Monday, May 08, 2006

What On Earth Is Going On In Tennessee?

It is Monday breakfast time in Tennessee, and I expected at this moment that I would be sitting in my daughter's home in Birmingham, England, bouncing my granddaughter on my knee. Instead, due to the machinations of the airlines and the weather, I am at home and we will be making another attempt to get across the Atlantic Ocean today -- this time going through Cincinnati rather than Atlanta, and having been upgraded to the more comfortable seats "up front."

However, such unexpected time at home with nothing scheduled to fill it gives me an opportunity to ponder the last few days, which have been a marathon, and have included a failed third attempt of the Diocese of Tennessee to elect a new bishop. One bonus from the weekend is the strange sense of relief I have that one of questionable theology and ethical values was elected Bishop of California -- rather than some of the alternatives! I envy the Californians in that they were able to achieve this feat in three ballots, whereas we haven't managed to get a bishop in three meetings of the Convention.

So, what is going on in Tennessee? The truth is that we are caught on the horns of a dilemma. I think we are living with the convergence of several streams.

The first is that in August 2003 the ground shifted. The actions of the General Convention were received with anything but enthusiasm by the people of the Diocese of Tennessee. Rather than walking out the large majority of orthodox and conservative people have got themselves organized, and during the succeeding years have become a force in the diocese. This has meant major shifts in a number of the organizational facets of diocesan life.

The second is that as a diocese we have continued to attract (and develop) biblical and orthodox leadership so that today the majority of the active clergy will broadly lean in that direction. This diocese under its present leadership has been committed to a strategy of evangelism, discipleship, and growth, and the truth is that those without a biblically-shaped passion for the transforming love of the living Christ have a patchy track record and limited passion in this area of Christian ministry. We are, I think, starting to struggle with what it means to be faithful Christians in a postmodern, post-Christendom, post-denominational world.

The third is that the diocese is trapped by its past. Historically the three dioceses in Tennessee have sought a 2/3 majority in both orders to elect a new bishop; this is the first attempt to elect a bishop in Tennessee sinc 2003. What happened in Minneapolis scoured out what might be called the middle ground. The candidates in our election were not voted on in the light of who they were, but in the light of what they were perceived to represent. The outcome, therefore, was predictable polarization. Clearly, there is enormous sense in today's climate in altering the diocese's constitution to bring us into line with the rest of the church with a simple majority being required.

But we are trapped by the past in other ways, too, because retired and non-parochial clergy have the vote. It has been fascinating to see characters appear from the woodwork who haven't set foot in Tennessee for years in order to participate in an episcopal election. These priests have never met the candidates, never attended any of the any of the walkabouts, or asked any searching questions, and as a result have warped the electoral process. It is seldom that I applaud the House of Bishops, but I concur with their willingness to remove vote but not voice from their number who are no longer in active ministry. We in the Diocese of Tennessee have to come in line in the same way with this one.

What we are seeing is yesterday's tired tail wagging today's dog. The fear of many of these individuals is that the Diocese of Tennessee will leave the Episcopal Church, and for many of these retired priests do not seem to care that the denomination that they served has changed radically, neither have they listened to the responses of the candidates when challenged on this issue.

Talking with some of these older priest fascinated me, because what became clear was how lightweight and theologically fuzzy they are. As one man began a statement to me on Saturday, "It would be nice if..." and then came up with something that he did not seem to realize was way outside of the parameters of Scripture, catholic Christianity, the Book of Common Prayer, etc., etc.

I am firmly of the mind that if an ordained person does not have any responsibility or accountability to keep a diocese alive and moving forward, then that ordained person ought to be asked to prayerfully sit on the sidelines, to speak but not to vote. It has convinced me that when I retire while I intend to continue exercising a ministry, I will not engage inappropriately in the counsels of the church. I am convinced that if we were to remove this group from the electoral reckoning in Tennessee, then a very different picture would emerge.

So the task ahead of us now is to find some way of building a consensus around a candidate who is acceptable to the overwhelming orthodox majority in the diocese, but at the same time who can pick up a good proportion of the dissenting minority. I think we can see the beginnings of this happening, but no one is going to pretend it will be easy. It is frustrating that yesterday's men and women have played a dog-in-the-manger role in preventing the diocese from moving forward at a critical time, but we must accept the sovereignty of God in our circumstances and prayerfully ask him to show us how we can make something positive out of this.

This will require a lot of grace, but that grace must be accompanied by a robust theology, not the watering down to a lowest common denominator that Episcopalians are so good at. Sloppiness might solve immediate problems, but in the long term it creates a thousand other difficulties.

So, hopefully today I will head for England today to a couple of weeks of just being grandpa. While there I will be praying, dreaming, and seeking what God's will might be for us. We have clearly become a bellwether diocese, and we have to find a way of breaking free of what are now negativities from our past so that we can move forward with Gospel power into the future -- and all this within the context of leaking barque that is the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA. That is no small challenge.


Alan said...

Enjoy your trip back home, and wave to my mother's birthplace, Neath, as you pass Wales.

As long as we have people who react to the mention of the ACN in the same way a vampire reacts to a cross, and a shortage of people willing to set the facts straight, it will be very difficult to find a candidate acceptable to the laity. Perhaps the only good part of this is that the process will not really resume until after GC2006. Perhaps then the picture will be clarified a bit.


Thunder Jones said...

Hopefully the next committee will churn out more candidates. California had 7. If there was more diversity, there might be more space for concensus.

As for denying voting rights to retired clergy, that kind of waters down the idea of Holy Orders as a mark of grace. If these persons were so marked, their wisdom ought to be included as the diocese discerns together the will of God for it.

David Wilson said...

It was sad to see a man with a clear vision for and proven track record in congregational development and church planting be passed over because of the polarization that has overtaken our Church.

JonR said...

I continue to be amazed at the rather strange 'election' processes in US Dioceses. In my first Diocese the election of a new Diocesean Bishop was done by the Synod of the diocese which was made up of the licenced parish clergy and two lay reps from each parish. In my current diocese the Archbishop is elected by a panel elected by the synod. All elections have to be approved by the other Bishops in province. In regard to assistant bishops, they are appointed by the diocesan bishop.

Retired clergy do not have a vote.
Jon R.

Richard Crocker said...

Thank you for your illuminating insights, Richard. Give my regards to my home town, and my home parish!