On electing bishops

A good friend just stood for election and when the day came she was not elected bishop. She joins a quite large company, for the number of people who stand for election is probably 4 to 6 times larger than the number elected. I am a member of this gang of folk, having been on the ballot in two elections and not elected. 

Some observations about this bishop election thing. 

The election of a bishop is unlike the "process" by which one becomes part of the other two orders in ordained ministry. 

Deacons and Priests are ordered in the context of a process, and although various groups have to assent to the ordination, there is no sense of "election" by electors. The whole matter is treated as an exploration into vocation, with all the parties concerned working through what that might mean. When sufficient voice is found for ordination, it happens. Ordination is not usually accompanied by competition with other "candidates."  At the most the competition is with some larger concerns about deployment and particular call to ministry as a deacon or priest.  

With the election (or in other systems appointment)  of a bishop, the sense of exploration of vocation is greatly diminished and the sense of competition for a "seat" greatly increased.  It is not, "are you a good candidate for the office of priest?"  it is "are you the right person to be our bishop?" It gets personal, direct, competitive and ends with one person being "winner," and the rest (at the best) "also rans."

The parallel to the election of a bishop is not ordination as a deacon or priest, but the election of a rector or a dean.  That is, bishops are not so much the product of vocational discernment as they are a product of a search process. They are not in that sense a third vocational order, they are products of institutional search and board election. 

As with the election of a rector, the election of a bishop is confusing because it seems so personal (particularly the rejection) and yet it is couched in such good ecclesiastical language of discernment and vocation. The "no" by the electors gets confused with the "yes" of the discerned call to ministry.

A good friend who stood for rector in perhaps 15 parishes and got elected rector to three, said about rejection, "what I learned is it wasn't personal. The electors could not have known enough about me to reject me, they knew enough about themselves to find someone else to their liking."  I took comfort in that observation, but it didn't help a lot.

The problem of election or appointment as bishop is that it seems to be a conversation about a vocation, as in "are you called to be bishop?" But it happens in the context of search and seizure, of competition for a post.  When we were asked if we were called to the order of priest, it was not this or that particular posting, but to the order. When we are candidates for bishop it is to place.  

This by the way is one of the big problems with the Mark Lawrence types in the land of bishops. They don't get it. They are elected to a specific time and place of ministry, to a "position."

Had I been more willing to see election as bishop as a matter of competition rather than vocational discernment I suppose I might have made appropriate choices both over the years and in the immediate context of election, and might well have been elected.  But I did not choose work on the basis of it getting me to a particular place, nor did I campaign very much. Oh well.

I suspect most of us who have stood for election as bishop, as I do, look occasionally a the work done by the one who was elected and think, "I would have done differently," or even "I would have done better." But that passes quickly, thank God, for aside from its prideful spirit it is also mostly a fiction. 

Thinking about what we might have done in jobs not offered is an unpleasant exercise. In particular the work of the bishop is shaped by many forces and God only knows (really) what any of us might do if we were really in that position. The heat of the kitchen leads to unpredictable situations.

St.Martha, the tired.
Still, I find myself needing to remember that being bishop is sort of like taking the position of running the kitchen, believing that if folks want to eat, that position is one of considerable importance. 

And running the kitchen is a full time affair. But I am of a mind to believe that it is sometimes the better part to be able to sit at the table listening to that strange wonderful friend who tells us all who we really are.

It turns out that the "also rans" have time to play the better part, the Mary part, not having to be busy with many things. At any event the person closest to me in this world believes I should thank God regularly that I don't have to run the kitchen.

Here is to Martha, and all the bishops who have to stand the heat of the kitchen. We Mary types are listening to our friend, and sometime wonder when dinner is coming. We need to remember to thank you for standing for, and being, elected.

And although it is seldom mentioned, Martha is a saint... just a very tired one. 


  1. Thanks, Mark. Wise words. Speaking here as a Mary in a more Martha world. And with a good friend recently elected Bishop, and another friend not elected. Blessings on your ministry among us.

  2. As a member of a church which elects bishops from the ranks of priests (and, occasionally, the ranks of the already bishopped) your post has set me thinking about whether we do need a process of discernment of vocation to be a bishop, separate from the election of bishops to fill particular posts.

    To an extent the CofE which 'appoints' rather than 'elects' its bishops has this system because they have a list of possible candidates to be bishops from whom (so I understand) the appointed bishops are chosen. There is also the twist that quite often the post of diocesan bishop is chosen from the ranks of suffragan bishops.

    Naturally my mind starts to think about amalgamating the best features of both approaches ...

  3. Bravo, Mark. Well said. So you belong to the order of ex-future bishops.

  4. This has set me to thinking with regard to the ancient Church, the time when there were no priests, just bishops and deacons. How did one become a bishop then? It seems that the Apostles appointed them (or we’re led to believe eventually began commissioning others to appoint them, Titus 1:5) until there were no more living Apostles, but what was the system following that?

    The author of 1 Tim 3:1 makes a statement that sounds akin to discernment of a calling.

  5. As a layperson who has observed the process of selecting both rectors and bishops, I am convinced that the outcome is at least as much about the electors as the candidates. In many cases, disappointed episcopal candidates should thank God for the outcome of the election.

    Selecting a bishop is, I think, trickier than selecting a rector. The role of bishop is different from that of priest, and past performance is a less sure indicator of future seccess when choosing a bishop than when choosing a rector. Even a good candidate for bishop, in the abstract, may be a poor choice in a particular case, And the danger of the “successful” episcopal candidate’s becoming an exemplar of the Peter Principle is a very real one.

    That becoming a bishop appears to be the next rung on the career ladder for a priest is very seductive. Those with a thirst for the purple should remember the old warning, however: Be careful what you wish for; you might get it.

  6. Perhaps now that TREC has advised that TEC should increase the power of the PB and she has said she wants bishops appointed rather than elected it will simply be a case that the current PB will appoint them whenever necessary, rather like the Pope?

    Chris H.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.