Loren Mead on Episcopal Leadership and Missteps
Introduction (Thomas B. Woodward)
The Reverend Loren B. Mead is one of the heroes of the Episcopal Church for just about as long as most of us can remember. His leadership in clergy education and renewal through the Alban Institute (which he founded) has influenced generations of clergy and lay people for decades. In what follows we get an insider's view of Loren's analysis of developments and missteps in the development of our episcopal office. We are interested in your comments, following Loren's article.
What prompted the following reflections was an article sent to Loren Mead from The Episcopal Majority which dealt with the episcopacy and primates. That article prompted what follows, which is – in Loren's words – "something between a memoir and a diatribe."
I admit I'm one who still wonders when and how what I used to know as the Presiding Bishop got re-named a "Primate." I come from a diocese that once went 20 years without a bishop, then had a bishop who once went 7 years without conducting a confirmation service. (This was reported by a subsequent bishop of South Carolina, a historian, who somewhat quizzically commented on the lapse as "for reasons that seemed appropriate to him.") We were a diocese that tended to think of cathedrals as vaguely Popish, or, perhaps equally bad, "European." I come from the branch of the Episcopal Church that knows that our constitution was not shaped by the federal Constitution (the way all the confirmation classes insist), but by the form of government the United States had when the Church constitution was produced: "The Articles of Confederation." So our constitution doesn't really have an executive branch (or president); its focus is in legislative authority that is bicameral – with only vestigial executive and afterthought judicial powers, and no provision for a president or for "national" taxation or rules. So we provided for a presiding officer for each of our legislative branches, but the presiding bishop has no authority in any diocese, and can only act in a diocese by the authority of the diocesan bishop.
Too long a comment, I'm sure. But an important issue related to authority of primates. Let me continue.
Even "Presiding Bishop" was always a very "iffy" authority. I shook the hand of the first new kind of Presiding Bishop – Henry Knox Sherrill. (This is technically not exact, but it makes good copy. Somebody else had begun the transition to the new kind of presiding bishop earlier, but Henry Knox Sherrill is the one who made it stick.) He became a different kind of presiding bishop because we vastly expanded our national staff after the second world war, because that is when we started talking about "program" – like Christian education. (Remember Greenwich and Seabury House where we put an expanded education staff that wouldn't fit inside "Mission House" at "481" before 815 existed?) The Presiding Bishop became head of a staff, not just somebody who wielded the gavel at House of Bishops' meetings. Before then, our "national" stuff was Missions. Period. Overseas, mostly, but secondarily "home."
I think it was in John Hines' time that "primatial creep" set in. The instrument was the General Convention Special Program (GCSP). [Editor's note: Click here and here for some background on Bishop Hines and the GCSP of the late 1960s.] It was one of those things that simply had to be done – history demanded that we face it. You'll remember the fireworks and anxiety about national staff "interfering" with dioceses (especially dioceses in the South where racial issues were painful and keen). Primatial creep is not my name for what happened to the Presiding Bishop – but for what happened to the House of Bishops. The House of Bishops had to work with conflict between dioceses and 815. (By now it had been built. Remember, it was 1963 when it was finished and we actually had national staff located in one place.)
That – in my opinion – was when the House of Bishops first began usurping the power of the bicameral legislative process that was in our constitution. The racial issue was just too painful and sensitive, so the bishops had to take it over and negotiate through the conflict years. Maybe it had to happen, just as John Hines had to go beyond where others had gone before.
We learned that the House of Bishops could meet more often, and hence could become our special conflict management mechanism. Could "cool" off the tough issues. (Incidentally, 1963 was also the only time the Anglican Communion agreed to have a world meeting of bishops, priests, and laity. That was an opening never followed up. "Too expensive," many said. Interestingly, it was not deemed "too expensive" to have multiple meetings and retreats of the House of Bishops.)
That pressure has continued and grown, and the House of Bishops has become what this essay says is happening to the "house of primates." It has become the "hot-potato" council. Whenever a "hot potato" comes along, it's lobbed to the House of Bishops, which agrees to have a special meeting to deal with it. Remember Prayer Book controversies. Then – the biggie – the Philadelphia ordinations and the whole issue of ordination of women? Now, the Gene Robinson issue; the Anglican Communion issue.
Over the past five or six decades the Episcopal Church has been pushed to adapt its communal, family-style management into a different decision-making, consensus-building style of management. We haven't made decisions about all this. We've just suffered what I called above "primatial creep." Each crisis leads us to an adaptive response that leans more and more heavily onto the leadership of the bishops. To me, that seems to be what's happening in the Anglican Communion.
Listen! It wasn't planned. It just happened. The English didn't want a world-wide communion. Indeed, they postponed having bishops outside the Isles for 200 years. (Anglicans were in the colonies in 1607 – 400 years; but it took the Scots non-juring bishops to consecrate Seabury nearly 200 years later.) I remember being at a meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council in the 1980s I think, in Newcastle. Talk was of how to elect a new head of the ACC. I was sitting in with the committee (all male, of course, back then), and asked, "Shouldn't we have some women in this decision?" Now I realized back then that no bishops were women and no clergy were women, and in the political system of the time no woman had a chance of being elected to such a "plum" excursion if any man in her church wanted to go. I knew all that, but the response I got was an interesting one that simply stopped me cold. "Well," I was answered, "this is in keeping with our bylaws, and it's entirely fair. We have one third of our members bishops, one third clergy, and one third laity." I'd just been told by quite intelligent people that it was completely fair to eliminate half the human family from participation. As I say, it shut me up. I didn't know what to say.
That may be a discursus. But I hope it illustrates the strange way we are ruled by "custom" and are prepared to adapt only when necessity strikes.
In the Episcopal Church, necessity seems to strike when there's a serious and contentious issue at stake. The usual response is to "ooze" around the issue by tossing it to the bishops. I don't know if that's because the bishops want the power to decide it or whether the rest of us want simply to dodge responsibility for the issue, and are delighted to have the bishops take it off our hands.
As far as I can see, no really solid, careful thought has been given to our legislative, decision-making process and how it fits or doesn't fit our polity. We have been making adaptations and adjustments whose implications we have not considered. As a result, in the Episcopal Church we now have a kind of responsibility devolved upon the House of Bishops that is far beyond what our polity suggests.
And I think what's happened here is a mirror image of what's happened within the Anglican Communion.
One caveat: I've been pretty comfortable with the loosey-goosey way I've experienced Anglicanism through the 20th and into the 21st century. Some things have gone my way and some have gone a different way. If we were to decide to get 100% logical and responsible, have a new Constitutional Convention and re-design our polity, I'm not sure I'd like what the lawyers would think up. I'm not sure I want gimlet-eyed evangelical fundamentalists designing my organizational structure. And I'm not sure I want 815 to become a New York Vatican of some sort.
There. That's off my chest. There are lots of you on the mailing list that I'm trusting with a lot of half-baked stuff. Hope you find it stimulating, even if occasionally offensive.
Loren B. Mead