The response of the House of Bishops (HoB) to the Primates was a wonderful statement of definition and standing their ground. It said that we are the Episcopal Church of 14 different nations and we are governed by a different polity than many of the churches of the Anglican Communion. The resolutions of the HoB made clear that those who are beyond accountability may not speak for the Episcopal Church or set its mission. It is an especially important statement of self-differentiation rather than a reaction to a fairly abusive Communique from the Primates.
This comes as a healthy sign after the erosion of the basic rights of parishes and clergy over the past 10-12 years both in practice and canonically. It will be interesting to see if the bishops can be as egalitarian and as self-differentiated if there is a move by clergy and laity to regain some of the authority that has been lost.
Much of the equilibrium of the polity of the Episcopal Church in the past was because laity and clergy took seriously their responsibility in their ministry of the Church. These days, it seems to be a common experience for bishops to appoint a rector in small parishes as if they were missions. We are told that “it is not easy to find clergy to come to a parish as small as yours,” when it is more of an issue of trying to find clergy who will fit with the bishop’s ideology, or a desire to control issues in the diocese. The nation-wide crisis of the deployment system (cf. Episcopal Life, last month) leaves both clergy searching for a call and congregations looking for clergy jammed up in diocesan offices rather than in a fair market.
With such appointments, the clergy are no longer beholden to a call from the parish and are more beholden to the personality of the bishop. This undermines the basic construction of a diocese as an ongoing ministry of the Church which may be influenced by the ministry of the bishop but not dominated by the ministry of a bishop. It also undermines the movement of the Holy Spirit for both parish and diocese. In the past, part of the general understanding of the role of the parish was to call into it clergy who would stand for the rights of the laity in the parish and support the ministry of the Bishop. Nowadays clergy are often placed in parishes because they support the Bishop.
Secondly this undermines the ministry of the laity in parishes. Parishes have been able to call clergy to fulfill their needs and to fit with the basic ministry of their parishes for over 200 years. The parochial centralization of the polity has maintained the voice of the laity in the governance of the Church. The over involvement of bishops or bishop’s personnel in the call of a rector muddies the clear call of a parish’s mission that is part of the call of the diocese, not the other way around. All too often the mission of the diocese becomes central focus, not the mission of the parish.
If the bishops have found it necessary to claim the character of the Episcopal Church as being one which is founded soundly on the equality of Lay, Clerical and Episcopal orders, then the diocese must be willing to stand as a microcosm of that larger model. The ministry of the laity in calling their rectors must be upheld as part of the fabric of that mutuality. The deployment officers of a diocese need to be aware of the needs of the parish rather than vacancies becoming a place where a bishop wants to “stick” a favored priest.
The formation of the CDO (Clergy Deployment Office) process of the national Church was developed in part to give clergy from all over the country a chance to be viewed by parishes throughout the Church. This CDO process has been dismantled by many dioceses in favor of “the old boy’s network” which is what CDO was developed to discourage.
If we are going to regain the sense of polity that works well when all three orders are self-differentiated, we will need to call our dioceses to clear and open calling procedures. This means that yes; good background checks need to be made, but that the process is open to all clergy who wish to apply,
This also means that the laity must be willing to pick up the responsibility for their clergy. Many of the difficulties between clergy and laity that have resulted in church fights have been because there is not a sense of mutual responsibility between clergy and laity in the parish. Clergy need to be willing to negotiate a meaningful payment package and be responsible for their work. And the Laity needs to be willing to be responsible to their clergy when it comes time for benefits and remuneration. Accountability is absolutely essential in the parish ministry. But the accountability lies between the parish and the cleric, not the cleric and the bishop.
If the Episcopal Church is going to gain from the self-differentiation of the HoB, we need to be willing to do that in all orders. It is the only way that our polity works—if laity and clergy as well as bishops are self-differentiated and strong. We need to be willing to step up to the ministry to which we are called in order for the Church to regain its strength.