Friday, June 5, 2009

The Role of Bishop

It appears that The Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester cannot receive enough votes from standing committees in the Episcopal Church to be consecrated as bishop of Northern Michigan. Not since the 1930s has an elected bishop gone unseated. I'm unclear (as many are) as to what this will mean for the Church, and how it might affect General Convention.

There has been a lot of public statements and letters discussing the Bishop-Elect, for and against his consent (including his own letter stating his case.) I have a lot to still read, but I've always been fundamentally against withholding consent of any Diocesan election where the canons of the church are followed. If a Diocese chooses to elect someone Bishop, and the procedure is transparent and follows the rules, then I see little ground for withholding consent. (Some have raised issues with Northern Michigan's process, but I have yet to be convinced that it was improper).

There are lots of links for yourself.

One response was from Dr. Lewis Weil, the Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific. The article and full letter can be found here, on Episcopal Cafe.

Dr. Weil's letter is fascinating on so many accounts, as he writes specifically to the liturgical experimentation that has caused the bulk of the trouble for the Bishop-Elect (much more-so than practicing Buddhist meditation, which has upset some as well). It is well written and compelling for those concerned with Forrester's experimental Baptism liturgy.

What really strikes me is the powerful quoting of Raymond Brown's work on the role of a Bishop.

You mention that the question has been raised about the distinction between the ministries of bishops and those or priests, with bishops being understood as “guardians of the faith.” Speaking historically, certainly this has been an important dimension of the episcopal ministry. But for me, I must bring to this question the work of the late Raymond Brown on this question. Probably some thirty years ago he published a very important little book titled Priest and Bishop. In it, and on the basis of his substantial work on the books of the New Testament, Brown proposed a missionary model for the episcopate. He calls for the bishop to exercise the radical ministry implied in the ancient title pontifex — bridge builder. In this model, the bishop is the one who is reaching out into the expanding edges of the community, and who then interprets the various voices in the Church to each other in order to build up the unity of the Body which transcends such differences as progressive and conservative. The priests, on the other hand, Brown sees as the resident pastors, those charged with the building up and nourishment of the local communities, and in that sense the conservators of the tradition. For the episcopate, I would hope that, given the needs of the church in our own post Christian world, Brown’s interpretation of the episcopate might be given fuller expression.

"Bridge Builder" really stands out as a critical addition to the "guardian of faith" that has been so used in my lifetime. Suggesting that the priests, as pastors, are "the conservators of the tradition" as they build up and nourish the local communities, and the Bishop is "reaching out into the expanding edges of the community, and who then interprets the various voices in the Church to each other in order to build up the unity of the Body" is a thoughtful and exciting twist for the future of the Church.

This really makes me think: could it be that in recent times the position of Bishop (from the focus on who gets to be a Bishop to the actual Bishops themselves) has leaned too heavily on "the guardian of faith"???

It appears so to me. I believe that this weight has come down hard on many Episcopal Bishops...potentially paralyzing them from "reaching out into the expanding edges of the community" as Brown suggested is their obligation. We can't build bridges by making promises to circumvent the development of these edges, and we can't simply reject legitimately elected leaders that might make us uncomfortable.

If we do, we'll not only miss out on those God is calling to be Bishops...we'll undermine the specific leadership that's needed from the episcopacy.


Fran said...

Some of what has been really interesting in Northern Michigan (and which has not been in the reporting of the issues around Kevin) has been the idea of an embedded bishop. A bishop in the community, not isolated. We used an article by Stephen Charleston written about 20 years ago in MN, exploring a more integrated bishop. I like how that fits with the idea of bridge-builder.

Jen Carbonneau said...

It amazes me that politics, if you will, seem to motivate every aspect of community. Sometimes I find that the most sensible, right solutions and approaches are never within the scope of "the powers that be." Is it appearances that motive decisions, or is it what is best for a community, be it a school, church, town, or nation?