Next year, the Episcopal Church will elect a new Presiding Bishop. The holder of this office is also described as Chief Pastor and Primate. The office has evolved since the first PB, William White, took office. The newly formed Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA) knew quite clearly what it didn’t want in its bishops and their president. They didn’t want prelates, no Lord Bishops or Graced Archbishops, as much creatures of the State and thus the party in favor with the monarch at a given time. They sought to resurrect what was termed primitive episcopacy, one modeled on an ideal early Church construct. For this reason they resisted electing suffragan bishops as something newfangled, refused to permit bishops to retire ever, even when they started confirming bed posts, and abhorred the notion that a bishop might be translated, moved from see to shining see.
Of course, jumping from the now, whenever that now may be, to an idealized golden age is always fraught with problems. The idealism of the founding fathers and mothers eventually gave way to more practical considerations. Granted, our bishops don’t sit in the Senate, and we don’t have a metropolitan archbishop.
It may be argued that, rather than emulate the State in forming our ordained leaders, we’ve been much more influenced by commerce and industry. The headquarters of our church, lodged in an aging skyscraper in New York, resembles a corporate center, complete with a CEO and other corporate officers, answerable, if at all, to a Board of Directors and a triennial meeting of those shareholders who make enough noise to be selected to attend a rather expensive meeting and stay in classy hotels for up to two weeks. There’s nothing much of the early Church about such a structure. True, the structure is under a much fanfared review at present, but the signs are that those who have most benefitted from things as they are, in a fit of a newly adopted conservatism, are resisting any radical change. Nor should our structure —or should I say could our structure? — resemble a third-century model. Since those days, we’ve taken to having discrete buildings, territorial dioceses and parishes, and full-time paid clergy (including bishops). And the church here suffers from minimal persecution.
If the corporate model has gained steady ground over the past century, another model has gained perhaps even more traction. That model is inspired by secular politics. We have our parties. It’s nonsense to suggest that there is something new about there being factions and interest groups within the Christian Church. In the Middle Ages, they tended to gather around monastic orders, companies of friars, prominent theologians, and, yes, even around a monarch or his detractors.
When PECUSA was founded, it emerged as a battered minority, shorn of its privileged place in colonial society, divided between patriots and loyalists to such a degree that the first bishops wouldn’t even attend General Convention together. Episcopalians were also divided theologically. High Church New Englanders abhorred the semi-Deism of Southern Latitudinarians, and both were soon disturbed by the arrival of a gung-ho evangelicalism, the members of which wondered whether their co-religionists were saved at all. William White, the first Presiding Bishop, armed merely with influence rather than power — and certainly not a team of lawyers — sought to keep the peace, as PECUSA drew back from near extinction and gained self-confidence, growing and expanding at a remarkable pace. No one doubted that White was a Broad Churchman, and yet, by and large, he managed to assist the bishops and a succession of General Conventions in placing unity and concord above party faction.
No one should think that the various factions were less sure that they were right than our contemporary “progressives” and “traditionalists” do. Yet they were bright enough to understand the obvious: the total victory of any one of their parties would weaken, perhaps fatally weaken, a church which had teetered on the brink of extinction. Even so, many were lost to other denominations because the Episcopal Church was slow to expand to the frontiers. Or, rather, when Episcopalians arrived in the West, they merely looked for unchurched Episcopalians. There were exceptions like Hobart, Chase, and Polk. However, Episcopalians took with them not only theological, structural, and liturgical peculiarities, but also an aura of elitism that survives to this day. We’ve been good at championing the poor and the excluded as groups, and much less willing to include them in our churches. After all, they don’t fit in, and they tend to vote Republican.
We are not teetering on the brink of extinction, at least not yet. But we are not our blooming best. That was achieved in the middle of the twentieth century, when our numbers were rather higher and Presidents listened to Presiding Bishops. Indeed, we are in significant decline, as is our mother church.
Greatly influenced by an archbishop of Canterbury who made no bones about his position, the English General Synod recently adopted legislation allowing women to become bishops. Yet embedded in the legislation is a commitment to protect minority opinion and encourage its members to flourish. Surely among our progressive bishops there is a candidate willing to protect minority opinion in TEC and even sway General Convention to encourage traditionalists to flourish? One hopes that those who permit themselves to be nominated as candidates for the office of Presiding Bishop will seek a quiet corner and read about William White.
The featured image is a photo of the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut (2012) by Karen Hamilton. It is licensed under Creative Commons.