Friday at diocesan convention, I voted for the relatively few candidates who had bothered to run for diocesan office, and read the motions scheduled for debate on Saturday. As I looked around the conference area, I wondered whether all this was the best, most effective, holiest use to which we could put the countless person-hours that the convention required. I thought about how little I knew of the candidates for diocesan office; even if I were more of a social butterfly on the diocesan scene, I might well not have known half the candidates (several people were nominated from the floor). I can’t imagine that we’re ordering our ecclesiastical life in the wisest possible way, and that saddens me.
The elections proceed as though the identity, the faith and theological insight of the candidates make no difference. The business of the convention, which this year was mostly administrative minutiae, might equally probably have included a diocesan response to the Windsor Report or the general condition of the Episcopal Church. If we had such a motion, it would have been decided by the same indifferently-elected* delegates as disposes of the method of appointing campus ministries delegates to Diocesan Convention.
My experience in teaching Early Church History to first-year Episcopal seminarians suggests that convention delegates may not come to their responsibilities richly armed with an appreciation of the elements of Christian history or theology. We turn to their legislative wisdom on the sound premise that all are equally members of the Body of Christ; I wonder, though, whether that might not eclipse the equally true, and arguably more pertinent, point that
to each has been given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. There are varieties of gifts and services, but it is the same God who inspires them in all. Therefore, each working for a good purpose may have a different gift; but these are all the works of the same Spirit, who distributes different gifts to different people. . . .
If I saw more reason to be confident that parish and diocesan elections involved careful discernment of gifts, I would probably feel more sanguine about ecclesiastical politics. Under present circumstances, I find it difficult not to leave diocesan convention with more Dilbertian sense of resignation.
“Very well,” someone says, “What’s your better idea, big-mouth?” I don’t pretend that my gifts include planning for legislative processes, but I would think it mere common sense that the exercise of institutional authority in the church be reserved for people who have demonstrated at least a minimal fluency in the subjects about which they’re about to make decisions. “Participation in church governance” apart from theological, historical, or biblical literacy becomes a self-perpetuating qualification that sets a disquietingly low bar for wisdom** in ecclesiastical leadership.
* “Indifferently-elected” in the sense that the elections did not involve searching examination of the merits of the various nominees; they may have been nominated by direct inspiration from the Holy Spirit, for all I know, or by over-whelming majorities of the voters (the latter must be the case in the several elections where nominees ran unopposed). The new office-holders may be absolutely the best people for their jobs, but that ideal match arose out of some factor other than legislative deliberation and discernment.
**Note that I don’t rule out the possibility that someone without academic theological formation may be a commendable church leader with sound theological judgment. I doubt, however, that it makes sense to presume that anyone whom a parish elects as a convention delegate must thereby exemplify such laudable gifts. Indeed, I could (if I were in a nasty frame of mind) amass considerable empirical data that such saints constitute exceptions to the overwhelmingly dominant rule. To hark back to my customary comparison, I’d hesitate to consult a surgeon who was elected without careful attention to her medical training.