Monday, September 10, 2007

Balance of Power and the Calling Process

Part of what makes the government of the Episcopal Church work is its balance of powers. Just as in the American Constitution the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government balance each other, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church are to hold in tension the powers of bishops, clergy and laity.

Over the past few years one aspect of these powers, the calling of a Rector in the Diocese of Central New York, has been eroded by the appointment of clergy to specific parishes as vicars and then after a year, their appointment as Rector. This has been done by the bishop rather than through a clear calling process in which the parish takes the responsibility for calling its Rector with the bishop’s approval. This practice flies in the face of the traditions of not only the diocese but the Episcopal Church as a whole.

The present practice which is provided because either the diocese cannot get qualified clergy to make application to the parishes, or because the present system is too unwieldy for the congregations means that the clergy are then beholden, not to their congregations where their ministry should be centered, but to the bishop. This makes the power structures in the diocese uneven and unbalanced. It means that the calling of clergy by parishes is now completely in the hands of clerics instead of a walking together of clergy and lay. It also gives the bishop an inordinate amount of power in the diocese when that power should be balanced with clergy and laity.

Granted, many of our churches are now part-time cures. That in and of itself, makes it difficult to get clergy to come to CNY. But there are other dioceses where the decline of membership has called for different styles of leadership in parishes. Various kinds of cluster ministries, yoked situations have often cobbled together congregations so that they can support clerics, all to various degrees of success. Nothing beats the one parish/one cleric model of ministry. But not all of our parishes have that luxury in the present age.

All kinds of ministerial efforts are being considered. We have raised up indigenous clergy, members of a parish who become the “parson” or “person” in the old English sense. These congregations should be commended. But there are still parishes that have chosen to select their clergy from outside of the Diocese to help keep the diocese from stagnating with local clergy and opening the diocese to the wider Church.

My experience with a diocese that tried to control who came into it was the Diocese of Ft. Worth who only allowed clergy with like minds with the bishop to be allowed to be submitted to the parishes of the diocese. This diocese in its 20 some years of existence has never been part of the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. The clergy are fearful of saying anything that does not conform to the bishop’s ideology. And it fosters fear and dishonesty among the clergy because the power of the bishop is not held in balance among the orders of the Church. And no self-respecting Episcopal cleric will apply to churches in that diocese. This diocese is one of the ones now threatening to leave the Episcopal Church. And I would suggest that it is because the basic balance of powers has never been exercised in that diocese that this problem exists.

In CNY we are faced with the loss of parishes taking responsibility for the calling of their clergy. With fewer and fewer congregations going through the rather dense process to call clergy, and a process which is becoming incrementally more complex because of the lack of clear expectations from the Diocese, what is happening is that clergy and congregations are becoming less bonded to the ministry together. Clergy who are missioned by the bishop do not have the same connections with their parishes. And a common ideology of the ministry of the bishop is beginning to grow within the diocese that looks more Roman Catholic than Episcopalian. It erodes the pact between clergy and lay members. It makes the laity dependant upon the bishop rather than as discreet powers unto themselves that the Constitution and Canons hold as important for the good order of the Church.

What is needed is a process of calling a Rector that is clear and unbounded by the powers of the bishop. By canon it is always the bishop’s right to vet the clergy coming into the diocese and that responsibility should always be available to the bishop of a diocese. But the process of calling a new rector should not be clouded with Byzantine requirements and ever-changing remedies so that the bishop can control who might be considered by a parish.

Many dioceses help their parishes develop a profile for the Church Deployment Office (CDO) and then let them cull and interview those who submit their resumes. Then when the parish has pared the list down to a manageable number, ask the bishop to vet the names that have presented themselves to the congregation. In this way the major work is being done by the parish and for the parish. And the bishop still has a way to have some say but not an ordinate amount. This form of calling is used in many dioceses and could easily be used in the Diocese of Central NY if approved by convention vote. We have the right to order ourselves by convention and we should move to reclaim the rights of the laity with such an effort. Comments are welcomed.


Tony Seel said...

I don't think this needs to be put to a convention vote. What it would take is individual parishes asserting their rights to choose their own clergy. Granted, parishes are generally not willing to take this kind of step, but this is what is needed. Unfortunately, the diocese comes to the parish with a line such as, "We have a priest who we believe would make a fine rector for your parish. If you go through a search process, it could be two years or more before you have a rector. If you will allow the bishop to call a vicar for for your parish for one year, then you can decide after that year whether you want this person to be your rector." This has happened twice in Cortland. It puts the parish in the difficult position of saying to the bishop, "we will spend the required time to choose the right rector. No thanks to your appointment suggestion."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, you certainly put it out there, Muthah.

Good for you.

Muthah+ said...

We have a parish that did do as you said and the bishop not only refused to confirm the priest and then yanked her licence to preach in the diocese illegally.

The diocesan canons allow the bishop far too much authority in the calling process. Diocesan canons need to be more specific

Muthah+ said...

I meant to say that the bishop illegally yanked her licence.