in light of another of the task force’s mandates: to “pay particular attention to the recent trend away from a diverse House of Bishops,” and devise ways to encourage diversity. The task force, she said, learned that some Anglican Communion provinces in which bishops are appointed have more diverse groups of bishops than the Episcopal Church.

In the end, the task force concluded that diocesan clergy and laity electing their bishops “is in our DNA and there are reasons for that, and they matter,” she said.

And, the task force agreed that dioceses should hold the main responsibility for electing their bishops, Douglas said, but sought ways to help give them the resources they need.

There are some resolutions that offer what Douglas called technical fixes in this area, such as A142 and A145, which urge dioceses to have bishop search and election policies and canons in place long before they are faced with an episcopal election.

Another part of the proposed solution is a requirement (via Resolution A144) that dioceses “engage in the process of a missional review periodically but no less often than prior to engaging in an episcopal search process.” Douglas said the things the review would examine range from discerning what God is calling Episcopalians in that diocese to do, to such questions as whether the diocese can afford a bishop and a diocesan staff that are paid fairly and make its assessment to the churchwide budget. Such reviews would also include conversations with neighboring dioceses about “collaboration and a sharing of ideas and visions,” the resolutions says.

“I think this is a hugely important question. As we know, there are dioceses and there will be an increasing number of dioceses that are not viable or might not be viable, and there is no vehicle currently for the wider church to say what should we do in that place,” Douglas said. “So, we often continue to spend a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of energy electing bishops for places that might not even be able to afford a bishop.”

Resolution A156 would change church canons to require that the diocese share its review results with the presiding bishop and the Executive Council for their feedback. Their assessments would then have to be sent to each bishop exercising jurisdiction and diocesan standing committees in advance of their consent to a call for an election.

Douglas that the missional review process is meant to help the wider church be able to give “meaning consent” to such a call. “We’re going to have to as church engage that reality one way or another,” he added.

How to help the church elect bishops who will have successful episcopates was part of the task force’s work, Sherrod said, noting that former Maryland Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook’s “shadow obviously loomed large over the resolution that put us into existence.” Cook killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo in December 2014 as she was driving and texting while drunk. She was arrested in 2010 on a drunken-driving charge. Cook disclosed the arrest to diocesan leaders during the bishop suffragan search process, according to a diocesan statement released after the Dec. 27 accident, but the entire convention that elected Cook on May 2, 2014, was not told about it.

The task force made recommendations on how and when background checks should be made, and who should see the results. For instance, there is no churchwide canonical requirement for background screening when a diocese elects a bishop, the report notes. Resolution A148 proposes to change that.

Responding to the diversity question, the task force notes in its report that the House of Bishops is “overwhelmingly male and white.” Moreover, the members note, the church does not know much about the demographics of those priests who stand for election as bishops. Thus, the task force said one of its primary recommendations is that the church require (via Resolution A138) dioceses holding episcopal elections to report the demographic characteristics of the applicant pool, finalists and elected bishop. Such statistics, it said in Resolution A139, “will allow more empirically-grounded, evidence-based recommendations for enhancing the diversity of the episcopate in future years.”

The task force asks in Resolution A140 that dioceses at the beginning of their search process be given the section on diversity included in its Blue Book report, as well as other materials on diversity.

While not all on the task force agreed, the group is also proposing a pilot Board for Episcopal Transitions of bishops, priests or deacons, and laypeople. The board, described Resolution A147, would operate for six years to work in collaboration with and help the presiding bishop’s Office of Pastoral Development, which currently has oversight of the bishop search processes churchwide.

The introduction of laypeople, priests and deacons into the bishop search process at the churchwide level is a new effort, and it is continued in the task force’s Resolution A149, which urges the College for Bishops to have its board of directors jointly nominated by the presiding bishop and president of the House of Deputies, elected by the House of Bishops and confirmed by the House of Deputies. Such a process, the resolution explanation says, is “likely to result in a board more equally comprising the orders of ministry of the church, all of whom have a vital stake in the calling and formation of bishops.”

Hall said the resolution’s choice of the word “urge” is an example of the compromises that the members made in the midst of what he called “the entire range of opinion” in the group. The word choice came at the end of a long process in which some task force members, including him, advocated for requiring the new process for the college’s board.

The inclusion of all four orders in those processes, Sherrod said, “was all grounded in our belief that the election and formation of bishops should include all four orders of the church because bishop are elected in a diocese, but they are elected for the whole church and so the whole church has a vested interest in every bishop that’s elected.”

“And it should be the whole church, not just bishops, because bishops can’t know everything or understand everything or see everything that the whole of the body [of the church] can bring into the room.”

For more about the College for Bishops see the Episcopal News Service article “Teaching bishops to be bishops.”

The 2015 meeting of convention also told the task force to address the issue of discernment. The members said in their report they were concerned about the lack of a formal process “for a person to test an initial call to the episcopate as an order” similar to “the prolonged, informed, prayerful process that we employ for a call to the diaconate or priesthood.” Still, the task force wanted to be clear it was not calling for a pool of pre-approved candidates.

“We envision a process where the result is clarity for the seeker, and not the conclusion of a group as to whether this individual ought to put him or herself forward,” the task force said. “This discernment is not pre-vetting. It is a pastoral response to an individual who seeks a safe place to wonder about a specific call. The result of the experience and what to do with the information is solely up to the individual.”

Douglas said “expressions of clericalism and patriarchy” sometimes prompt people to “see the episcopacy as the cherry on top of the ordination sundae.” And, they don’t say out loud that they feel called to be a bishop because they are afraid, feel it is unseemly, or have a sense of what he called “false humbleness.”

“We think that those kinds of attitudes are not going help make a healthy House of Bishops, get our best leaders, nor lead to a diverse and representative House of Bishops.”

The task force wants a clear discernment process, he said, to encourage the entire Episcopal community to raise up and nurture all sort of people for the episcopate.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.