Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Nominate, Pray, Take Your Chances – From the Daily Office – June 18, 2013

From the Book of Acts:

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 1:23-26 (NRSV) – June 18, 2013.)

Note: This blog has been “silent” the past few days for a variety of reasons. It was John Lennon, I believe, who observed that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” The past half-week or so has certainly been an example of that!

Drawing StrawsToday’s reading from Luke’s history of the early church details the method by which the eleven remaining apostles chose someone to replace Judas. It was a simple method: (a) identify the candidates; (b) pray; (c) take your chances. They drew lots, but they might have thrown dice, cut a deck of cards, flipped a coin, or done any number of other things that would have randomized the outcome.

There is something instructive in this lesson for Episcopalians who are now preparing for the 2015 meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church at which a new Presiding Bishop will be chosen.

The Presiding Bishop is the Episcopal Church’s chief pastor (“head cook and bottle-washer” my late stepfather would have said). He or she (our current PB is a woman) is the Primate and Metropolitan of the church, equal in rank to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the other head pastors of the several autocephalic (independent and self-governing, though related and interdependent) provinces of the Anglican Communion.

How the Presiding Bishop is selected has changed three times in the 200-plus years of the American church’s existence. Under the original 1789 constitution of the church, the Presiding Bishop was simply the senior bishop in order of consecration. He (back then it was always “he”) served until death or retirement, when the next senior bishop took over; the Presiding Bishop retained his diocesan position (and in those days a bishop was also a parish rector). His only real duties were to be chief consecrator of new bishops and to preside at meetings of the House of Bishops; there was no national church administration and, to be honest, no Anglican Communion with which to interact. Eventually, the office was made elective in 1919. The archives of the Episcopal Church tell us:

The first election of a Presiding Bishop by General Convention took place in 1925. Since 1943 the Presiding Bishop has been required to resign diocesan jurisdiction upon election. In 1967 the duties of the office were significantly enhanced. As “Chief Pastor,” the Presiding Bishop is charged with initiating and developing church policy and strategy, speaking God’s Word to the church and the world, and visiting every diocese of the church. The title “Primate” was added in 1982. The Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Washington, D.C., is the official seat of the Presiding Bishop. The office of the Presiding Bishop is located at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. The present term of office for the Presiding Bishop is nine years.

A term limitation was first imposed in 1976 when the canons were amended to provide for a twelve-year term (four triennia); this was amended in 1994 when the term was shortened to nine years. Our current Presiding Bishop was elected in 2006 and her term will end at the General Convention of 2015 when her successor will be elected.

In the past, the election has been by the House of Bishops with the House of Deputies concurring. Nominees were selected by the Bishops and the method of nomination and the balloting kept secret. At the last General Convention, it was decided that the whole church should be involved in the nomination process and a “joint commission” was created to select nominees consisting laity, clergy, and bishops. In the current budget of the church the princely sum of $226,000 is set aside for the expenses of this nominating committee. At the 2015 convention, because there has been no change in the Constitution or canons governing the process, the House of Bishops will elect and the election will be reported to the House of Deputies for its concurrence. Laity and clergy will not actually vote for the Presiding Bishop; they will “rubber stamp” the House of Bishops choice — the House of Deputies has never failed to concur in a Presiding Bishop election.

There are calls now to democratize the process further by amending the canons to provide that the PB be elected by both Houses of the General Convention, the House of Deputies voting “by orders” (which means the lay deputies and clergy deputies vote separately); to be selected, a nominee would need a majority of the votes of the bishops, a majority of clergy votes, and a majority of lay votes. (A “vote by orders” in the House of Deputies is a complicated and structurally conservative process actually requiring more than a simple majority, but that’s too much to think about this morning.)

I read about the drawing of lots by the Apostles in the first chapter of Acts and I begin to question the complication and expense of the processes we have devised . . . . Do they really work any better?

Praying and “taking your chances” has worked for the People of God throughout history, and random chance has been used to discern the divine will in many religions. For example, the I Ching (The Book of Changes) of China seeks guidance using the random tossing of yarrow stocks or the flipping of three coins to produce “hexagrams,” the meanings of which are recorded in the book. In the ancient Jewish religion, the High Priest carried two stones (or possible wooden or bone plates) in his breastplate, the Urim and Thummim, which were used to divine God’s Will; exactly what they were and how they were used is lost to history, but one speculation is that they were a sort of “holy dice” which would be cast and a message or meaning derived therefrom.

I have been told that in the tradition of some Eastern or Oriental Orthodox churches (particularly the Ethiopian church) bishops are selected by chance: the names of the eligible candidates are written on slips of paper which are put into a chalice and then one is randomly pulled out by a child. I’ve also been told that a similar method is (or was) used by the Moravians to select bishops with the interesting addition of a blank paper which, if drawn, would indicate that God was not satisfied with any of the named candidates and that the church should consider additional nominees.

It seems to me that these methods are equally as “democratic” as the expensive and complicated processes now underway in (or proposed for the future of) the Episcopal Church. We all share in such a random chance process!

Why not simply put the names of all eligible diocesan bishops (every bishop who has been in office at least five years and who will not reach mandatory retirement age before the end of the nine-year term) into a large chalice, pray, and let the youngest deputy present draw out a name? Presiding Bishop selected, complicated process and exorbitant expense avoided, and (by the way) the example of Scripture honored and followed.

Nominate, pray, take your chances! It worked for the Apostles. Surely it could work for us.


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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Secaur

    Eric, I share your distaste for the elaborate “democratic” process of election a PB. Also, diocesan episcopal elections have become shameless beauty contests with outright campaigning. The whole process disgusts me. Some wag once said anyone who wants to be a bishop should not be, and I agree with that wholeheartedly. Prince of the church, harumph.

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