Bishops in the Episcopal Church are elected by a general convention of clergy and lay persons in the dioceses that they will serve. Following their election they must be approved by a majority vote of sitting diocesan bishops and diocesan committees of priests and lay persons before a consecration can take place. In years gone by those approvals were offered without much close examination of the person elected. If the requirements of the canons were met, it was assumed that the local diocese had done a good job of it themselves, and it was probably inappropriate for others, who had no personal knowledge of the bishop elect, to second guess those at the local level and whose bishop this person would become.
All of that has changed. It was triggered in part by the election of Gene Robinson in New Hampshire, the first openly gay bishop living with his partner, but exacerbated by very public issues with other bishops who have been found in violation of church canons and secular laws, bishops who have lost the confidence of their flocks, bishops who have departed for other denominations – some of them attempting to take the entire diocese with them, and so on. Furthermore, it is now more clear that a diocesan bishop is not simply a local church leader, but a bishop of the whole church, both of the Episcopal Church in America and also of the World Wide Anglican Communion. As a result, we now see bishop candidates examined under a microscope to expose every aspect of their personal and professional lives as well as the details of their public and private theologies. On the whole I think that’s a good thing. But it has been infected by high anxiety about leadership that has made a necessary close examination into a public tearing apart of a person’s personal and professional life to the point of destructive humiliation.
Moreover, I believe that this anxiety over leadership is not centered in the church at all, but in a combination of the way we get news and a national psyche that is rife with high anxiety about leadership in general.
First the news. In days not long past, national news meant news about issues or events of national importance, and it got reported in the local paper (sometimes) and on network radio or television during an evening half hour broadcast. News of tremendous local importance was reported locally, but probably not nationally, so that local events appeared to their audiences to be unique, and they knew very little about similar events of local importance elsewhere. The advent of 24 hour cable news channels and the Internet changed all of that. Now we are submerged in cascades of stories about events of national importance, local importance and no importance at all that are parsed out ad nauseam, frequently in voices implying conspiracy, doom or catastrophe. Suddenly we know that what happened in some obscure town out on the prairie is just like what happened in a major coastal city and it looks like an epidemic has burst out of nowhere. Public figures are subject to scrutiny of every aspect of their lives, partly for legitimate reasons, but partly just for the humiliating entertainment value of it.
I believe that that alone has led to an increase in the anxiety level of the national psyche, but these last eight years of political leadership in Washington drove it to previously unknown heights as America simply lost all faith in its elected leaders. Coincidentally, those same eight years exposed failures in religious leadership in every denomination at every level through repetitively explicit reporting of every sordid detail. Now we’ve discovered that major elements of corporate leadership have been systematically looting the national treasure box for years. All of that adds up to an extraordinarily high level of anxiety over any kind of leadership at any level for any purpose. Who can trust any leader under any circumstance?
The problem, as I see it, is that it can lead us to be so intent on microscopic analysis of potential leaders that truly gifted potential leaders will increasingly be unwilling to subject themselves and their families to the ordeal. That leaves two groups willing to take a shot at leadership positions: the not so gifted who can be counted on for mediocracy, and the con-artists who figure it will be easy to put one over on the public. That, in turn, can lead to a jaded public expecting nothing better of their leaders and so satisfied with a parade of the unqualified and criminal. We already have a few states that have perfected that kind of leadership over many decades, but I don’t think we want them to become the model for all of us.
To bring all of this back to the church, I think it is a good and proper thing that we are now more aware of the national and international importance of the leadership decisions we make at the local level. Closer scrutiny is a good thing. At the same time, we need to dispose of our anxiety driven paranoia and allow truly gifted, but fully human, persons to put themselves forward at God’s call to do the work they are most qualified to do.