On electing bishops

A good friend just stood for election and when the day came she was not elected bishop. She joins a quite large company, for the number of people who stand for election is probably 4 to 6 times larger than the number elected. I am a member of this gang of folk, having been on the ballot in two elections and not elected. 

Some observations about this bishop election thing. 

The election of a bishop is unlike the "process" by which one becomes part of the other two orders in ordained ministry. 

Deacons and Priests are ordered in the context of a process, and although various groups have to assent to the ordination, there is no sense of "election" by electors. The whole matter is treated as an exploration into vocation, with all the parties concerned working through what that might mean. When sufficient voice is found for ordination, it happens. Ordination is not usually accompanied by competition with other "candidates."  At the most the competition is with some larger concerns about deployment and particular call to ministry as a deacon or priest.  

With the election (or in other systems appointment)  of a bishop, the sense of exploration of vocation is greatly diminished and the sense of competition for a "seat" greatly increased.  It is not, "are you a good candidate for the office of priest?"  it is "are you the right person to be our bishop?" It gets personal, direct, competitive and ends with one person being "winner," and the rest (at the best) "also rans."

The parallel to the election of a bishop is not ordination as a deacon or priest, but the election of a rector or a dean.  That is, bishops are not so much the product of vocational discernment as they are a product of a search process. They are not in that sense a third vocational order, they are products of institutional search and board election. 

As with the election of a rector, the election of a bishop is confusing because it seems so personal (particularly the rejection) and yet it is couched in such good ecclesiastical language of discernment and vocation. The "no" by the electors gets confused with the "yes" of the discerned call to ministry.

A good friend who stood for rector in perhaps 15 parishes and got elected rector to three, said about rejection, "what I learned is it wasn't personal. The electors could not have known enough about me to reject me, they knew enough about themselves to find someone else to their liking."  I took comfort in that observation, but it didn't help a lot.

The problem of election or appointment as bishop is that it seems to be a conversation about a vocation, as in "are you called to be bishop?" But it happens in the context of search and seizure, of competition for a post.  When we were asked if we were called to the order of priest, it was not this or that particular posting, but to the order. When we are candidates for bishop it is to place.  

This by the way is one of the big problems with the Mark Lawrence types in the land of bishops. They don't get it. They are elected to a specific time and place of ministry, to a "position."

Had I been more willing to see election as bishop as a matter of competition rather than vocational discernment I suppose I might have made appropriate choices both over the years and in the immediate context of election, and might well have been elected.  But I did not choose work on the basis of it getting me to a particular place, nor did I campaign very much. Oh well.

I suspect most of us who have stood for election as bishop, as I do, look occasionally a the work done by the one who was elected and think, "I would have done differently," or even "I would have done better." But that passes quickly, thank God, for aside from its prideful spirit it is also mostly a fiction. 

Thinking about what we might have done in jobs not offered is an unpleasant exercise. In particular the work of the bishop is shaped by many forces and God only knows (really) what any of us might do if we were really in that position. The heat of the kitchen leads to unpredictable situations.

St.Martha, the tired.
Still, I find myself needing to remember that being bishop is sort of like taking the position of running the kitchen, believing that if folks want to eat, that position is one of considerable importance. 

And running the kitchen is a full time affair. But I am of a mind to believe that it is sometimes the better part to be able to sit at the table listening to that strange wonderful friend who tells us all who we really are.

It turns out that the "also rans" have time to play the better part, the Mary part, not having to be busy with many things. At any event the person closest to me in this world believes I should thank God regularly that I don't have to run the kitchen.

Here is to Martha, and all the bishops who have to stand the heat of the kitchen. We Mary types are listening to our friend, and sometime wonder when dinner is coming. We need to remember to thank you for standing for, and being, elected.

And although it is seldom mentioned, Martha is a saint... just a very tired one. 


The Leverage of Prayer

Yesterday I preached at St. Peter's Lewes. The subject was prayer. It was a difficult sermon to write and I did so carefully, and read it more or less as written here. The opportunity for pastoral or theological missteps are many and the possibilities for heresy abound. Which is why, I suppose, sermons on prayer are few and far between. While not really satisfied with the sermon I believe there is something about the "leverage of the suffering of the world" that rings true. Well, here it is.

The Leverage of Prayer

Sunday August 17, 2014

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has urged all of us, as Episcopalians, to observe this Sunday, Sunday, August 17, as a day of prayer for those in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East living in fear of their lives, livelihoods, and ways of living and believing.  

I am glad she has done so. We pray weekly for peace and an end of all wars. But the invitation to be specific in our prayers is always welcome.  We will indeed pray at the time of the prayer of the people, for all the people of Iraq and other countries in the Middle East who are suffering, including those in Gaza and Israel.

We don’t often talk about what it is we pray for and why.

We all, you and I, have a prayer life, and that we do indeed pray for justice, mercy and peace in a whole variety of ways, privately and publicly.  And we pray for people we know and people we don’t. . To the extent that we can, we pray without ceasing.  When I have been asked in various job interviews about my spiritual life, I say “I have a rich spiritual life, but it is somewhat chaotic.” And so it is, but I am aware of being at prayer a lot of the time, seeing the world through the burden of this or that concern in prayer.  I suspect you do to.

For a moment, let’s think about prayer as it relates the troubling events of the world. There are many troubles these days.  Just to name some, the terrible conflicts in Gaza and Israel, the struggles that are reconfiguring the power and state maps throughout the Middle East all of which are devastating to life and peace, and for the concerns for peace with the US in places where police and local citizens have clashed. Add to that our concerns and prayers for those who suffer and die the uneasy deaths of suicide and despair, or from violence by those who were meant to be protectors.You have other things to add to this list I am sure.

How are we to pray? What do we pray for? What does our hope, as Christians, offer us?  Where does the Gospel lead us regarding such concerns?

Well, Carlyle Gill or one of the other notable praying folk here in the parish can take us there.  We could use a wider conversation about prayer.  But that is not my job here. Here let’s look at some immediate help regarding prayer in the Gospel today.

When we pray it is good to remember that on a whole variety of accounts we are like the woman who prays, begs, cajoles, pleas for her daughter. She has no “standing” no passport, no creditability before Jesus except that of faith. The faith is not, by the way, that Jesus could heal – she knows he can heal. Rather the faith was that Jesus would yield.  The woman believed that if she kept at it, her argument would carry the day – and her argument was simple: her child needed healing.

It didn’t matter whether she was pure, or undefiled, or part of the people Israel. She was none of those. She was a Canaanite woman, a member of a people known to be defiled, unclean and idolaters.  So be it. But she wasn’t arguing from any position of her own. She had no leverage, save the suffering of her child.

You and I in our prayers might do well to remember this woman and her prayers and demands. The leverage for our prayers is the suffering of the world, which suffering, we believe, demands God’s attention. It is not about our right to expect anything from God, its about our right, and perhaps duty, to petition God.

Many have said, “If God allows suffering, what makes us think our prayers have any value. Suffering just is. We can’t all expect our prayers to be answered.”

True, suffering just is. It just is. And we have no right to expect miracle or intervention or alleviation of suffering.  That may come, but it is not something we have a right to expect.

What we have is the right of petition, of prayer. We have the right to ask for what we want for the suffering of the world.

And our faith is that that right of petition will be heard, and that at the last will be acted on. One of the reasons Christians talk about the end of the age, the return of Christ, is that we believe at the last all will be made right, and all tears will be wiped away. There will be a great getting up morning when we will see justice done, the truth prevail, and mercy done.

But in the meantime we need to be clear: we pray for the suffering of the world, and our license is that suffering itself.  

And in doing so we need to pray that we might be instruments, as much as possible, for the relief of that suffering. Because, until that great getting up morning, we are the immediately available expression of God’s love and care of the suffering.

That is why, for example, when people come to our side chapel for healing prayers for others we often anoint the one who comes, that she or he might be an instrument of healing for the one whose name they have brought forward. 

The faith of that Canaanite woman was the faith that the Word- God, Jesus- would yield and attend to the child.  She asked for, and received intervention.  Of course she was intervening herself. She was an instrument of healing, along with Jesus.

Remember another occasion Jesus said to another stranger and foreigner, the one blind man who turned back to give thanks, “go, your faith has made you whole.”  In our pleas for those who suffer, we become part of the healing. Our faith becomes part of the universal plea for healing.

How much do we really want peace, justice and mercy in the world? Enough to plea constantly for it, not counting the cost, demanding of God (from whom we have no natural right to be heard), constant in the faith that God will yield to the suffering of the world,  expressed in the prayers of poor sinners like you and like me? Are we willing to pray without ceasing?

Our prayers in times of great difficulties in the world need to be accompanied by a constant push against all voices that say that we have no right to be heard, filled with the faith that our prayers have the authority that belongs to the suffering world.

There are spiritual models for this constant persistent prayer. Gandhi believed that if the objective was true and just and the constant prayer of millions was for that end even unthinking and brutal imperial powers would have to yield. At the last truth, peace and mercy would prevail. What would it be like for the whole world to pray for peace NOW?

I think too that our prayers find their greatest strength in our willingness to be the justice, peace and mercy we pray for. 

Jesus says it is not what we take in (our practices, diets, even misplaced invocation of false gods) that defiles us. It is what proceeds from us that defiles – and there the list is about our evil intentions (I have a few, I suspect you do to).  And the opposite is true as well, it is what proceeds from us that glorifies.  In some traditions when a preacher prays, and the prayer rings true, members of the congregation, or the preacher herself will shout, “Glory!”  The prayer that is pure in intention is a source of glory.

Our prayers need to come forth from our mouths with pure intention.  Which means, dear friends, that we cannot pray for justice and practice injustice, we cannot pray for peace and have hate in our hearts, we cannot pray for mercy and comfort when we given none.

It is for this reason that the hidden meaning of our prayers for the world are found in our willingness to engage the world with purity of heart.

A friend, Chris Brennan Lee writes a blog called People’s Prayers.  She begins this week with a short paragraph that pretty well sums up the matter of prayer for the suffering of the world.

“It is definitely not my job to decide who is the right type to be chosen, that is all God's domain and God chooses even those I don't think are right. But it is my job to speak up and out, loudly and with conviction, persistently and continuously to God and to everyone else whenever a wrong must be righted, a truth must be told, and a life must be saved. Giving voice to our faith, speaking the good of our hearts through the opening of our mouths, let us do our jobs to care for our children and, for anyone who is a child of God. Let the crumbs fall where they may.”

Let us do our job… to pray unceasingly for the suffering of the world, leveraged by that suffering itself, and by purity of heart.  AMEN.


The call for Nominations for Presiding Bishop.

The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop (JNCEP) has issued a call for nominations for Presiding Bishop. Read it HERE.

The Call for Discernment and Profile are HERE.

The JNCEP is to be congratulated on a very good call for nominations. It is an informative and useful introduction to the qualities sought in nominations. It is a very good document.

One qualification :

In the Call for Discernment and Profile the JNCEP states, 

"Canonical Qualifications:
The Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons do not set any limitations or requirements on which Bishops of the Church may serve as Presiding Bishop. Any Bishop of the Episcopal Church on the day nominations are received in a Joint Session of the House of Deputies and House of Bishops at General Convention is eligible, subject to being nominated in accordance with the Canons and processes prescribed by the JNCPB" (underlining mine).

The canons, as I read them, indicate that the JNCPB can indeed establish the process used in the Joint Session for receiving nominations from the floor, but it cannot refuse nominations of a bishop from the floor at the time of the Joint Meeting.

The JNCPB has suggested a way by which additional names would come to the Nominating Committee prior to the Joint Session. But if the JNCPB is in any way suggesting that names could not come directly from the floor on the day of the meeting, it has overreached. Bishops and Deputies to this Convention need to be watchful that their perogative - to nominate on the day of the Joint Meeting - not be negated by rules put in place by the JNCPB.

I believe the canons are clear. Any bishop part of the House of Bishops can be nominated from the floor at the time of the Joint Meeting, without prior inclusion in a list gleaned from a hearing or meeting of the JNCPB prior to that Joint Meeting.  

Granted, this bishops only one day in which to satisfy themselves of the appropriateness of particular nominations raised at this last moment. But I have stated before that we need to remember this is not the election of a bishop, but the election of an already ordained bishop to a particular task for a specific period of time. There is no indelible vocational call related to this election. There is no criteria regarding experience that would disallow nomination. There is no requirement for investigation of prior ministry or actions (no background checks). 

The raw, immediate and perhaps surprising possibility of new nominations is build into the canonical process of nomination for election. Given the good work by the JNCPB I believe great nominations will come forward and the JNCPB will choose well from among them for a "slate." Some who they do not select will probably be nominated from the floor, and perhaps some others as well. But my guess is the elected one will be from among the JNCPB recommended ones. But just in case the Holy Spirit, or the workings of the Joint Meeting, or both deem otherwise, let's make sure the floor process remains open.


Two, no... Seven Fish - reflections on death serving life.

Last Sunday the Gospel was the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.  Jeff Ross, the Rector of all Lewes,the little city by the bay and the big water, preached a fine sermon. We were joined at 8 o'clock by the esteemed bishops Gene Robinson and Jack McKelvey, Bishop Robinson was celebrant and Bishop McKelvey sat, as I did, in the congregation. We were well fed.

Yesterday, being goof-off Monday, I went fishing. In forty-five minutes I caught a nice mess of croaker and spot. Not enough for five thousand, not a real miracle, but a fine catch none the less. 

In all the romance of fishing, miracles and the like, no one talks much about cleaning fish. Particularly in hot weather when the hope is that the fish are brought to the cleaning table still alive. So right off, at the cleaning table, we must deal with the reality that the miracle of the fish, as something eaten, requires the death of the fish, and the reality that someone had to do the killing.  

Now it turns out that croaker don't go easily, not if they are lively when brought to the cleaning table. They flop around, they look you beady in the eye, they seem to know the knife is not their friend and and the cleaner is not either.  The skill in a quick death is learned, and the difference between doing a good job and a botched one is apparent. The whole fish cleaning thing requires right thought and right action.

I've cleaned fish from the time I first learned to catch them. My grandfather, Cap Eldredge, made sure that I understood - if I caught them, I cleaned them.  And while he was a woodsman and no romantic about it, he required that we have sharp knives and a quick hand so that suffering was minimal. No intentional cruelty was permitted.

So I understood, if I want the miracle of fish to eat, it comes with a price. To eat the fish I had to kill the fish and clean it.

No big deal, not really. 

And yet yesterday when my knife was not sharp enough and I botched the first decapitation, I knew. The price of those two fish for the crowd, or my seven fish, is death, and spiritually the price is also about the kind of death I caused.  So I said, "I'm sorry" to the fish when I botched the job and quickly cut through with greater care. And then sharpened my cutting knife, and the rest went well.

Except of course for the heads. They fall into the sink, and for the next few moments the mouths continue to move and the gills keep gasping.  It is clear, cleaning fish is a small way into knowing that the miracle of the food on our plate involves death in all its strange and ugly possibilities. 

Provided it doesn't make one a vegetarian (not a bad choice) it also opens out into a kind of delight and joy, a sort of resurrection, for the food is incorporated into our own energy and body. And, the fish tastes sooooo good. 

Grilled with just a bit of butter,the flesh sweet, tender yet firm, the dead fish becomes an amazing simple meal shared with friends. Death serving life.

My sense is that we need to thank the fish before we clean it, say "I'm sorry" when we botch a kill or cleaning, not waste the fish, and eat with joy and satisfaction, thanking the fish, the cleaners, the cooks, and our mouths, and God who is in death and life alike, in every death that comes so that others might have life and that abundantly.

The miracle is when death serves life. That is a miracle. Works for fish, works for Jesus, works for me.

The sadness is when life serves death, and that is obscene.

On the Election of The Presiding Bishop, round two.

The Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the Presiding Bishop (JNCPB) has now published three papers on the electing process, history and the "evolving role and changing selection process."  The last of those essays, with links to the first two, may be found HERE.

I have previously posted some comments on the first of these essays, HERE.  Not surprising there were very few comments on my offering.  No doubt some decided that my comments were boring on the face of it and some may have simply determined that reading such foolishness on a good summer's day is a bad use of time.  

Still, I did get this remark from a member of the JNCPB who took an exception to my thoughts about controlling the process, and in particular about making it increasingly difficult to actually nominate from the floor, as per the directions of the canons.

Bill Fleener writes, 

"Mark as I am sure you know every jurisdiction in the episcopal church has moved away from nominations from the floor. Nominations will be welcome but they must be made earlier in order to allow some background checks. Nominations from the floor do not allow for this. You know that we have has problems with people elected without proper background checks. This is not an attempt to control the process by the committee which I serve on but an attempt to make sure that we do not elect someone embarrassing to the church as has happened in some bishop elections." 

Bill is quite right in his cautionary note re episcopal elections. But his comment does not bear on the election of a Presiding Bishop.  This is not an election of someone to be bishop, it is an election of a bishop to a particular set of roles and duties (see essay three). We might hope that sitting bishops are under sufficient scrutiny such that any shortcomings would come to the surface when the House of Bishops actually meets to elect. 

But more to the point, the whole reason for having a Nominating Committee is to come up with well reasoned and researched names. The whole reason for nominations from the floor is to make sure the shades of caution drawn around every nominating committee does not obscure the possibility of God's additional surprises. The Nominating Committee, after it makes its recommendations to the Joint Session, is no longer the only voice that can name a candidate, and it ought not control that voice.  

I am unaware of there being any canonical provision for background checks re the Presiding Bishop.  It is assumed that those have been done when the person was made bishop, and that an "active file" on possible embarressments is already in place.

Now to new concerns:

It reports,   

"An amendment to the constitution in 1919 required that “the House of Bishops shall choose one of the bishops having jurisdiction within the United States to be Presiding Bishop by a vote of a majority of all bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, such choice to be subject to confirmation by the House of Deputies”.

The current reading of the Constitution (Art 1, Sec 3) states,

"The House of Bishops shall choose one of the Bishops of this Church to be the Presiding Bishop of the Church by a vote of a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, except ...."

The requirement that it be a bishop having jurisdiction within the United States was dropped, thereby ending the discussion about what "jurisdiction" means (does it mean a diocesan bishop?) and whether or not there is a distinction between bishops who have "jurisdiction within the United States" and those whose jurisdiction is elsewhere.

At least in theory, then, any bishop of this church may be nominated. The bishop of Haiti or the Dominican Republic having every bit as much standing as the Bishop of Chicago or California, and the second suffragan of Los Angeles as the Bishop of Springfield. 

The JNCPB has quite a task ahead of it.  Having been on the last round I can note that we were blessed to meet and get to know a number of bishops and to put in nomination a range of fine candidates. And we were blessed to have nominations from the floor to complement those we already had proposed. The process was well served by a broad range of names, not all chosen by the JNCPB.  I trust that will happen this time as well.