Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The House of Bishops: An Institutional Challenge

Let's talk about Bishops for awhile. Let's start by considering a couple of quotes. First, from our discussion of authorityin a post-modern world:

...The time of prince bishops and cardinal rectors has come and gone. Any authority as leaders they continue to express is granted to them, not by the nature of their office, but by the authority of the gathered community. And, if they fail to respond to the needs of the community, alternative authorities will be sought out...
Then there is an essay by Tobias entitled The Coinherent Bishop. Here's part of it:

...The bishop acting outside or apart from the church as an episcopus vagans is like an electric fan unplugged from its source of power. Its blades may show some signs of movement in a strong wind, but are of no effect in actually generating a breeze. And the same is true of any minister, ordered or lay, who amputated from the body of fellow-believers attempts still to function as an organ of the body.

We are, in the long run, all in this together. Lone wolves go hungry. And shepherds are nothing without their sheep.
Now, before saying any more, it is time for some disclaimers.

Most Bishops that I have known would probably admit, if pushed, that they are fully aware that their authority comes from the people. There a many highly competent and gifted leaders within the House of Bishops. Some I would even call friends. Others have been there for me as my pastor during very difficult times in my life. A few have even served as the voice that called me back when I wandered too far off the path.

I am very comfortable being "a person under the authority" of a Bishop. In some ways, I find it liberating. I am free to function as a conduit of grace, as the Bishop's representative, knowing that there is someone to whom I am accountable, and one with the authority to tell me "no," even at those times when I hadn't yet sought permission.

Having said that, there are also a few other things we may need to admit regarding our Bishops. I was at a conference last year at which one brave soul made a very interesting observation. If we consider the typical "career path" of most Bishops, they were a curate, then the vicar or rector of a small church, then rector of a large church, and then were elected Bishop. Along the way, there is no doubt that they refined many of their gifts. But rarely did they have the opportunity to create anything "new." So, when someone comes up with a "new" or "innovative" idea, especially one that might have some impact on the budget, some Bishops get nervous. To take that a step further, if you mention "church planting," you can bet you'll set off a few alarm bells. You see, unfortunately, planting new churches has acquired a big price tag. It doesn't require one, but that's what the "experts" have given it.

Beyond the expected aversion to "innovation," we also have the constant "authority" pendelum swing between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies at General Convention. The latest swing might be seen in the reaction to the way B033 was passed at GC2006. As you might recall, the actions of the House of Bishops at that Convention gave rise to a new crisis of trust.

Sensing this swing, and concerned about further loss of their authority, at GC2009 there was a motion by the youngest member of the House of Bishops, and supported by a few other Bishops, to kill a somewhat controversial resolution, and replace it with a "pastoral letter" from the Bishops. Thankfully, some of the more reasonable minds present thwarted the attempt, resulting in the passing of the piece of legislation.

So, there's just a couple of considerations regarding our Bishops for you to chew on.

Based on the above, and your own experiences, here is the question that I want you to ponder:

In your experience, overall, are Bishops a blessing or a bane?

Be kind. We do have a few folks wearing purple shirts who drop in once in awhile.


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