Saturday, November 8, 2008

"Know the Enemy": the Office of the Presiding Bishop

This will be the second in a series of posts honoring Sun-Tzu's maxim, "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles." In the first post, I examined the historical beginnings of The Episcopal Church, and showed how it came into being as an "unincorporated association of churches in the several States organized as dioceses." In this post I will focus on the office of the presiding bishop, and show how it has evolved in a way that is completely contrary to the intent of those who first organized the Church.

As I related briefly in the earlier post, by the time the first shots of the Revolutionary War were heard "'round the world" at Concord in April 1775, the Church of England in America had managed its affairs without the presence of a single bishop in the Colonies for 168 years. This fact, more than any other, determined the attitudes of those who met toward the conclusion of the War to begin the organization of a national Church. While the clergy were strongly of the opinion that local bishops were required for the governance of the Church, they could not see any means of having one consecrated. And they recognized that the laity had a healthy suspicion of the powers that any such bishop, if appointed under the authority of the King of England, might exercise.

Thus it was that the Rev. Dr. William White, rector of Christ Church and St. Peter's in Philadelphia (and future bishop), published in 1782 a very influential pamphlet entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. In the Preface to that work, he observed:
A prejudice has prevailed with many, that the Episcopal churches cannot otherwise exist than under the dominion of Great Britain. A church government that would contain the constituent principles of the Church of England, and yet be independent of foreign jurisdiction or influence, would remove that anxiety which at present hangs heavy on the minds of many sincere persons.
In Chapter III, Dr. White set out his plan for the governance and purposes of a national Church:
As the churches [of England in the Colonies] in question extend over an immense space of country, it can never be expected, that representatives from each church should assemble in one place; it will be more convenient for them to associate in small districts, from which representatives may be sent to three different bodies, the continent being supposed divided into that number of larger districts. From these may be elected a body representing the whole.

In each smaller district, there should be elected a general vestry or convention, consisting of a convenient number (the minister to be one) from the vestry or congregation of each church, or of every two or more churches, according to their respective ability of supporting a minister. They should elect a clergyman their permanent president; who, in conjunction with other clergymen to be also appointed by the body, may exercise such powers as are purely spiritual, particularly that of admitting to the ministry; the presiding clergyman, and others to be liable to be deprived for just causes, by a fair process, and under reasonable laws; meetings to be held as often as occasion may require.

The assemblies in the three larger districts may consist of a convenient number of members, sent from each of the smaller districts severally within their bounds, equally composed of clergy and laity, and voted for by those orders promiscuously; the presiding clergyman to be always one, and these bodies to meet once in every year.

The continental representative body may consist of a convenient number from each of the larger districts, formed equally of clergy and laity, and among the clergy, formed equally of presiding ministers and others; to meet statedly once in three years. The use of this and the preceding representative bodies is to make such regulations, and receive appeals in such matters only, as shall be judged necessary for their continuing one religious communion.
As we now know, this plan was in large part eventually adopted. His first group comprises what became the dioceses; the second tier describes what became the provincial synods; and the third tier is what became General Convention, meeting every three years. I have added the bold emphasis to the last sentence to underscore the common sentiment at the time, which Dr. White perfectly expresses, about the limited functions that all such church structures should serve. Notice that there is nothing yet said about any bishops, but the term "presiding clergyman" is used. 

It is in the next chapter, Chapter IV, that Dr. White introduces the touchy subject of the episcopacy:
Wherever these churches have been erected [in the Colonies], the ecclesiastical government of the church of England has been adhered to; they have depended on the English bishops for ordination of their clergy, and on no occasion expressed a dissatisfaction with Episcopacy. This, considering the liberty they enjoyed in common with others, of forming their churches on whatever plan they liked best, is a presumptive proof of their preferring the Episcopal government . . . .
On the other hand there cannot be produced an instance of laymen in America, unless in the very infancy of the settlements, soliciting the introduction of a bishop; it was probably by a great majority of them thought an hazardous experiment. How far the prerogative of the king as head of the church might be construed to extend over the colonies, whether a bishop would bring with him that part of the law which respects ecclesiastical matters, and whether the civil powers vested in bishops in England would accompany that order to America, were questions which for aught they knew would include principles and produce consequences, dangerous and destructive to their civil rights.

From these two facts it may fairly be inferred, that the Episcopalians on this continent will wish to institute among themselves an Episcopal government, as soon as it shall appear practicable, and that this government will not be attended with the danger of tyranny, either temporal or spiritual.
(Emphasis again added; footnotes omitted.) After observing that "the peculiar circumstances of the war in which our country is engaged preclude us from procuring the [episcopal] succession in those quarters to which alone application could consistently be made; the danger of offending the British government constraining (perhaps) a refusal of what, it would of course be indelicate to ask", Dr. White notes the dilemma facing faithful Episcopalians in America, and then proposes his compromise solution:
(Now, on the other hand, to depart from Episcopacy, would be giving up a leading characteristic of the communion; which, however indifferently considered as to divine appointment, might be productive of all the evils generally attending changes of this sort. On the other hand, by delaying to adopt measures for the continuance of the ministry, the very existence of the churches is hazarded, and duties of positive and indispensable obligation are neglected.)

The conduct meant to be recommended, as founded on the preceding sentiments, is to include in the proposed frame of government a general approbation of Episcopacy, and a declaration of an intention to procure the succession, as soon as conveniently may be; but in the mean time to carry the plan into effect without waiting for the succession.
Thus came the language about a "presiding clergyman" heading up the various regional and national assemblies. However, as matters turned out, the clergy in Connecticut, who had been mostly loyal to the King during the War and who had evidenced a strong disdain for allowing any role by the laity in their Church's governance, ended up forcing the issue. Meeting in secret (because as Bishop Seabury later admitted, "the civil authority in Connecticut is Presbyterian, and therefore could not be supposed would petition for a Bishop"), right after news came of the American victory at Yorktown in 1783, they elected one of their own, Dr. Samuel Seabury, to the post. Their sending him to England for consecration, England's refusal and his subsequent consecration by non-juring bishops in Scotland, eventually forced Parliament to amend the law to allow foreign bishops to be consecrated in England without swearing allegiance to the King, as I related in the first post. The result was that in 1785 Dr. White and Samuel Provoost of New York became the first American bishops consecrated in England, and the nascent American "Anglican Church" was now an Episcopal Church, with its own bishops.

With the adoption of a governing Constitution in 1789, the new Church took shape, as I stated, largely as Bishop White had proposed in 1782. General Convention met in session just once every three years, while State diocesan conventions met as often as they provided in their own constitutions---some annually, and others as often as circumstances allowed. Bishop White presided over the first General Convention of the Church in 1789. When Bishop Seabury signed the Constitution in October of that year, he increased to three the total number of bishops in the Church, and pursuant to the terms of Article III, they met (without Bishop Provoost, who could not attend) as the first House of Bishops. They agreed on a rule of seniority by date of ordination, and thus Bishop Seabury became the first "president of the House." 

General Convention met again in 1792, when all three bishops were present, along with the newest American bishop to be consecrated in England, Bishop Madison of Virginia. (Together the four consecrated for the first time on American soil yet another newly elected bishop, Bishop Claggett of Maryland.) With there now being five members in the House of Bishops, the rule of seniority was changed to a rule of rotation, and Bishop Provoost of New York assumed the presidency. In 1795 it was William White's turn, and he continued in that position at the next Convention when the Bishop scheduled to take it was absent, and at the Convention after that when it was uncertain whose turn it was to preside. Finally, in 1804 the Bishops agreed again on a rule of seniority for their presiding officer. Since Bishop White was now the senior bishop, and there was not yet any rule of mandatory retirement, he continued to preside over the House of Bishops until his death in 1836 at the ripe old age of eighty-eight.

Although the words "presiding bishop" were not used in the Constitution of the Church until its revision in 1901, White & Dykman (Vol. I, pp. 23-24) note that the term had been in use "in the canons and elsewhere [e.g., in the Book of Common Prayer since 1792] for many years, and the duties and responsibility gradually attached thereto brought the office into existence long before it appeared in the Constitution. . . . From being simply the president of the House of Bishops he was becoming the Presiding Bishop of the Church." However, the increasing level of responsibility, placed on the shoulders of "one who has passed the limits of threescore years and ten, and is already carrying a burden as heavy as he can bear," as the 72-year-old Most Rev. John Williams told the House in 1887, would seem to make "the arrangement . . . not only unwise, but almost cruel."

In response, the bishops made provision for the presiding bishop to delegate to an elected "chairman of the House" such duties and responsibilities as the latter saw fit, and then gave the position of Presiding Bishop official recognition in the completely revised Constitution of 1901. But the rule making assumption of the office mandatory for the senior bishop in the House remained unchanged, and provoked a plea by the Most Rev. Thomas March Clark, who had succeeded Bishop Williams in 1899 as Presiding Bishop at the age of eighty-seven, to make the office elective by the House of Bishops, with the concurrence of the House of Deputies. An appropriate amendment was drafted for the 1904 General Convention, but due to many intervening institutional changes of mind by the House of Bishops, the office of Presiding Bishop was not made elective under the Constitution until 1919. Even then, the senior bishop then in office (Bishop Daniel Tuttle, who had opposed making the office elective) did not die until after the Convention of 1922, so that the first Presiding Bishop to be elected in General Convention was Bishop Murray of Maryland, in 1925.

Throughout all this history of the office, the presiding bishop continued to retain, following his assuming the office, his diocesan jurisdiction and responsibilities. (This was a natural consequence of how his function was originally conceived: he was one diocesan among others, elected to preside over their assemblies.) At the Convention of 1940, the invitation of the Diocese of Washington to designate its National Cathedral as the official seat of the Presiding Bishop was approved. And in 1943, as both a portent, perhaps, of changes to come, as well as a reflection of the increasing importance of the office itself, General Convention voted to require the presiding bishop to resign from his diocesan jurisdiction upon election. At the same time, a proposal was made in the House of Deputies to add language to the Constitution allowing General Convention to give the presiding bishop a see, but the designation of particular territory from which to constitute such a see proved highly problematic, and in 1946 the proposal was dropped. Messrs. White & Dykman observe (Vol. I, p. 29, with emphasis added):
To provide the Presiding Bishop with anything like an archbishop's traditional jurisdiction was impossible. Metropolitical jurisdiction over a province of the Church and the dioceses therein, arming the metropolitan or archbishop with visitatorial and juridical powers, could not be artificially grafted upon a national Church, the polity of which still reflected its origin in a federation of equal and independent Churches in the several states.
1946 is indeed a watershed year in the history of the presiding bishop's office, because everything began to change with the installation of the Most Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill as Presiding Bishop in 1947. Sherrill, who helped found, and became the first president of, the National Council of Churches, and who later was a president of the World Council of Churches, had served previously as Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, one of the largest in the Church in terms of parishes and Average Sunday Attendance, and was no stranger to church bureaucracies. (As if to signify the new prominence he was assuming in the life of the national Church, he also has the dubious distinction of being the first Presiding Bishop to appear on the cover of Time Magazine.) He was extremely well-connected, and served as a member of the Yale University Corporation, along with Robert Taft and Dean Acheson. He also held for a long time the post of president of Massachusetts General Hospital. Through connections such as those, he started the Episcopal Church Foundation to underwrite new efforts at church planting, and together with his wife he established an entirely new office in Greenwich, Connecticut to develop a nationwide curriculum for Christian education. It was also under his tenure that the Standing Liturgical Commission began a series of studies that would, twenty-five years later, culminate in a comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer. The bureaucracy of the Church expanded greatly during his term of office from 1947 to 1958, and he was personally responsible for most of the hiring. 

Loren Mead, who was part of the national headquarters at the time, records his recollections of the transformation that occurred under Bishop Sherrill (bold added for emphasis):
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." 
In his memoir just linked, Loren Mead goes on to relate how the issue of civil rights came to the fore during Bishop Sherrill's term. Following the desegregation decisions by the United States Supreme Court in 1954, Bishop Sherrill canceled plans to hold General Convention in still-segregated Houston in 1955 rather than face the scrutiny of the Anglican Congress and his own World Council of Churches, meeting later that summer. During the tenure of his successor, Presiding Bishop Lichtenberger (1958-64), the bureaucracy expanded to accommodate the Church's concerns with "social justice" programs (chiefly relating to the civil rights movement) and the growing ecumenical movement. An invitation from the controversial Eugene Carson Blake of the Presbyterians to discuss a union of that Church, PECUSA, the Methodists and the United Church of Christ into one church was accepted by General Convention in 1961, and Blake and the equally controversial Bishop James Pike went to work on a proposal. After many drafts and many years of discussions, however, the respective churches balked at further steps toward union. Nevertheless, the result of these efforts was the establishment of the principle that a permanent ecumenical staff at national headquarters would take on the responsibility for the Church's interfaith relationships, rather than the individual diocesan bishops. 

The emphasis on "program" that began under Bishop Sherrill is what changed the character of the national Church, and created the conglomeration known as "815." (As Loren Mead notes in his reminiscences, the headquarters of TEC at 815 Second Avenue in New York City were not ready for occupancy until 1963, during Bishop Lichtenberger's final years. Prior to that time, although Bishop Sherrill moved the office temporarily to Greenwich both to be with his wife, and because of the lack of space to accommodate its growing bureaucracy, the Church's national office had been in the "Mission House" of the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society, at 481 Fourth Avenue [now Park Avenue South].) By concentrating on "programs"---which by definition had to continue in existence the entire time between the triennial sessions of General Convention---815 secured its ability to have a reason to function on its own, independent of General Convention. With the shift in control came a shift of budget and responsibility that was to have far-reaching consequences.

Under the leadership of Presiding Bishop John Hines (1965-74), there was launched the General Convention Special Program (GCSP), which the contemporary Loren Mead portrays as the beginning of a fatal shift in roles:
I think it was in John Hines's time that "primatial creep" set in. The instrument was the General Convention Special Program (GCSP). 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.
Church sociologist William Swatos (on p. 208 of the article referenced in the previous post, and which I shall hereafter cite simply as "Swatos 2005") characterizes GCSP as "a program to channel a relatively massive fundraising effort to community agencies working principally on behalf of ethnic minorities." He seconds Mead's first-person account of the change that took place in the Church as a result of GCSP:
There is undoubtedly a book to be written on GCSP, but the thesis here is a relatively simple one; namely, that GCSP and Hines's primacy became problematic within the life of the Episcopal Church. This was not because of its focus on minorities, which was already present in the Lichtenberger years, but for two other reasons. First, funds were channeled to local secular agencies without consultation with either diocesan authorities (principally the bishops of the dioceses involved) or church groups already involved in working with minority ministries. Second, the leadership of GCSP eschewed the leadership within the church already working on these issues. Again, this was allowed to occur first because of Hines's personal charisma (often referred to in his case as "prophetic leadership") in generating the funds, principally from the women of the church, and then because of the office charisma of the PB that enabled him to work unchecked.
In other words, through the persona of Presiding Bishop John Hines, "815" began to develop an identity and constituency of its own that was independent of the dioceses which made up the Episcopal Church. With his ability to attract funds above and beyond the normal voluntary diocesan contributions, and following on the buildup of staff that occurred under his predecessors, Hines was successful in establishing the first "permanent" bureaucracy at national headquarters, with a devotion solely to the social programs of the Church that was independent both of General Convention and of the Executive Council that was expected to function in its place during the period between national conventions. (We will take a look at the development of each of those bodies as well in subsequent posts.)

This independence from the dioceses had a price, however. Because the dioceses saw themselves as being cut out of the loop, they reduced the level of their contributions, and the result was a large reduction in both staff and budget at 815 during the latter part of Hines's tenure. This did not deter Hines from his mission to establish the identity of the national Church, seen through the office of the Presiding Bishop, as separate and apart from that of the individual dioceses which comprised its members. He formed a firm conviction that he was correct in pursuing this goal because he saw himself as setting a prophetic example for the rest of the Church to follow. In the words of his obituary in the New York Times, Hines "never wavered in his conviction that the church had to take an uncompromising stand for the poor and defenseless and serve as an inspiration for others to do so." 

The social justice programs of the national church shifted in focus, but not in zeal or enthusiasm, under the leadership of Hines's successor, Bishop John Maury Allin (1974-85). Hailing from Mississippi, Bishop Allin was strongly identified with the civil rights cause through his locally unpopular efforts to rebuild more than 100 black churches that had been firebombed by white racists. But four years after his election, he offered to resign over the ordination of women to the priesthood, which had been voted by General Convention in 1976. He devoutly believed, he said in a 1977 speech, that women could no more become priests "than they can become fathers or husbands." His offer was refused, and he went on to lead Venture in Mission, a drive to increase diocesan missionary work that eventually raised some $150 million for that purpose.

Three bishops have succeeded to the presiding post since Bishop Allin: Edmond Browning (1986-1997), Frank Griswold III (1998-2006), and the current incumbent, Katharine Jefferts Schori (2007-  ). The term of the first is remembered for the embezzlement scandal of Ellen Cooke, the national church's treasurer, whom Bishop Browning had avidly advanced and supported, and eventually protected, from those who tried to call her to account. The resulting adverse publicity again led to a substantial decline in diocesan contributions to the national budget, causing another reduction in staff. But as William Swatos points out (ibid., at 208-09), the office of the Presiding Bishop, rather than General Convention, still called the shots:
In both the Cooke and Hines cases, however, brakes were applied. They came not in the first instance from the votes of General Convention, but from the "green vote" (greenbacks from the grass roots): dioceses not paying their quota of national church (i.e., 815) support. . . . Two major reductions in staff have been taken in the last fifty years: one in the Hines era, the other (really in two steps) in the Browning era. The green vote, not the "priorities of General Convention," has determined these. Only after the necessary accommodations were made to the crises did General Convention respond . . . . Nevertheless, even here we can see the continued power of the PB, since the PB determines, directly or indirectly, who will go and who will stay among the staff, hence what priorities and constituencies are ultimately served---and in what ways. . . .
Nothing has changed since, except that the Presiding Bishop has grown even more powerful in the national church. However, the increase in that power has been at the expense of the role and authority of the Presiding Bishop as a primate in the Anglican Communion. As the inconsistency of Presiding Bishop Griswold demonstrated following the election of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire---when Griswold acting as a primate joined in the communique warning The Episcopal Church not to proceed with his consecration, and then Griswold as Presiding Bishop proceeded to officiate at Bishop Robinson's consecration, the two roles have now become impossible for the same person to fill, as this rather lame statement demonstrates. The reason is that with the consecration of Bishop Robinson, The Episcopal Church placed itself at odds with the Anglican Communion.

With that development, it became inevitable that the Presiding Bishop would be at odds with some of the Episcopal dioceses as well, because given a choice between gay rights activism and the Anglican Communion, those dioceses had no difficulty in deciding on their allegiance, particularly given the support for the Communion's position in Holy Scripture. Presiding Bishop Griswold recognized the inherent inability of one in the activist vanguard to induce allegiance by any methods other than setting what he saw as a good example, and wisely announced that he would leave it to the individual dioceses to deal with the dissenting parishes in their ranks. Katharine Jefferts Schori, however, is a Presiding Bishop from a different mold: like Bishop Hines before her, she sees herself as having inherited the role of bearing the torch for the cause of social justice. In that role, she is determined to take whatever steps are necessary to lead the Church into the path she views it as having prophetically claimed for itself, regardless of what Holy Scripture says (or perhaps, if Scripture is interpreted properly under post-modern criteria, in light of what it "says or does not say"). 

Viewing the full trajectory of the office of Presiding Bishop from the history sketched above, one is struck by its metamorphosis from presiding over the Church's assemblies into a role of enforcing the social justice norms as adopted by Church activists. As I noted in the previous paragraph, this transformation has placed Bishop Jefferts Schori at odds with many of her fellow primates in the Anglican Communion---a stance which will apparently become even more adverse once the draft Anglican Covenant is released for approval in May of next year.  

Under Bishop Jefferts Schori, this role of enforcement has taken on a priority of its own, even at the expense of the canons supposedly being enforced. As any regular peruser of this site will know, I am at constant pains to point out, to all and sundry, the most recent and egregious violations of the canons by our Presiding Bishop (or as I have opted to call her on occasion, following her particularly outrageous and cowardly "deposition" of Bishop Duncan, the "Chief Kaitiff"). I submit that the inevitable consequence of this defiling of the canons by our current Presiding Bishop will be a decline in respect for them, as well as (paradoxically) an ever-increasing reliance upon their supposed power to curb dissent. (There is really no paradox here. The more the canons are twisted to use as tools to stifle dissent, the more they are disrespected as canons; and then the more easily they can be twisted.) And such an abuse of their function will, over time, erode the Church's moral authority, with the result that it will end up being neither episcopal, nor a church. When that day arrives, those who are then in power will, like Nero, be too drunk with it to perceive that they have put the torch to their own abode.

It is a modern-day tragedy that The Episcopal Church, with its devout and firmly-principled Anglican beginnings as detailed in this and my previous post, and with a healthy aversion to the excesses of autocratic rule, should succumb after 220 years to that which it most feared in the first place: the tyranny of a ruling figure. Listen again to the common sense of Loren Mead, expressed in the memoir cited earlier:
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.
There was no intent by the founders of this Church to create a Supreme Executive. But that is what we have, through indifference over the years, brought into being. It has now grown into a lawless monstrosity that is bound by no canonical restraints, and that will, I predict, be TEC's undoing. My next post will look at the almost irrelevant role that General Convention has taken on in recent years as a consequence of its deference to the Supreme Executive.



  1. "Supreme executive!" I believe that I can make a cartoon out of that one. Oops, someone already did.

  2. I heartily agree! Well done sir!!

    "Supreme Executive" may be my new way of referring to She-who-I-have-previously-called - The PeeBee.