Friday, June 5, 2015

For whom will the Episcopal Church elect its next Presiding Bishop?

For whom will The Episcopal Church (TEC) elect its next Presiding Bishop (PB)?

In one respect, the answer to that question is obvious. TEC elects its PB as its primate, i.e., we elect the Presiding Bishop to serve us – Episcopalians, Episcopal congregations, and our denomination – as our leader.

Given that answer, the choice of a PB seems of diminishing significance. TEC’s membership, influence, and resources have declined substantially; TEC appears unlikely to regain great influence. To the extent that Christendom ever existed in the US, it is now permanently gone. Like the mainline Protestant tradition of which it is a part, TEC is experiencing a long-term decline.

Appointment of a chief operating officer and moves to restructure the denomination further underscore the relative unimportance of who is chosen to be the next PB – if we expect our primate’s main constituency to be the TEC. Working with a chief operating officer can allow the PB considerable latitude to engage in other ministries or missions. Concomitantly, simplifying denominational structures should reduce overhead and maintenance demands on senior management. In sum, TEC does not need a PB who perceives her/his ministry as that of an internally focused chief executive.

Alternatively, the next PB might focus her/his tenure on being TEC’s chief cheerleader, seeking to energize TEC leaders, members, and structures for mission. This role also presumes a PB elected who focuses primarily on TEC.

A functional conception of the PB’s role as chief cheerleader is theoretically attractive, organizationally inescapable, and practically limited. TEC’s most important resources are its leaders and people. A chief cheerleader energizing and mobilizing those resources for missions could prove exciting and potentially transformative. A PB has multiple opportunities, many of them obligatory, to bechief cheerleader. These include officiating at the consecration of new bishops, chairing the House of Bishops, visiting dioceses, etc.

However, although TEC does have a connectional polity, today’s congregations and dioceses enjoy considerable autonomy. Opportunities for repeatedly and consistently communicating a vision to all of our members, congregations, clergy, and dioceses are limited, perhaps non-existent. Five thousand, mostly small, congregations spread across more than 0ne hundred dioceses limit the PB’s ability to be present simultaneously to all Episcopalians. In other words, a PB who concentrates her/his ministry as chief cheerleader on transforming TEC will have his/her effectiveness constricted by inherent structural limitations.

Other conceptions of the presiding bishop’s role as internally focused (e.g., chief theologian) run into self-limiting difficulties for reasons similar to those inherent in envisioning the presiding bishop as chief cheerleader.

TEC by most measures is today a healthier, more stable organization than it was nine years ago. Consequently, electing another internally focused PB will probably achieve diminishing gains. Furthermore, and almost without exception, internally focused organizations die. Internally focused churches not only die but have also substituted self-preservation for gospel-based kenosis.

What if in electing its presiding bishop, TEC changed its paradigm and did something different? What if TEC, instead of electing its presiding bishop primarily for what she/he can accomplish or bring to the denomination, elected its next presiding bishop for his/her potential ministry to non-members?

The next presiding bishop might function as chief missionary, an icon of Christ to a broken and hurting world, a symbol of hope in the midst of despair, a window through which God’s love might shine into a secular world. Conceptualizing the PB’s role as chief missionary extends the current emphasis on turning TEC into a mission organization.

Conceptualizing the presiding bishop as chief missionary differs from internally focused descriptions of the presiding bishop’s role in three critical ways. First,chief missionary clearly prioritizes the presiding bishop’s ministry and time. Reaching out to others should take priority over internal, organizational matters. Allow the chief operating officer and others to manage ongoing affairs. Personally perform only canonically required tasks or tasks in which the PB will have a farther reaching, more powerful voice than would a substitute. More so than any other TEC leader, a chief missionary PB has the potential public stature and platform to speak effectively on the national and international stages.

Second, chief missionary presumes that the rest of TEC – leaders, members, clergy, dioceses, congregations – join, to some degree, in the missionary enterprise. A presiding bishop with an unrelenting focus as chief missionary has more transformative potential through leading by example, following Jesus’ in seeking the lost, than does nine years of cheerleading, theological reflection, or competent management combined. Current organizational restructuring has prepared the way for electing a chief missionary PB.

Third, chief missionary incarnates Jesus. He came not for the ninety-nine in the flock, but the one who was lost (of course, in twenty-first century North America, perhaps the flock consists of fifty, or even twenty, and fifty or perhaps even eighty are lost). TEC must stop waiting for the thirsty, hungry, and sick to enter our buildings in search of help; instead, we must, like the paralytic’s friends who tore open the roof, tear down barriers and bring the gift of life to the dying. For such a time as this, we need a PB who will be our chief missionary.

Monday, June 1, 2015


Image result for andrew jackson

This past week, I finally visited the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson's home in Tennessee, a place that I have wanted to visit for several decades. Jackson was the seventh President of the United States, serving two consecutive terms from 1828-1837.

The visit was a graphic reminder of the evil of slavery and of how US culture has changed dramatically during my lifetime. The Hermitage is a large and comfortable house for nineteenth century Tennessee, which for much of the century was frontier country. For example, on the ground floor, two parlors, the dining room, and two bedrooms each measured about four hundred square feet. Jackson slept in one of the bedrooms; his adopted son and the son's wife slept in the other bedroom. Jackson's relatively opulent lifestyle would have been impossible if he had to pay workers to staff the house, gardens, and plantation.

Slaves lived in cabins, fifteen or more people in a single room that might have four hundred square feet. Jackson's contemporaries saw him as a benevolent slave owner because he kept families together to his own financial detriment. Instead of keeping only the one hundred or so slaves that operating his one thousand acre plantation required, he had as many as one hundred and fifty because he did not like to sell children without their parents or to sell one partner of a couple without the other.

NB: Slaves could not legally marry. Black men in the US forming lifelong bonds with their partner at a substantially lower rate than do males of other races in the US is one tragic legacy of slavery in which slaves were treated as chattel rather than human beings.

When Union forces captured Nashville, most of Jackson's slaves fled to freedom in Nashville, preferring possible death or poverty to continued slavery. Jackson had died in 1848, a staunch supporter of the Union.

Descriptive materials explicitly characterized Jackson, the self-styled people's champion, as paternalistic. People (family, friends, soldiers, other politicians) who obeyed his wishes were graced with his favor. People who did not heed his wishes felt his wrath. In the case of slaves, this wrath sometimes included savage whippings or other punishments.

In many respects, what the Hermitage omitted communicated a clearer message about Jackson as a person than did the information that was available. Jackson preferred that people address him as General instead of President, even while serving his eight years in the White House. The interpretive material failed to explain this; I suspect that Jackson preferred the control that a General exercises over his/her army to the need to exercise persuasion inherent in the presidency. The interpretive material also glossed over details of Jackson's military exploits, conveniently ignoring his extreme brutality toward Native Americans and illegal invasion of Florida, then owned by the Spanish.

Jackson could inspire a fierce loyalty. One of his slaves, following emancipation at the end of the Civil War, stayed on at the plantation first as a tenant farmer and then, when the house was opened to the public, as a guide. This man bartered with the historical society that operated the Hermitage a piece of Jackson family furniture he had bought at auction for the right to be buried next to Jackson. On the man's tombstone, at his request, is carved "Uncle Alfred," with no surname. Alfred had taken Jackson's name as his own surname; "Uncle" was a term used by whites to refer to older black men. By the mid-twentieth century, both that usage of "Uncle" and the adoption of a former owner's surname had become offensive. Yet, like the tombstone with its carving, the evil effects of slavery remain deeply embedded in our culture, often in ways to which too many people are sadly oblivious.

One of the docents in the big house was black. Unfortunately, I did not have a good opportunity to ask her how she felt about working there. I have wondered what Jackson would have thought about it. Among the numerous visitors, I saw only one interracial couple and no other people of color. Jackson and slavery are both part of the American heritage. The depiction of slavery today was much more honest than what I experienced fifty years ago in visiting historical sites, e.g., the descriptive materials noted that there were no good slave owners because the term is an oxymoron since slavery is inherently evil.

On the other hand, the road to reconciliation and racial harmony stretches into the future. Jackson and his family were no more than six of one hundred and fifty-six people who lived at the Hermitage; the other one hundred and fifty people deserve a proportionate amount of attention and respect. Without the other one hundred and fifty, Jackson would most likely never have risen to military or political prominence, and the world might be a better place because thousands fewer would have experienced his brutality and premature death.

Ironically, Jackson's great military victory against the British at New Orleans, the event that catapulted him to national prominence, achieved nothing beyond the death of thousands of British soldiers (fewer than sixty US casualties) and boosting the morale of a young nation. Unbeknownst to any of the combatants on either side because news traveled so slowly, the War of 1812 had ended a month earlier, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

Since leaving the Hermitage, I've been wondering: what will my legacy be? Will future generations see my legacy as I desire? Or, with the help of hindsight, will they recognize evils that I do not see or prefer to ignore?