It seems like just yesterday the collective church was unified in an anticipatory buzz as we awaited the slate of nominees for Presiding Bishop. Who will lead us into the future? Who has a vision that will call us back to our mission and energize us for the next triennium?
And then, the slate of candidates came out.
We are blessed to have four, highly qualified candidates who have offered their service. They are prayerful servants of the Gospel who will continue to serve Christ’s Church well. And yet the conversation throughout the church seems to be as much about who is not running, as it is about those who are. There are half a dozen names that people were shocked didn’t make the cut. There has been great discussion as to whether or not there “should” have been a woman on the list. A comparison with elections past suggests that fewer bishops wanted to have their names placed in nomination this time around. There were seven candidates in 2006. In 1996 six were originally nominated.
Given these realities, it seems worth stopping to think about whether this job is sustainable, not just for the individual elected to serve, but for us, as the body of Christ.
What about our common life as the church has made this position increasingly polarizing?
Part of the issue is endemic to the position itself. Because the Church’s polity was constructed at the same time and in the same manner as the United States government, the temptation to equate the Presiding Bishop to the country’s President is real. But we must remember that the Presiding Bishop serves as first among equals, serving alongside the bishops who elect her or him after much prayer and consideration of the ways in which the Holy Spirit is moving within the church. Presiding Bishops don’t run a campaign that promise to make our lives easier and instantly better. They serve in a theological capacity and a qualitatively different role from that of one in a political office.
The polarization that marks both our politics and our church have not helped one bit. We as a society have come to expect division, and even tolerate unchristian and vicious attacks of character. The digital age has only magnified and accelerated this trend, replacing hastily written words with face to face conversation. It takes great courage to agree to serve in an age and environment such as this.
At the core of the problem, though, is anxiety: anxiety about the future of the church, about declining numbers and budgets, about division over hot-button issues of the day. Too often the Presiding Bishop has become to focal point of our anxiety and projections. What if we rededicate ourselves to trusting the God who has called us into mission? As opposed to treating our Presiding Bishop as a scapegoat who will take all of our anxieties about life in the church into the wilderness and die with them, might we be so bold as to recommit ourselves to praying for the individual who is called to serve. This is our best assurance that creative, visionary bishops will continue to be willing to serve in this capacity.