The Presiding BIshop: Nine years more? Don't believe so at present.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has made a statement regarding the election of a new Presiding Bishop and her discernment of her future work.  It is a very fine statement. Read it HERE.

The careful reader will note that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori did not say she would not stand for re-election. The title of the ENS posting of her letter says that, but the letter says this:

"At the same time, I recognize that standing for election as Presiding Bishop carries the implicit expectation that one is ready to serve a full term.  I do not at present believe I should serve and lead in this ministry for another nine years."

The Presiding Bishop does not use words carelessly. She has said two things: (i) She "at present" does not believe she should serve and lead in this ministry for another nine years, and (ii) there is the implicit expectation that any candidate should be ready to serve a full term.

She also broadened her comments to say that " I believe I can best serve this Church by opening the door for other bishops to more freely discern their own vocation to this ministry." So she really is making the process more clearly open to bishops who might otherwise stand back if she was willing to serve another nine years.

My sense is that the Presiding Bishop has BOTH closed the door (but not slammed it) on serving another nine years, and opened the door to the possibility of being elected with the understanding (contrary to the implicit expectation) that she would serve for a more limited period of time.

While the canons call for election for nine years, there is nothing to prevent the House of Bishops from making a side agreement with the elected bishop for a shorter term, agreed to by the House itself.  Whether or not the House of Deputies would go along with an election in which there was a codicil agreeing to a shorter term is unclear. But the bishops could elect with such an agreement.

So, the Presiding Bishop has both closed doors and opened them: closed to a discerned willingness to serve for a full nine years and opened to a possibility of a shorter term. 

Other candidates, willing to serve the full nine years, would of course be able to argue for their candidacy precisely on the grounds that it fulfills the expectations of the canons. Those supporting a shorter term for the Presiding Bishop can argue that these are extraordinary times in which an additional time with the same leadership would be very useful to the ongoing life of the Church. 

The Presiding Bishop does state "I also believe that I can offer this Church stronger and clearer leadership in the coming year as we move toward that election and a whole-hearted engagement with necessary structural reforms.  I will continue to engage us in becoming a more fully diverse Church, spreading the gospel among all sorts and conditions of people, and wholeheartedly devoted to God’s vision of a healed and restored Creation."  

She is exactly correct to note that her work is with the present engagement with structural reforms and continued movement into being a diverse and inclusive Church committed to the healing of the Creation.  In doing so, she may also be seen clearly as the best we have to lead us for a few more years while this process plays out a bit.

So lets be clear: The Presiding Bishop has not ruled out reelection. She has changed the context in which she would be willing to be considered.

Can the House of Bishops act in ways related to, but not included in, the canons?  Well, it already does.

I have argued that the process for electing the Presiding Bishop should include the clear nomination from the floor option that the canons assume.  It has been pointed out to me that the House of Bishops, on its own and without any canonical underpinnings, has already made internal agreements that bishops would not vote for any candidate that had not announced candidacy early enough for background checks before the day of election (30 days?). So in the last election all those nominated from the floor were already cleared by declaration of intent and background checks prior to that day.  

Meaning, dear friends, that the canonical assumption of nomination from the floor is unrelated to the realities of election. There is no simple nomination from the floor. I was wrong.

I would hope that in the future development of the canons to reflect the real structure of decision making in the Church that what is extra-canonical might become part of the canons. There is nothing to suggest the necessity of background checks or vetting for the candidates for Presiding Bishop. Further, that vetting can, if carried out as an unwritten addendum to the process, be a way not only of weeding out the crazy and the perverse, but the politically incorrect and ornery.  This is not so good. The process needs to be open and clear.



  1. I surely don’t know exactly what Katharine meant to communicate. The sort of side agreement you suggest would be problematic, in part because it seems unenforceable. In any case, thank you for reminding us that headlines often fail to be completely consistent with the stories they introduce.

  2. Thanks, Mark. I thought I was the only one who could not find the headlines & facebook status updates in her actual text.


  3. I agree with you that the headlines took too definitive a reading, though I do think that was more or less KJS's intent; that is, she is not looking to re-up; tho' perhaps she could be persuaded to change her mind.

    I think a more realistic option -- one that might serve us well -- is the election of a bishop who because of age could not serve the full nine years. There is no requirement that a bishop serve nine years, as the canon explicitly provides for the election of a bishop who cannot serve that long.

    Given the state of flux, TREC, and other issues, I think electing an older PB with skills in transition ministry might not be a bad idea.

    Frankly, I don't think it is canonical to serve two terms. Not to be an originalist or get bogged down in intent, but I think there was no intent that a PB serve more than nine years. The present language of the canons have to be stretched to allow for a reelection. Throughout reference is to "the term of office" (not I.2.2, I.2.3. and I.2.8 in particular.

    I have to say, with Lionel, that I'm also leery of "gentlemen's agreements" that would shorten the term -- what is to bind a PB to do so?

  4. My understanding of her commentary was that Katharine meant to take herself out of the running. If she means what you say, Mark, I am disappointed. Let your yes be yes, and your no, no.

    She was my first choice in the last election, but I thought she had no chance of being elected, and I was delighted when she was. Katharine has served the church well during difficult times, but I understand her reluctance to commit to 9 more years. 18 years is too long for one Presiding Bishop to serve, and we should move on to selecting other candidates.

  5. The Presiding Bishop made it clear that she and Frank Griswold are in favor of returning to a 12-year term, as am I. 9 is too short, if General Convention meets every three years.

  6. Glad the decision was made to go from 12 to 9. Even more so when the last two say they wanted 12!

    Time for a change. Maybe we'll get relief from litigation and also someone prepared to accept GC recommendations re: 815.


  7. Nine years is plenty of time. Share the joy of being PB with others. David Martin

  8. Andrew Reid28/9/14 10:09 AM

    Hello Mark,
    I am wondering if you could explain the thinking behind the 9 year length of term for the Presiding Bishop? I'm from Australia where our Primate has a recently introduced 9 year limit, subject to retirement age limitations. It seems a pretty long time to me, and I was surprised to see another commenter suggest it should be lengthened to 12 years! By choosing a shorter term like 6 years, somebody can conceivably undertake 2 terms, but stop after 6 years if they find it too demanding.
    Best wishes,
    Andrew Reid

  9. TEC Constitution Art. I, Section 3 contemplates only resignation, disability, or death as ending a term of the Presiding Bishop's office. Nothing prevents a candidate from submitting, even prior to election, a resignation to take place on a date certain in the future. So Bp. Jefferts Schori could stand for reelection while submitting an irrevocable resignation to take place as of October 31, 2018.

    This could even be coordinated with a reversion to a 12-year term as existed prior to 1994-A130. I understand that Bp. Jefferts Schori has advocated for a longer term, but I would be interested in hearing more about why. Can other bishops elucidate?

    Also, if TREC can manage to propose a reduction in the executive functions of the Presiding Bishop (perhaps transferring more to a COO), then maybe the PB learning curve wouldn't be so long as at present.


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.