Last Paper from PB Committee

Adapted from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs

The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop continues its work to prepare The Episcopal Church for the election of the 27th Presiding Bishop at General Convention next summer. The committee now publishes the third of three essays designed to begin a discussion about the election, which will take place in the summer of 2015.

This essay discuss how the constitutional/canonical role of the office has changed and evolved from being the senior bishop by consecration who presides over meetings of the House of Bishops to the complex multifaceted position it is today. The first essay described the basic timeline and steps of the nominating and election process (here). The second essay outlined the current roles, functions, and responsibilities of the Presiding Bishop (here).

It is the hope of the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop that all members of General Convention and all Episcopalians will take the time to read these brief essays to learn the importance of what we will do next summer. Should you have any questions or comments about these essays or the work of the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop please contact

The committee is composed of a lay member, a priest or deacon, and a bishop elected from each of the nine provinces of the Episcopal Church, plus two youth representatives, appointed by the President of the House of Deputies. The General Convention Deputies and bishops serve a three-year term to conclude at the close of General Convention 2015 in Salt Lake City.

The Evolving Role and the Changing Selection Process of the Presiding Bishop

The current role of the Presiding Bishop is to function as pastor, chief executive, and prophetic voice for The Episcopal Church. The focus of this third educational piece is on how the constitutional/canonical role of the Presiding Bishop has evolved over the past 225 years. Once, the Presiding Bishop was simply the senior bishop, presiding over meetings of the House of Bishops. Now, directed by General Convention, the Presiding Bishop occupies a multi-faceted position — a position we described in our second educational piece, nominated and elected through the current procedures we outlined in our first educational piece.

Such transformation is not unique to this office. The constitution, the canons, the liturgy, access to ordination, and much more have changed over time. The growth of our Church, the assignment of more duties to the Presiding Bishop as mission has expanded, and the way we as Episcopalians wish to be understood in the wider Anglican Communion have all played a part in this complex process. 

1. How the Role Has Changed

From the Late 18th Century to the Mid-19th Century

The first known reference to the term “presiding Bishop” is in the rubric for the consecration of a bishop added to the prayer book in 1792. Bishop William White signed the minutes of the 1795 General Convention as the “presiding Bishop.” (The “p” was not regularly capitalized until the second half of the 19th century.) The presiding Bishop was the senior bishop in order of consecration, who held the position for life.

Other responsibilities, in addition to presiding over the House of Bishops and taking order as chief consecrator at episcopal ordinations (formalized in a canon of 1820), were gradually added by subsequent General Convention:

  • Having authority to call special meetings of the General Convention (1799)
  • Issuing pastoral letters on behalf of the Church (1808)
  • Serving as President of the “Protestant Episcopal Missionary Society in the United States” (1820)
  • Receiving the presentments in a trial of a bishop (1841)

Thus were planted the seeds of the presidential, liturgical, missionary, and disciplinary aspects of the office.

From the Mid-19th Century to 1919

In 1856 the canon “The Trial of a Bishop” charged the Presiding Bishop to choose a board of inquiry of 16 persons to investigate charges against a bishop.

In 1859, for the first time, the Presiding Bishop was given jurisdiction over a congregation and clergy outside the borders of the Presiding Bishop’s diocese. Specifically, it was Canon V of Title III, passed at the 1859 General Convention, that granted the Presiding Bishop authority over the American congregation in Paris and any other foreign congregation that petitioned the General Convention or the Presiding Bishop.

In 1871, for the first time, the General Convention voted financial support for the expenses of the Presiding Bishop ($500).

In 1895, despite these additions in the areas of authority overseas, finances, and discipline, which pointed in the direction of an enhanced role at the end of the 19th Century, the office was still defined as “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.”

1919: Among the resolutions General Convention passed in 1919 was an amendment to the Constitution providing for the election of the Presiding Bishop, and canons setting (a) an age limit for service and (b) a term of office. This Convention also passed Canon 60, in which the Presiding Bishop’s duties were made also the duties of the President of the newly created National Council with 24 members (now the Executive Council). The Presiding Bishop was to administer and coordinate the missionary, educational, and social work of the Church. The first elected Presiding Bishop, John Gardner Murray, took office on January 1, 1926.

1967: The General Convention of 1967 was as significant for the further definition of the role of the Presiding Bishop as the Convention of 1919 had been. Canon I.2.4 was greatly expanded in three ways. First, the Presiding Bishop was now termed “chief pastor,” implying pastoral responsibility for the whole Church, not just the House of Bishops. Second, the Presiding Bishop was given the responsibility for leading the initiation and development of policy and strategy (this to be exercised with the Executive Council). Third, the Presiding Bishop was authorized to speak God’s word “to the Church and to the world” and to do so as its “chief representative.” Three clear images of the office had emerged: chief pastor, executive, and prophetic leader.

1982: A resolution of General Convention 1982 amended Canon I.2.4 to read: “The Presiding Bishop of the Church shall be Chief Pastor and Primate thereof….” The reason for this change was to give the office parity with other leaders of the Anglican Communion with regard to the title “Primate.” In this debate the General Convention declined to change the title to “archbishop.” The addition of “Primate” was meant primarily to clarify for the Anglican Communion that our Presiding Bishop had the status of Primate (a position in other Anglican provinces), but that the addition of the title granted no further authority or power to the Presiding Bishop.

1997: The General Convention of 1997 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. Canon I.2.4(a)(1) was changed to state that the Presiding Bishop “be charged with speaking for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.” Also, Canon I.4.3(a) was amended to provide that in addition to being the Chair and President of Executive Council, the Presiding Bishop was now also “the chief executive officer” of Executive Council.

Length of Term

Before 1895: Holds office for life

1895: “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.”

1919: Canon 60 fixed the term of the Presiding Bishop at six years.

1937: General Convention changed the length of term to last until the Presiding Bishop reached the age of 68.

1967: The General Convention of 1967 set the term at 12 years. Edmund Browning was the only Presiding Bishop to serve 12 years after this change. His two predecessors resigned before the completion of their terms.

1994: The Convention of 1994 reduced the term to nine years.

Mandatory Retirement Age

Until 1919: Served until death

1919: Age 70

1937: Age 68

1967: Age 65

1985: Age 70

2006: Age 72

Resignation from Diocese

1907: The General Convention of 1907 amended Article I.3 of the Constitution to that allow the diocese of the Presiding Bishop immediately to elect a coadjutor to handle the diocesan responsibilities of the Presiding Bishop.

1937: The 1907 constitutional provision became a canonical provision, and the Canon was changed to require the election of a coadjutor in order to relieve the Presiding Bishop of all duties in the diocese that necessitated presence.

1943: Canon 18 was passed requiring a bishop, on election as Presiding Bishop, to resign diocesan see and jurisdiction.

Election Process

Before 1919: No election process

1919: An amendment to the constitution in 1919 required that “the House of Bishops shall choose one of the bishops having jurisdiction within the United States to be Presiding Bishop by a vote of a majority of all bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, such choice to be subject to confirmation by the House of Deputies”.

1919 to 1985: When reporting their choice to the House of Deputies the bishops did not report the number of ballots cast or the tally of votes for all nominees on each ballot. The electoral deliberations of the House of Bishops were not kept in writing

1997: Early in the Convention of 1997 the Canon on the election of the Presiding Bishop was amended to require that the number of votes cast on each ballot for each nominee be reported to the House of Deputies. As a result, the ballots in the election of Frank Griswold as Presiding Bishop in the House of Bishops later in that Convention were, for the first time, and hereafter, made public.

Throughout this long evolution it has always been clear that the office of the Presiding Bishop is part of the larger authority of the General Convention, not above it. This is unlike the role of any other Primate in the Anglican Communion. A reaffirmation of this distinction lies behind the rejection of the term “archbishop” in 1982, during the debate over adding “Primate” to the description of the office.

The work, initiation, projects, and leadership of the Presiding Bishop are always subject to the Constitution and Canons and other directions of the General Convention. The General Convention sets the course of the Church. It is the duty of the Presiding Bishop to function as pastor, executive, and prophetic voice whose statements must always be consistent with those of General Convention.


Online Archives