On Saturday, Oct. 29, the Diocese of New York will gather in convention to elect a coadjutor bishop. Bishop Sisk has asked me to be the the Chaplain to the Convention. Seven have been nominated, five officially and two by petition. One has withdrawn. The slate was announced at the end of August, and on Tuesday afternoon, Oct. 11, a process of interviewing the candidates began at Christ Church, Poughkeepsie, and continued through the week in six or so other venues.
It was an interesting process. It helped clarify my own thoughts about the candidates to some extent. It is helpful to meet and listen to and observe people in the flesh as well as in their carefully prepared statements and videos and other self-presentations. But more importantly, it helped me to solidify my own thoughts about what the next Bishop of New York might be and do. I share those thoughts here, with the understanding that as I write about them, none of them are criticisms of our current Bishop. No one person can have every gift, and the gifts for which a bishop is elected at one point may not be the same needed a decade or more down the road.
So what do I think is most important in our next bishop?
First, I think that the Bishop should be a clear voice proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That sounds trite, I know, so let me explain. I believe the Church exists to call people to a new reality. The scriptural name for that reality is the Kingdom of God. It goes by other names, even in Scripture: the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, everlasting life in John, salvation in its many forms in Paul. This is not a simple matter, because it involves scriptural interpretation and sound, contemporary theology as well as participation in the modes of understanding with which our culture describes reality. But that proclamation is at core quite clear: There is a new reality to which the Church calls the world, and that reality has its point of origin and its summation in the person of Jesus Christ. So our new bishop needs to be someone who can proclaim that reality publicly, persuasively, consistently and effectively, not only from the pulpit, but in the many different roles he or she will be called to fill institutionally and in the wider community. The Bishop should be one who makes clear that the Church is impelled by this new reality to begin working for it here and now, and that our many works for the poor, for the education of the young and for social advancement flow from this one source: We believe the Kingdom can begin here and now.
Second, I think that the Bishop needs to love, effectively represent and skillfully promote the kind of Christianity the Episcopal Church stands for. We are catholic and we are reformed. Which is to say, we stand for the full practice of the sacramental, liturgical, theological and ecclesial reality of the historic western Church, and we also stand for the freedom of conscience of each believing person within the fellowship of Christ, and all that follows from that in the full participation of all members in the Church's life, witness and governance. The Bishop needs to be a person who can lead us into the challenges to our form of Christianity in the contemporary moment. These are clear to everyone, but the way forward is not so clear. The Bishop needs to be a skillful institutional leader, one who can envision and implement appropriate new or changed forms of congregational and diocesan ministry. The challenges we face include an aggressively materialist culture which is in many ways opposed to the Christian message, a psycho-social environment which does not value Christian belief commitment very highly, and a financial environment in which there is less money for church structures. The Bishop should be a person who faces our future with optimism because he or she believes in the Anglican way of being Christian, believes that our way is essential for the completeness of the universal Church, and believes that the Anglican way is given by God as one proclamation of the Gospel in our society.
Third, I think that the Bishop needs to be a person who loves holiness: a person of personal prayer and reflection breaking into attitudes of generosity and good discernment toward others, of course, but also a person who wants to promote holiness though the Church. The Episcopal Church has chosen the path of radical inclusiveness, not just in areas of sexuality and gender, but in many other areas as well. How are people transformed by their life in Christ within the Episcopal fellowship? How can the Church build up the Kingdom of God by including people who have been excluded, from the Church altogether in some cases, or from our church in particular in others, as they are drawn into fellowship with those who are already members? The Bishop should be a person who in his or her own personal life is known to be living the life of the Kingdom, but also a person who can call everyone to the challenging work of refashioning their lives, no matter when they entered the vineyard (see Matthew 20:1-16). This is all the more urgent in a time when the traditional educational and economic prospects for young people no longer hold their old promise, when the moral and social conventions of the past, built on socially agreed foundations, no longer hold as firmly as they once did. People need to look to us as a church which calls its members with some success to the struggle to be what God intends us to be, which is not and should not be easy. Thoughtful people find themselves drawn to effective disciplines of holiness. The Church, led by its bishop, should be a place where they can find them.
This is a lot. I am pretty sure no one person has all the qualities needed. But whoever we elect should have these as ideals, as goals, for the episcopal ministry. It is trite to say that the Church is at a turning point. The Church has always been at a turning point, because to be alive in any present moment is to have to choose, to turn toward what is coming. Nevertheless, I believe this is such a moment. I pray that our new Bishop will be a person who can represent the values we carry with us from our tradition and do so with cheerful confidence that the challenges that face us are opportunities, and energize us in the Spirit.