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Evolution of the bishop's mitre


When I first came to the United Kingdom, and began to be involved in the Church of England Diocese of Southwark, I often compared how things are done here with how things were done in the Episcopal Church. I was quickly made aware that what the Colonials do was not applicable to what is done here. So I stopped suggesting ways of being church that I thought were pertinent to the Church here.

Recently the Diocese of Llandaff in Wales found itself without a Bishop. So, the Electoral College for a Bishop was convened. Six people from the Diocese found themselves sworn to secrecy along with various Welsh bishops and the Archbishop's Registrar and Registrar's Assistant. They would elect a new Bishop of Llandaff in the utmost secrecy.

The people from Llandaff had decided that the Very Rev'd Jeffrey John, a serial "loser" in Episcopal appointment, would be a dandy bishop. The difficulty is that John, who is Dean of St. Albans, is an openly-gay man, in a civil partnership with another priest, though a chaste one.

The Electoral College could not agree on a name to be chosen as Bishop of Llandaff, and dissolved itself. The Bishops of Wales will now get together and agree a new Bishop among themselves. They have declared that all previous candidates will not get a look-in.

Except...except...someone snitched. A leak from the Electoral College proved crucial, since it was said that Dean John was the subject of homophobic and abusive speech within the College. It seems that, although the newly-retired Archbishop of Wales said that lesbian and gay clergy could be ordained deacon, priest, and chosen as bishops, his writ did not extend to Llandaff.

Dean John has gone public with a letter to the Welsh bishops complaining about his treatment within the Electoral College. The Bishop of Swansea and Brecon, the senior Bishop while a new Archbishop is being chosen, would rather get after the person who leaked information from the College deliberations than condemn the homophobic remarks made in the meeting.

Dean John was chosen Bishop of Reading in Oxford Diocese (a subordinate Bishop) in 2003, but then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams forced him to resign the appointment since John was in a gay relationship. He was also one of those under consideration for Bishop of Southwark when it fell vacant some years ago. A leak from that meeting by the Very Rev'd Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark, a leak made on Dean Slee's deathbed, showed that machinations from the Archbishops scuppered the choice of John put forward by the members of the meeting from the Diocese (the C of E method of choosing Diocesan bishops is similar to the one of the Church in Wales, at least in its initial phase).

Now it seems to me that the oxygen of publicity could assist in making the will of the Holy Spirit as regards Episcopal appointments manifest. The method of choosing bishops in Wales and England is secret, with nothing being officially said until the Queen's choice is announced by Downing Street or by the Bishops of Wales. It very much reminds me of the method of choosing scholars at Oxford and Cambridge to try out for the Security Services MI5 and MI6. Someone, usually a professor, invites them to his/her room for a sherry and suggests that they should consider a career as a spy.

Bishop's Mitre


The fiction that the Queen selects bishops is still maintained, even though no Supreme Governor of the Church of England has chosen a bishop on their own since perhaps Queen Anne's reign. So how should bishops be chosen?

The Church of England and Church in Wales both have synodical governance. That is, there is a legislature in each diocese and in the Churches as a whole. These synods approve budgets and accounts, set diocesan policy, and see that it's carried out by the diocesan authorities. In The Episcopal Church, each diocese holds a Convention once a year or so to do the same functions, and the Church as a whole has a General Convention once every three years.

When an American Bishop is to be chosen, the serving bishop calls for a special electoral convention to elect a bishop. A Nominating Committee is chosen and, after a suitable interval, several names of qualified candidates are announced. If enough of the electors wish, other candidates can be nominated from the floor of the convention.

Then a dog-and-pony show of the candidates tours the diocese so that Episcopalians in each area can meet the candidates and ask them questions. The Electing Convention then meets and votes in two Houses, the House of Clergy and House of Laity, for the candidates. When a candidate gets a majority in both houses, s/he is elected bishop.

It doesn't stop there. The Bishops with jurisdiction (Diocesan Bishops and the Presiding Bishop) are asked to give consent to the election. The Standing Committee of each Diocese (the Board of Directors equivalent) is also asked to give consent. A majority of each group must consent for the election to be valid. As Bishops are chosen for the entire Church, this process ensures that the entire Church believes that the candidate will make a good bishop.

All of these activities except for the Nominating Committee's deliberations are held in public. The dog-and-pony show is public. The convention is public. The consent process (at least the results of it) is public. If insults of whatever kind from whatever source are made, they are made and can be challenged in public.

Had the Church in Wales had a similar process, the insults aimed at Dean John would not have happened.

There are objections to opening up the Episcopal election process here in the C of E. One is that it would cut out the Queen and the Prime Minister from the process. Well, at the moment a Committee meets and selects two names to submit to the Prime Minister as candidates for Bishop. The PM selects the first one, and then communicates with the Queen, who appoints that person as bishop and then directs the Cathedral Chapter of that Diocese to elect him or her as bishop. There are penalties if a Chapter or a member of a Chapter does not vote for the Queen's candidate. Perhaps it's time to turn the tables and have the Diocesan Synod choose a Bishop and direct the Queen to appoint him or her.

National consent could be gained at one of the tri-yearly meetings of General Synod. Of course, this would also be a public activity.

Another objection is that it would reduce the C of E appointments process to a grubby election campaign, and that candidates who are good politickers would have an advantage over mere saintly candidates. Well, politicking goes on today; it's just sub rosa. The Archbishops keep a list of promising priests who they think are Episcopal timber. If you're on that list, the Archbishop's Appointments Committee can invite you in for "a glass of sherry and the suggestion that you might want to be considered as Bishop of East Gorgeous Diocese". I am certain that politics plays a large part in the composing of that list. Of course, it's all done in secret.

The American process does occasionally hit a sour note. The former Bishop of South Carolina did not get the required consents first time around. The Diocesan Convention resubmitted the candidate's name, and he got consents the second time around. A couple of years later this Bishop took the Diocese out of the Episcopal Church (there is currently a lot of litigation going on and he may be forced to return all the churches and property to the Episcopal Church as a whole). In addition, several bishops have been elected and consents gained, and then turned out to be crap at bishopping. Sometimes this has led to negotiations on a severance deal just to get the bishop to resign.

But, of course, the C of E process also turns out people who are crap at bishopping. They do it in secret rather than in public. Many have remarked that the Bench of Bishops these days is, with only one or two exceptions, filled with time-serving bureaucrats who cannot hold a candle to such luminaries of the past as Archbishops William Temple and Michael Ramsey. No appointments process will be perfect.

Publicity could have a large role in making the selection of bishops a process of which both the people and the Church as a whole can be proud.

August 2017

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