Describing the Process

The process is much more complicated than this, I promise you.
The process is much more complicated than this, I promise you.

Fourth in the How Do Bishops Become Bishops Series* (See Glossary of Impenetrable Church Words at the end of this post for further explanation)

In the Roman Catholic Church (to which The Episcopal Church is so often compared), the question of how a bishop becomes a bishop is answered quite easily: the Pope selects a likely looking candidate and makes him a bishop. So really, the kind of bishops you’re likely to get depends quite a bit on the kind of Pope you’ve already got.

Not so in The Episcopal Church. See below.

Stage One: Bishops Get Elected.

Bishops do sometimes move diagonally, but they don't like to discuss it.
Bishops do sometimes move diagonally, but they don’t like to discuss it.

In each diocese, the people get to choose their own bishop in the way they’ve decided to (and put down in their by-laws). This usually takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and no small amount of angst. But what it also does, is give the people in the pews the power to choose their own leadership. Why is this? Because we’re (mostly) Americans and we like representative democracies, federations of states and bi-cameral legislatures.

In the very rare case that a diocese doesn’t wish to elect its own bishop, it can give the process over to either to the entire House of Bishops, or to the House of Bishops of its Province.

So how does a diocese usually decide to do this? It usually goes like this, with some variation:

A Bishop Search Committee is formed, and it has both clergy and lay people from the diocese on it. The Search Committee walks the entire diocese through the process.

First, the Search Committee forms a profile of the diocese. This is the same sort of thing that an individual congregation does when it’s searching for a new rector. It is understood that some lying may occur in said profile. Why? Because even if it is unconscious, we’re never quite clear on who, exactly, we are and where, precisely, we want to go. And ‘who we are’ and ‘where we want to go’ is what the Diocesan Profile is supposed to outline. This could take several months to compile and edit.

You really can self nominate to be a bishop. Be afraid, be very afraid.
You really can self nominate to be a bishop. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Second, Nominations are solicited. Once the profile is released, there is a period of time, say a month, where you may nominate yourself if you are eligible (priest, over 30, ostensibly a good match for the profile), or someone else may get your permission to nominate you. Some communication occurs and nominees fill out an application packet which inevitably includes your resume, along with other pertinent questions to be answered in essay form. (Add, say, another month to get the application back.)

Third, the unenviable task of wading through all the applications. The Search Committee does this. They aren’t required to say how many applications they’ve gotten, who they’ve gotten them from, or on which particular basis applications have been weeded out. One imagines a great Search Committee, with much prayer and discernment, sees through the bullshit to the real person and figures out if that one might make a good bishop for them, based on the profile they’ve created. This is the time when the pool of applicants goes from, say, 600 to 20.

No, not that kind of app.
No, not that kind of app.

Then a variety of things happen as the Search Committee eventually weeds the pool of applicants down to, say, 4 people, the people who will actually be on the ballot. The closer they get to four, the more likely the following things will occur:

  • Phone interviews with applicants
  • In-person interviews with applicants, including being slightly sneaking and showing up on Sunday in applicant’s congregation to see a)how they are on their home turf with their own people and b)just how they rank on the bad preacher-good preacher scale.

Eventually, after perhaps five months, the Search Committee has whittled the number of applicants from 600 to 4. At that point, those four names are released as the Nominees. This is the point where everything goes quite public.

Moving on to Step Four, there will be Walkabouts. When the final number of people on the ballot is reached, a few things will happen. The answers to the questions in the application back in part two of this stage will likely be printed up in a little booklet along with pictures and the vitals stats of each of the candidates. Then, each of the, say, four candidates and spouses are flown to the diocese in question. They will likely get a bit of tourist time, but the majority of their time is spent traveling around the diocese, attending panel discussions, in which they comprise the panel. This is a great opportunity for anyone in the diocese to attend, meet the candidates, and ask questions.

imagesFive, Elect! Not long after the Walkabouts, the election itself is held. Each congregation sends several lay people to act as delegates and every clergy person also gets a vote. This creates a bi-cameral situation – you’ve got the Clergy and the Lay People. To get a bishop, you’ve got to have a majority of the vote in each house (or order, in this case). And what often happens is that the clergy like one candidate and the lay people like a different one. So, you have ballot after ballot until you have a majority. After each ballot the candidates, who are not present, are informed of the percentage numbers and if it continues for some time, candidates with very low numbers may opt to retire from the ballot.

Picture by
Picture by

To make things even more interesting you can actually circumvent the first four steps and also nominate candidates from the floor of the election. This like a write-in, and plenty of good bishops have been elected this way – it’s the diocese’s recourse when the Search Committee provides a ballot that seems unsuitable.

Stage Two: Bishops Get Ratified.

In this case, maybes count as nos.
In this case, maybes count as nos.

An election of a bishop doesn’t get you a bishop, it gets you a bishop-elect. In order to have the election ratified, you have to get consent of the rest of the Church. It must be ratified by a simple majority of Standing Committees, and they have 120 days to do it in. What happens if consent is not granted? Go back to Stage One, and elect yourself another bishop. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

So what this means is that if one diocese decides to elect a complete wingnut, the rest of the Church gets to weigh in. But since the definition of wingnut is highly subjective (note its absence in the glossary below), that diocese could still get consent from a majority of the Church, which would be enough.

Stage Three: Bishops Get Consecrated.

It takes three bishops to make another one. It’s another ordination liturgy and the Presiding Bishop is often the bishop who actually presides. It’s usually quite the todo. We in the Diocese of Western New York don’t have a cathedral large enough to hold all of the people who would attend, so we did our last one at the University of Buffalo’s Center for Arts mainstage theatre. It was quite nifty.

Because of the ratification process, the consecration isn’t going to happen for at least three months after the election, if the all the consent that is needed is granted. But the gist of this entire stage is this: We Have A Ritual, Then Throw A Party. Why? Because we’re Episcopalians, and that’s how we roll.

Glossary of Impenetrable Church Words:

Bishop – noun. A cleric, formerly a priest, with authority over a diocese. In The Episcopal Church, they can be of either gender, must be between the ages of 30 and 72, and come in several flavors. A Bishop Diocesan is the primary bishop of a diocese, and often the only bishop. A Bishop Suffragan is the secondary bishop of a diocese, has tenure, but does not have a right of succession. A Bishop Co-Adjutor is the successor of a Bishop Diocesan who begins before the retirement of his or her predecessor. Other flavors include Missionary Bishops and Assistant Bishops, but are not covered in this blogpost.

Deacon – noun. A cleric, a man or woman who has been ordained to the Diaconate, or Holy Order of Deacons.

Diaconatenoun. An order in the church largely responsible for serving other people.

Diocese  – noun. A geographic area ranging in size that designates the authority of a bishop. There’s more to it than that, but if you compare a bishop to a governor and a diocese to a state you’ll be on the right track. If you then think of the strength of state’s rights before the civil war, you’ll have a pretty accurate understanding of how The Episcopal Church governs itself.

Episcopate – noun. An order in the church largely responsible for the administration of the church. From the Greek, meaning administrator. Notice the similarity to the name of our church? That’s because after the American Revolution, when we no longer wanted to be so closely associated with the British Empire, the formerly Anglican Church in this area chose a new name. We chose ‘Episcopal’ because it means ‘bishop-having’. So, we are the protestant church that has bishops. (Actually, our legal name is heinously long: The Foreign and Domestic Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. You can see, perhaps, why we simplify and go as The Episcopal Church.)

General Convention – noun. This is the triennial legislative meeting of The Episcopal Church. It is a bi-cameral legislature, the two houses being the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. The deputies are both clergy and lay people. By the by, in the ten day, once every three year meeting of General Convention, The Episcopal Church gets through the same amount of legislation that the U.S. Congress gets through in a year. Isn’t that fascinating?

Lay Person – noun. This is a member of the Church who is not ordained – neither deacon, nor priest, nor bishop. They often, but not always, sit in the pews, and in The Episcopal Church, they have a lot of power.

Ordination – noun. The ritual conducted by members of The Episcopal Church, during which a suitable candidate takes orders, either for the diaconate, the priesthood, or the episcopate.

Presiding Bishop – noun. The head bishop of The Episcopal Church. Has nearly no authority but is a really nice figurehead. Until the 1950’s, this was simply the most senior Bishop Diocesan in the House of Bishops. This is an elected post and last 9 years.

Priest – noun. A cleric, a man or woman who has been ordained to the Priesthood. In many dioceses, a priest must first be ordained a deacon and operate as one for a certain period of time. In such a case they are known as a transitional deacon. Must be over 25.

Province – noun. A geographic area including several dioceses. It has no leader – it’s just a convenient means of grouping and networking.

Rector – noun. The lead priest in a congregation who has authority over it. Also, tenure. Must be between the ages of 25 and 72. A rector, by the way, has quite a lot of power to argue and disagree with her bishop. So long as she doesn’t break any laws and is on good terms with her congregation, the worst the bishop can do to her is fail to appoint her to committees. Which is usually fine, because she’ll probably get elected to the ones she wants to serve on anyway.

Standing Committee – noun. The Bishop’s Council of Advice. In the odd event of a diocese lacking a bishop (say he or she dies while in office), the Standing Committee has the authority to temporarily fill the roll of the bishop, itself. The Standing Committee is made up of both clergy and lay people.


*This series is meant as an instructional commentary on how Bishops become Bishops in the Episcopal Church. The intended audience of this blogpost is not Episcopalians. This blogpost is not meant to be a form lobbying for me to become bishop. 

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