Have you ever read an article that comes close but never manages to tell the whole story? An article that takes you 90 percent of the way there but never quite rounds third base?
If so, you may read the joint nominating committee’s profile for the next presiding bishop of the Episcopal church and feel a sense of deja vu. Specifically, while there’s little wrong with the profile, it doesn’t tackle the real issues in finding a new presiding bishop.
So let’s explore the nominating committee’s work and try to identify areas where it misses the mark, and places where it might focus more clearly on the key issues.
Like everything in the denomination, the process for finding the next presiding bishop is tightly controlled.
The process starts with the formation of a joint nominating committee. Comprising five bishops, five clergypersons, two persons aged 16-23 appointed by the chair of the House of Delegates (CHOD), and three persons jointly selected by the presiding bishop and the CHOD, it’s fair to say the committee begins life with a level of complexity rarely possible outside the Episcopal church.
And while the five bishops and five clergy are elected by their respective houses, the nominating committee elections are closer to a Cuban election than the freewheeling elections in a European parliamentary system. So it’s not like outsiders or “loyal opposition” members will get elected.
The result is predictable, and we see it in the composition of the current committee.
Layperson of Japanese descent. Check.
Latino bishop. Check.
Transgender priest of Chinese descent. Got us a two-fer.
We even have one person from the ever-thorny Diocese of Central Florida. How’s that for inclusion?
Once the committee is formed and does the predictable navel-gazing, team-building, surveys, and interviews of past presiding bishops, it produces the profile used to screen nominations. And with the profile now in place, we are transitioning into the phase where nominations are accepted.
Speaking of, the recently completed survey reflects an indifferent electorate, with a little over 6,000 persons responding, or less than one-half percent of all church members.
That’s ironic; Roman Catholics fight to get more people involved in church decision-making, but Episcopalians can’t be bothered to take a survey.
That in itself should tell us something about the state of the denomination.
What’s in the profile?
Before we plunge into the specifics of the profile, we note one massive gap in the discussion.
The church is fond of saying, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”
In that regard, we see no effort to look with a discerning eye at Michael Curry’s tenure. That does not mean that we need to pile on, but it is fair to ask, “What has Curry done well?” “What has he done poorly?”
It’s also important to openly have that conversation.
Instead, we’re getting the predictable agitprop from the church about the looming retirement of Michael Curry, a beloved figure.
It may or may not be accurate that Curry is a beloved figure, but whether or not he’s beloved, we see little substance from his eight years in office.
Yes, he talks about racial reconciliation and justice. Yet most of that is in the form of nebulous statements about race, Building Beloved Community efforts, and other transactional solutions with nothing to show for them.
Curry’s an entertaining preacher, and his Loving, Liberating, and Life-Giving slogan sounds good.
But that’s about all we have to show for things.
Church headquarters is still at 815 Second Street in Manhattan, a costly and irrelevant Madmen-era heap built in 1962 and far too large for what’s left of the denomination. Title IV for bishops remains broken. Ethically bankrupt Todd Ousley, who wouldn’t know a pastoral response if it jumped into bed with him, is still there. Racism is alive and well in the church.
And most importantly, the church still has no strategic or spiritual direction. It just keeps lumbering along, rearranging the deck chairs, and waving goodbye to another 60,000+ members yearly.
So, having flagged that notable gap, here’s what’s in the profile:
- The world. The committee assesses the world around us in this area and identifies three priorities. They are:
- The environment
- War and conflict
- Inequality and division, including within the church.
- The church. Here, the committee identifies four challenges for the church. They are:
- Catechesis, or teaching the faith.
- Nurturing our faith.
- Adapting to change. We’ll discuss this and other issues later, but this one makes our heads explode. Specifically, flagging this issue is like saying turtles have trouble moving quickly—a banality if ever there was one.
- A presiding bishop for our time. Here, we get to what attributes the committee thinks the next presiding bishop should have. These attributes include:
- Strong leadership.
- A love for preaching and communicating.
- Canonical roles. Here, the committee maps out the responsibilities and canonical requirements for the next presiding bishop. Most of this is predictable stuff, but tellingly, one of the major sections is the discipline and management of issues related to bishops.
Our take on things
Where to begin?
For starters, most of the content in the profile conflates secondary issues with root causes.
For example, evangelism and formation are essential, but neither produces anything of consequence if root causes are not addressed. This means the church will not attract or retain members if integrity is not at the heart of everything it does. That includes existing members, who sooner or later will wander off once they recognize the gap between what the church says and what it does.
Thus, the next presiding bishop must be a person of absolute integrity. If not, they will not be an influential leader, preacher, or anything else.
In that regard, Curry has been an abject failure. He allowed the debacle with Whayne Hougland. He currently ignores numerous disciplinary issues with bishops. And he’s sandbagged legitimate complaints about bishops who flagrantly ignore church canons. “I don’t want to get involved in diocesan matters,” is the excuse that makes all but the most egregious diocesan issues safe from accountability to the larger church.
These failures have undercut Curry’s entire tenure.
It’s because no one with an ethical reference point will pay attention to Curry or the church he represents when we see such profound moral failings.
Even worse, Curry has learned nothing. Ousley is still around, ignoring Title IV requirements and turning a blind eye to problematic bishops.
Nor should it have taken an uproar in General Convention to engender the limited accountability we are seeing. The mess with Ousley and Clay Matthews, his predecessor, has been around for years, fermenting like a blob of putrid goo and contaminating everything in sight. This should have addressed long ago.
The results of Curry’s lack of integrity are evident across the church. For example, Curry holds his “Way of Love” revival meetings nationwide, but nothing is revived. Indeed, these meetings, attended largely by active church members, are nothing but feel-good events that give members the warm and fuzzies.
In other words, Curry’s preaching may be entertaining, but his hypocrisy prevents any lasting change.
To be fair, the profile talks about faithfulness, including palpable integrity. But that’s buried in the middle of things when it should be front and center. Without that, the rest is a waste of time.
As for the bit about the world around us, conflict, and the environment, spare us.
No one cares what a bunch of geriatric 1960s liberals think about these issues.
Nor, for that matter, is the church likely to offload its myriad cathedrals, churches, and offices, most of which are spectacularly energy inefficient. Indeed, most churches are Victorian or Edwardian heaps—vaguely romantic, somewhat dingy, lacking even the most basic aspects of energy efficiency, and often ill-suited to modern needs.
And given that the church cannot get its own house in order, it can hardly address racism, war, or conflict.
Similarly, the usual TEC notions of formation and evangelism are mainly worthless. We don’t see meaningful growth when formation consists of book clubs and other feel-good solutions. Indeed, listen carefully to the conversations in the parking lot after a vestry meeting or the chatter at coffee hour in an Episcopal church, and you’ll typically be treated to gossip about alleged affairs, who’s had plastic surgery, and all the other scuttlebutt that should be beneath even a basic understanding of Christianity.
So what should the church look for in its next presiding bishop?
Buried in the various threads in the joint nominating committee’s profile are a few themes we believe are critical to the success of the next presiding bishop. These include:
- A personal commitment to absolute integrity and an insistence on integrity at every level in the church. Having a clear moral compass is foundational; nothing else will succeed if that isn’t there. That means no more bishops ignoring church canons, no more ignoring abuse, no more ignoring complaints of clergy misconduct, and no more telling victims it’s their fault that their priest is behaving badly. These issues are killing the church and its witness and are non-negotiable. Young people, in particular, have zero tolerance for this sort of hypocrisy. And the more the church sneers and says, “Well, we can do whatever we want,” the faster people leave. And spare us the bit about deferring to the dioceses. When a bishop behaves badly, it needs to be addressed, and not with a golden parachute for the offender.
- Modeling the behavior the church wants to see in others. “Do what I say, not what I do,” won’t cut it. Thus, the church must fix the harm it has caused others versus ignoring its past misconduct and pronouncing, “Well, we’ve changed.” We know hundreds of people who have left the church due to misconduct, but the church’s standard approach is to sit in splendid silence. Or claim that those who insist on accountability are “harassing” the church, mentally ill, or “domestic terrorists.” It’s time to grow a spine, and start calling people who have left the church, hearing why, and making things right. The church simply can no longer afford to shrug and say, “Whatever,” when people leave. And caring about others requires an authentic response in these situations. The Way of Love doesn’t involve ignoring it when you hurt people.
- Addressing church culture. Here, the profile touches on these issues, albeit loosely. Far too often, Episcopalians do church versus being church. Indeed, many see no problem with going to Mass at 10 AM, then flipping off someone they don’t like at 11 as they peel out of the parking lot. So, the vague bit about the Way of Love isn’t adequate. Instead, we need a presiding bishop willing to say, “This is what love looks like. This is what love doesn’t look like.” Same for the church’s #metoo issues and its sordid relationship with alcohol.
- Addressing faulty theology. There are numerous problems here, but the most significant is the church’s muddled theology of forgiveness. In this arena, the Episcopal church runs on cheap grace, in which people do whatever they want. In the unlikely event they called on their behavior, these folks say, “I’m sorry,” and suddenly, everyone is supposed to forgive and forget. That doesn’t work in practice and is inconsistent with authentic Christian theology.
- Being truly inclusive. While the church loves to bloviate about inclusion, it does little to make this a reality. For example, when one of our writers published an article on shunning in the church on Episcopal Cafe in 2015, the piece garnered a near-record number of comments. Dozens of posters recounted how a priest or bishop had sidelined them for disagreeing with them, criticizing them, not supporting something they wanted approved by the vestry, or even ridiculous things, like accidentally ordering the wrong flowers for Easter. Similarly, many conservative friends have found themselves unwelcome once church members realized they had differing views on human sexuality, same-sex marriage, or issues of church governance. In short, the church imposes its own orthodoxy on members, even as it ignores the church’s historic role as a big tent for persons of varying beliefs and perspectives. Thus, to be effective, the next presiding bishop must model and define the church along historic norms, including the notion that we do not all have to agree to worship God and be in community.
Will these items be enough to turn the church around? Of course not. Much more is needed.
But they are foundational, and addressing these issues makes it possible to do other things and do them well, including evangelism and formation. Indeed, they bring credibility to the church so that it has the moral authority to address issues like racism, war, and the environment.
Of course, the good news is that a profile is, at best, a loose set of guidelines. And if the church acts with integrity — a big if — we may get a presiding bishop who addresses these foundational issues.
In that regard, we also note that Curry’s presence itself shows just how badly the process works. Ian Douglas, one of the few bishops in the denomination for whom we have no qualms about their integrity, was passed over in favor of Curry. That’s sad, as the latter’s only real qualifications are being black and preaching a good sermon. Both good things, but far short of what the church needs if it is going to survive.
Thus, if the past is a prologue to the future, it’s unlikely we will see a presiding bishop who settles down and does the hard work of leading the Episcopal church in a turnaround.
Let’s hope for the best.