Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Thoughts on electing a bishop

Bishop-Elect John Bauerschmidt

Over the last months all sorts of folks have asked why it has been so difficult for us to elect a new bishop in the Diocese of Tennessee. Now that the election is over, and Dr. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop-Elect, perhaps it is a good time to give some thought to this and related questions.

The first and most obvious answer is that we are one of the few dioceses that require at super-majority of 2/3 in each order for an election. This has sometimes been difficult to achieve at the best of times, but when the church is struggling to rethink itself in the wake of the actions of the August 2003 General Convention, this becomes progressively more difficult.

While we in Tennessee have been have been engaged in the battles that have riven the whole church, we aren't any more divided and polarized than most dioceses, indeed, I would suggest we might be in somewhat better shape than many. While people squirm in discomfort at either end of the spectrum, under the leadership of Bertram Herlong, despite the tensions, and seeking to be open to God's Spirit, we are remarkably together.I don't want to pretend more than the facts can stand, but in Tennessee there has been no terrorizing or punative use of canons, and even if one group predominates electorally there has been little if any misuse of power. Yes, tempers have been frayed and relationships are strained, which has been sad and difficult, but much of the reason for this has been that the equilibrium that existed prior to August 2003 was destroyed.

Furthermore, if in episcopal elections the Diocese of Tennessee had been a simple majority diocese like most others, then we would probably have elected at the first meeting of the diocesan convention last winter, and would have been moving ahead under fresh leadership by this point. As one friend from another diocese said of our super-majority system, "It is down right un-American!"

But much more than electoral politics has been playing itself out. This was a different kind of election because it involved a far more careful examination of theology and ideology. During my thirty years as a priest of this church I have watched with fascination and disbelief when in episcopal elections so few of what I would consider to be the vital questions have been asked of the candidates.

Many years ago I was asked to run in an episcopal election in a diocese with what I considered to be an exciting profile of what it wanted from its next bishop. Not surprisingly I didn't get very far, but I was far closer to what the diocese said it wanted than the successful candidate, but his charm offensive was unbeatable. The tragedy is that Episcopalians have generally been so untutored in the basics of the faith that they have tended to judge potential leaders in much the same way that they would elect the homecoming king or queen.

One of the few positives since 2003 has been that in Tennessee theology has moved higher up the pecking order. When someone is being elected to any office these days there are important theological questions that have to be asked, and these must not be sidestepped -- being nice is no longer enough. The truth is that during the last several generations mainline Christianity has turned itself into a theological wasteland, cut adrift from its roots in creedal Christianity and the catholic faith.

When I play a part by my vote of placing someone in any kind of office in the church these days I want to know about their relationship with Jesus Christ, and I want to know their convictions about the cardinal doctrines of the faith. I am concerned to know about their personal lives, and whether they match up to the standards for leadership that are outlined in the New Testament, and I am interested to know what they understand the mission of the church to be as well as the place and authority of the Scriptures.

I do not think we can be too demanding when selecting our leaders -- whether on the ecclesiastical or the secular playing field. I am certainly extraordinarily choosy about those seeking government office, and in one recent local election abstained in some races completely because none of the candidates seemed to measure up. If I expect much from those who represent me in the State Assembly and Congress, then surely I should expect much from those who lead me in the Body of Christ as Scripture proclaims?

We are very good at pointing the finger and laying blame. When looking at the mess that the Episcopal Church has become there is plenty of blame to go around, but seldom have those of us who seek to be obedient to the faith once delivered to the saints looked at ourselves and our own responsibility for this state of affairs, yet this is where we should begin.

Our failure has often been more a sin of omission than commission, for we have been sloppy about attending important gatherings and until it was too late have not been eager to run for elected office. When the biblical truth has been dragged through the dirt in church gatherings we have either remained silent or have defended it so badly that we have done more harm than good. We have put our own little corner of God's vineyard or our own segment of church life, before engagement in and with the whole church -- uncomfortable and unpalatable as activity in the wider church might be.

Would things have turned out differently if we had done some of these things? Yes, possibly, I think so. But whether things would have turned out differently or not is not the issue. We have been baptized, confirmed, and some of us ordained, as members of all the church, but we have not always wanted to engage with the whole church.

But now I have drifted a long way from my starting point. Today, October 31, is the last day in office for Bertram Nelson Herlong as Bishop of Tennessee, and tomorrow he transfers to the rolls of the Church Pension Fund after a long and faithful ministry. At the weekend we elected John C. Bauerschmidt to be the 11th Bishop of Tennessee. One era in our diocese has ended and another is about to begin. Already there are many of us prepared to gather around our new bishop and give him all the support that he needs and deserves if he is to lead us faithfully for a good chunk of the next quarter century. What we can be sure of is that when he retires from office North American Anglicanism will look profoundly different from what it is today.


chris said...

...handsome man, reminds me of Steve Martin! *lol* Is he german?

Timothy Fountain said...

Somebody needs to ask the Bishop-elect about the following: "Hey, puddin' head!"