Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Balance of Powers and the Calling Process: Repris

Earlier I wrote concerning a process for calling rectors to parishes in the Diocese of Central NY proposing for a new way of implementing the canons regarding the calling of rectors. I was told this week that “we have a calling process in the Diocese that is geared for each parish.”

One of the charisms of the Episcopal Church has been the balance of power that has been held in tension among the laity, clergy and bishops. It is a necessary tension which holds any one order from becoming too powerful and oppressing any of the other. One of the important areas in which this tension is played out is in the calling of a rector. In the past positions would be posted with the Clergy Deployment Office [CDO] at National Church Center and clergy would apply for the parish. The profile, or position description would be posted and clergy would call or write the Director of Deployment in the diocese to apply for a parish. Sometimes, a parish could ask that their parish’s profile be “run” and then clergy whose profile would match the parish’s profile would be contacted to see if they were interested. The task of the Diocesan Deployment Officer was to teach parishes how to prepare their profile, assist the parishes in developing their lists of desires and needs and help them be aware of the demographics in their area. In the past it was not uncommon for a full-time parish with a healthy financial status to attract between 30 and 100 clerics. These days are gone. But this does not mean that there are not clergy in the Church who are interested to moving to our diocese if the right parish came along.

One of the important pieces of the tension between parish, clergy and laity has always been the calling of clergy that are right for the parish. Traditionally the vetting of applications has been done by the parish. The process which each parish went about was a bit different but in each case, but the parish needed to be a part of engaging the priest, walking the journey in discernment and finally calling a priest with whom they thought they could work. The process was alike for all congregations and we could follow the process of a parish in the calling process because it was published in the monthly newsletter. Always that process culminated in the approval of the bishop after the parish had done the lion's share of the work. Sometimes a parish would get a lemon, and sometimes the cleric would get a lemon. But there was always a chance to make lemonade.

These days, clergy must have background checks done; “the red flag” check must be done, so says Canon Lewis. But what is happening is that clergy may be excluded from a search, no matter if their profile is right on target for the parish, simply at a whim. The criteria of these “red flag tests” are not published. Clergy can be black balled at a mere whim of a bishop or diocesan staff member.

This process reminds me of the “good ole boy system” that the CDO process was designed to do away with. It also means that the Bishop has far too much control of the process at the beginning of the search. It means that the walk of discernment does not take place among the priest and the parish, but between the Bishop and the priest. What is happening in the diocese is that far too many self-supporting parishes are allowing themselves to be treated like missions. Allowing the bishop to appoint a vicar of his choice to be approved as rector at some later date is now common. It means that the parish has little say so in the calling process and consequently abolishing the power assigned to the laity by the Constitution and Canons.

I agree whole-heartedly with the canons that call for the approval of the Bishop of every rector in the diocese. But the process as it is lived-out in the diocese is one which is being controlled by the bishop. The process as it stands now is paternalistic and deprives the parish, the laity who call these clergy into their lives, of appropriate ways to evaluate those who apply for the position of rector. It means that all too often the discernment of the Holy Spirit is done only by the bishop.

With no published formula by which to call clergy, the process to call a rector falls into the realm of whim and hoop jumping rather than good process which is fair and clear to all. All too often in our diocese the rules and criteria for each stage to be met are manipulated by diocesan officials. I know of one instance in which the rules for calling a new priest were changed from one meeting with the parish to the next. Rules for calling a new rector become Byzantine when the process is different for each parish. It smacks of manipulation rather than healthy process.

We once had a system that when a priest was made rector, that priest had tenure—that priest could not be fired or removed without the agreement of bishop, priest and the Vestry. This is still the canonically approved system. This tenure allowed the priest to preach the Gospel to the parish when often the parish did not want to hear the Gospel. Yes, it did mean conflict. But it is only in conflict that we really understand the need to change. But also, this tenure allowed the rector to preach the Gospel to the Bishop.

These days it is dangerous for even a tenured rector to try to preach the Gospel to the Bishop. Partially this is due to the individual who sits in that office; partially it is because we are tired of having to take care of ourselves in the midst of conflict. Granted, we have had those who have “preached their gospel” which have led them to leave the Church. However, in the aftermath of the “Great Shakedown” we cannot allow the basic freedoms that have served to make this Church great, be subverted. We must be willing to guard our liberties in the Church from those who would usurp them just to make life “easy.”

It would be all too easy for us to end up with the kind of marionette clergy that the Roman Catholic Church has if we do not guard this complex but oh so rich Episcopal Church polity that we have. We need to call upon our Diocesan Convention to reassert our stance that this Church has a polity that demands that parishes be independent in the calling process so that the appropriate checks and balances are maintained.

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