Today’s post is part of a multipart series on Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome.
Click here for last week’s post.
Bishops Who Wannabe (Bishops)
By Ken Howard
Back when I was a Master of Divinity student at Virginia Theological Seminary, all ordination-bound seminarians were required to do two years of field work in one of the many and varied Episcopal congregations in the Washington, DC area. I did mine at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. This assignment was a blessing to me in so many ways. Among the greater of those blessings was my discovery that it was the home parish of an author and teacher I greatly respected, Verna Dozier, and perhaps the greatest blessing of all was when she consented to serve on my lay advisory committee, and eventually became a trusted mentor and a great source of hard earned wisdom.
The Sunday before I was scheduled to be ordained to the diaconate, Verna took me aside and proceeded to exact from me a solemn promise.
“Ken,” she said, “I know that you do not have a burning desire to dress in purple and wear the funny hat. But I want you to promise me that if you are ever invited to nominated to be a bishop, you will take part in the selection process.”
Of course, I asked her, “Why?”
Her answer startled me with its frankness: “Because one of the biggest problems with the Church is too many of its bishops want to be bishop.”
“There’s a reason,” she said, “why in the ordination service for a bishop, the ‘Examination of the Candidate’ is different from those in the ordination of a deacon or priest” – a fact that I had not previously noticed. She went on to explain that the difference was that in the ordination services for deacons and priests, candidates are asked if the believed they are “called” to their respective ministries, while candidates for bishop are asked if are “persuaded” that God has called them to that office. In other words, a validated sense of call is sufficient for ordination for deacon and priest, but that a calling to the episcopate should be the result of some arm twisting, and that having ordination to the Episcopate as a career goal ought to disqualifying.
In my 25 years of ordination, I have been invited three times to allow my name to be placed in nomination for the bishop of a diocese. How did it go? The short answer is: I am still a priest. The slightly longer answer is that I advanced various distances into the process – once as far as the short list – before either dropping out (twice) or being dropped (once). In all three cases, the reason I did not advance further was my need to voice uncomfortable truths: dropping out in order to speak the truth to the powers that be; being dropped as a result of a truthful answer to the question, “If you were to be elected bishop, what would do in your first five years.”
My point is this: In all three cases, there was a truth that needed to be told. And were I not to some degree indifferent to the office (if I “needed” or “wanted” to be a bishop), I am not so sure I would have found the wherewithal to speak it.
What ought to be the appropriate attitude of clergy toward the Episcopate as a calling? Church history is informative on this point.
The way we view those ministries today is hierarchical:
But the way the Early Church understood their relationship was non-hierarchical and based on a person’s gifts:
Bishop – Priest – Deacon
Bishops were gifted in promoting a sense of unity among the Christians in a city, town, or region, and in identifying and ordaining the gifts of priests and deacons. Priests were gifted in gathering and pastoring a community of believers, and in leading them in worship. Deacons were gifted in service, and especially gifted in calling the gathered community to serve those outside the Church. In early Celtic Christian tradition, bishops usually placed themselves under spiritual direction of an abbot or abbess. Perhaps one of the best examples of healthy attitude toward the episcopate was Martin of Tours – who had to be not just persuaded but tricked into showing up at the cathedral to submit to his election, yet even then did so with three conditions:
- When processing as a bishop he would not wear the mitre (the funny hat) but carry it.
- When seated in the cathedral, he would not sit in the episcopal throne but next to it on a stool.
- When not functioning as bishop, he would be permitted to reside in his hermit cave by the river.
Such a humble witness. And yet so powerful that the growth of the church in Gaul under his leadership was often called by the larger Church “the Great Barbarian Conversion.”
Would that more bishops were like Martin…