Friday, February 03, 2012

An Episcopal Election
in Auld Reekie

A new Bishop for the Diocese of Edinburgh is in the making and will be elected and consecrated.

You can bank on it.

Get into your time machine and dial up a date two years hence and there will be a bishop in post down at Grosvenor Crescent on the telephone ironing out some knotty problem in measured tones.

That bishop may well be one of the three candidates announced a while back on the Diocesan web page.

It's a small list. Three names is the very minimum the Preparation Committee can present to an electoral synod. Some lists of only three names might not seem particularly small in that they contain candidates who appeal to broad constituencies and across party lines.

Such candidates could conceivably produce odd and interesting alliances of electors, interesting debates on the floor of synod and conspiratorial conversations over a pint at lunch at the Haymarket Pub.

Other lists don't seem quite as large.

With all the forward preparation, and with no allowances in the Canon for candidates nominated from the floor, it's always been a bit of a stretch to describe the Scottish process as anything other than "a process of appointment with some discussion in the final phase".

It's a problem which a quirky list holding a number of possibilities would palliate.

No group of electors likes to feel pushed around.

We have not been lucky with episcopal elections in Scotland, of late. There seems to be a bug in the system. It's not so much a problem of what happens when the list hits the floor of Synod. It's what happens in the lead up - behind closed doors - with a process which we are not supposed to know anything about.

The relevant Canon - Canon 4 which governs the election of Bishops - imposes a great deal of discretion (even secrecy) upon the Preparation Committee as to the way the list of candidates is arrived at.

Anyone may nominate. There's not even a provision to preclude somebody nominating more than one candidate. We have no idea how many candidates were nominated but there are no natural limits in place to keep the list from being long and very interesting.

It falls to the Preparation Committee to go through the list, solicit written responses to a questionnaire, interview and come up with a shortlist of between three and five "electable" candidates to place before the lay and clerical electors of the Diocese.

A candidate may be nominated and then decide not to go ahead and write the necessary (and voluminous) responses to a series of questions posed by the Committee. A nominated candidate may further discuss the move with his or her family and be told "not on your life, buddy"!

For their part, the Preparation Committee may not like the written responses of the candidate and decide not to interview. The interview may take place and, as a result, a particular candidacy may be placed to the side.

At some point the Scottish House of Bishops will exercise its canonical right to exclude names from the list. How many of the candidates, in our case, were deemed "suitable" by the Scottish House of Bishops is another one of the unknowns. Perhaps all the candidates passed muster. Or maybe the list was pruned back tightly by the Scottish House of Bishops and only a few names remained.

The process as outlined in our Canon 4 provides for confidentiality throughout the process.

That's a damned good idea - in itself. There is a risk to clergy allowing their names to stand for election to a diocese. The people of St Swithins, East Badger, might feel that their local clergyperson had let them down, somehow, by allowing his or her name stand in an episcopal election in far off Edinburgh with its cobblestones, it's University and its upscale shops.

Equally, those clergy who don't even make it through the first cut wouldn't want their colleagues, professional rivals or congregations to know that decades of apparently successful ministry hadn't even warranted an interview in what, in the Anglican world, might seem a rather small diocese.

These, then, are risks. And so anyone looking at the resulting shortlist and asking the question:

"Holy cow, what happened there!"

must rely on that self-same rumour mill which ordinarily generates such headlines as:

The Bishop of Aberdeen and Orkney Ate My Hamster!


Faith and Order Board Finds Holy Grail - Escapes with Elvis in UFO!

for the persistent rumour is that there were, in fact, very few nominations for the post.

If true, this is hard news to digest. Why would there be so few nominations?

Most of the congregations in our Diocese record some growth (albeit modest) each year and a couple of congregations are growing quickly. Clergy of very different theological stripes maintain close friendships with each other and this even across lines which would ordinarily divide other Dioceses and Provinces. A quick glance at The Edge, our Diocesan magazine and a scan of the last dozen or so Bishops Announcements will reveal a healthy level of activity undertaken by both young and old on our patch. Our program of lay education - Adventures in Faith - certainly has no flies on it. Edinburgh is a charming city and the outlying towns have their own unique attributes. There's a university with a School of Divinity. The air and the water are clean. The Rector of Balerno and the Rector of Penicuik, between them, control access to a dozen or so reservoirs in the Pentland Hills containing plenty of Brown Trout and any Bishop applying for access will get a special rate.

Lots of opportunity for hill walking.

And so the idea of there not being a healthy bolus of creative and interesting clergy interested in being cultivated as a potential future Bishop of Edinburgh has us all checking our collective underarm for untoward odours.

Is there something wrong with us that we're not aware of?

Or maybe it's the fault of ordinary members like your humble servant here. It was up to us, after all, to think, discern and research and then to telephone, cajole and nominate. Perhaps we are the problem then - lazy sods that we are - and, if this is the case, we have let each other down badly and I look forward to being told so from the Chair at the first of our two meetings of the Electoral Synod tomorrow.

Our Canon 4 - dealing with the election of Bishops - is a strange beast.

That veto exercised, for example, by the Scottish House of Bishops. The assumption is that the Bishops, through their contacts and by way of discreet conversation, will come to know things which the Preparation Committee will not: that Father X had a tendency to drop his trousers and scream out "Armageddon" at the end of Compline services when he was at college. The Diocese of Edinburgh needs to be protected from such proclivities which might still be lurking under the surface. Mother Y, for her part, still has people around who remember the famous Restraining Order which one of her churchwardens took out against her in the 80's. There was that story about her and the spraycan of yellow paint and it's not the place of the electors - clerical or lay - to know why or even that the names of these two individuals were quietly withdrawn from the list by the bishops.

Nobody wants to know the details.

(Ed. That's not completely true. My friend Earle wants to know the details and whether there are any black-and-white photos which might be available for download. )

Most of us are all happy enough to have somebody in Episcopal orders exercising this prevenient caution on our behalf.

Herein lies the problem: There's nothing in the Canon which specifically states that when the House of Bishops pulls someone's name from the list it is because they have identified a tangible threat to the Peace, Order and Good Government of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Such a degree of control over the reservoir of men and women who may be considered by an electoral synod for Episcopal ministry in the Diocese of Edinburgh - if it is based on subtle estimations by the present House of Bishops of who does, or does not, have "Scottish Bishop" written all over them

- if not frankly unacceptable is, at least, something which must be discussed. If it was discussed in days of yore it should be discussed again.

One trusts that the political life of the Church isn't just ordinary politics. One might go so far as to hope that it has, built into it, an openness to elements which are both gracious and even unexpected.

We, on the Synod floor, are willing to be surprised, notwithstanding some ambivalent feelings about our process for identifying and raising up bishops for the Scottish Episcopal Church. We remain hopeful that a suitable candidate will emerge.

Tomorrow we will listen to presentations from the candidates presented to us.

Next Saturday, in our respective Houses, we vote. Remember us.