I’ll be honest. I have trouble with authority figures, always have (see top ten reasons I’d be a Lousy Bishop in this website Reason #7 I have Trouble with Authority Figures). I thus offer this observation acknowledging that hang-up. Still, I’ve got a good set of eyes, a decent mind, and some substantial experience. All this combined yesterday at the election of a new bishop I attended. The thing went well. My diocese has a new prelate. I was glad I went.
Still, the event troubled me. Frankly, my church’s relationship with bishops troubles me. Hold on to your mitres and crozier. Here we go.
We elect our bishops in the Episcopal church and have for a very long time. That’s a good thing. When a current bishop announces his or her retirement, a very involved process goes into motion to select candidates, vet them, present them to the diocese, and then elect them.
This is a good thing. It went well in my diocese. They presented good candidates. The voting with electronic clickers went well and it was over about as soon as it started. So, where’s the problem Fr. Polley. Why doth thou consternate so with regard to the ancient office of episkopos? Hast thou stopped taking thy medicine?
Episkopos. It’s a Greek word for overseer. That’s one of my problems. I don’t want to be overseen. I was overseen by my several bishops during my church career. And now I’m overseen by my principal. I’m not happy with either arrangement. I’m grown-up, well-trained, and have a lot of experience. I would much prefer that I be collaborated with, participated with, engaged with regarding the challenges that face the church and education. But overseer? Really? We’re going to use that word in this country given its more prominent and tragic use? We can do better. Let’s do better. Change the damn word.
Bishop’s are supposed to be shepherds too. That’s why they carry the stick that’s called the crozier that’s supposed to be represent the office of chief pastor. Usually the sticks are far too valuable to take out to the sheep ranch. Jewels might fall off and such. I don’t care how fancy the crozier is. I don’t want to be shepherded by anyone or anything. I’m not a sheep. I’m not even a horse or a gazelle. I would like to be a dolphin though or an eagle. I love to watch eagles and hawks fly …. Sorry.
In the Episcopal Church you got a bunch of highly educated, mostly Anglo, and well-heeled folks who have done pretty well for themselves in certain categories like smarts and school and success. They need a shepherd? To do what? To get them to pray correctly? To know when to kneel, sit, and stand? They run major businesses, write columns, teach school, run schools, build schools, hold office, invest people’s money, clean their teeth, pull their teeth, replace their teeth, replace their kidneys, change the bandages after the kidneys get replaced. Am I leaving anything out? YES. These people need a shepherd to tell them what to do? They need a shepherd’s blue heeler to nip at their heals so they can move in the right direction? I don’t think so. I think they need someone skilled enough to tap into their significant gifts and help direct those gifts to the Revolution that is Christ. That’s what I think.
Yesterday, when our bishop announced the successful election of our new bishop, a great roar erupted in the church. I am not making this up. If you were there, you know of what I write. I felt like I was at a Diamond Back game or watching my Bisbee Pumas on Friday night. People, Episcopalians don’t roar out about anything. But this was a roar. A person in front of me threw her hands up as if someone had made an impossible catch in the end-zone with no time out. It surprised me and troubled me enough to pen this blog. Now, I get that there was a significant amount of relief that the process worked and there wasn’t any ecclesiastical drama. For those unfamiliar with Episcopal elections-and the Episcopal Church in general- there can be drama.
I thought to myself, what explains this outcry? What do people expect that this new bishop will do? She’s one person. She’s got a new job with responsibilities that I think are important, but that kind of emotional out pour because we hired a new bishop? Really? Do we yell like that at a baptism? At a wedding? When a penitent has been reconciled? When someone transitions to their final reward? When a teenager gets through a challenging reading in front of a bunch of chilly grownups? (probably not a good idea to do it then, not if you want the kid to ever read in church again.)
We are one of the most sophisticated churches in the country with some of the deepest assets, financially and otherwise. Yet as daily practitioners of faith, too many of our people lack maturity and a depth of understanding about their religion. I’ll never forget an informal conversation I had with the diocesan chancellor (attorney) of another diocese. This person was well-respected and successful and had grown up in the Episcopal Church and went to church regularly. I mentioned the term ‘spiritual journey’ and he asked flat out, ‘what’s a spiritual journey?’ How does that happen? People in Episcopal leadership that I know, bemoan the low level of spiritual and theological and biblical proficiency among our faithful. How does that failure relate to our high regard for our church’s highest office? Our high esteem for clergy collars and mitres (bishop’s hat) explains, in part, the outcome we have. I worry that our fascination and commitment to maintaining the ‘top-heavy’ nature of our church cedes and replaces the important discipleship we must embrace if we are to face the coming storms as faithfully as possible.
I’m probably over analyzing the ‘election roar’ I heard yesterday. My mother would say I over analyze everything and that I worry too much. But my ears still ring from the noise. I wish the very best for the new bishop. It must be a helluva job and I hope she handles it well. Mostly, I hope she can jettison any understanding that she is responsible for my Christian practice and leave that responsibility to me. I would like her help with it and could use some encouragement and support in that regard. But unless she’s going to take my place-and my licks- when I have my postmortem evaluation with JC, then I hope she understands the words collaborator and co-Revolutionist and leaves the shepherding to the real shepherds and the word overseer to the history books.