This post originally appeared in the June 3, 2012 issue of The Living Church.

By Derek Olsen

Like the American Congress, General Convention has two houses and two presiding officers: the House of Deputies, led by its president, Bonnie Anderson, and the House of Bishops, led by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. Unlike the American government, the Episcopal Church has no separate and distinct executive branch. Instead, the church vests this authority in a group, Executive Council. The presiding officers oversee Executive Council and share executive powers in appointing standing commissions and triennial committees.

This triennium has been marked with tensions at the highest levels of the church, and those tensions have grown early this year. Challenges centered on communications and budgeting have led to high-profile exchanges between the presiding officers. While personality plays a role, the conflict between these two leaders is symptomatic of wider disagreements among church leaders.


Rather than seeing the disagreements between the two presiding officers as representing tensions between their legislative houses, let us consider their organizational positioning. The presiding bishop finds a home at the church headquarters at 815 Second Avenue with a paid staff, particularly the executive team. The president finds a home within Executive Council, the elected body which guides the church between each General Convention. This is important: the conflict is between leadership connected to paid staff and leadership connected to elected volunteers. It highlights a tension both systemic and endemic to all levels of our church — between diocesan staff and standing committees, between parish staff and vestries.

Paid staff members have the expertise and the responsibility to do a good job. They may not take kindly to external advice. On the other hand are the elected representatives of Executive Council, who volunteer multiple hours because of their passion for the church, and to whom paid staff members are ultimately accountable.

How then should we consider the roles and responsibilities of the presiding bishop and the president — historically, theologically, and canonically?

The presiding bishop certainly receives more attention in the church’s canons and liturgies. Considering our most central pieces of evidence to be the liturgy for the Ordination of Bishops and Canon I.2.4a, the presiding bishop must serve in three fundamental capacities: administrative, sacramental, and pastoral. The documents are incomplete, however, without a longer view of how the office has changed in the few short centuries of the Episcopal Church.

The Role of the Presiding Bishop, which Walter Roland Foster wrote at the behest of the Standing Commission on Structure in 1981, sketched the development of the office from its origins to Foster’s own day. Foster parses the historical evidence into a set of central images that communicate the heart of the office as it changed over time. Originally the presiding bishop was simply the oldest member of the House of Bishops. This was not an elected position, and the responsibilities were largely sacramental: he was the chief consecrator of bishops. The presiding bishop remained a diocesan bishop, in addition to other duties. The dominant image that Foster offers for these first years is the venerable patriarch. Around the turn of the 20th century, it became clear that this role would not survive much longer.

Foster shapes his continuing narrative with a particular perspective in mind, driving toward his vision of the office’s full scope. At the 1919 General Convention the age of the venerable patriarch ended: the presiding bishop became a chief executive officer, more than a traveling consecrator, who led the Episcopal Church’s consolidated structure. The presiding bishop took on another role in the ’20s and ’30s: the chief pastor who exemplifies the unity of the Church. It was not until 1943 that the first presiding bishop gave up his diocese upon being elected and the office became a full-time job. This narrative reached its apex with Presiding Bishop John E. Hines, who embodied what Foster considers the final essential role: prophetic witness. Thus, Foster offers a vision of the office that balances CEO with chief pastor and prophetic witness.

If Foster is correct, then perhaps what we need now is a tuning of the balance. Rather than a chief program officer, we need a CEO willing to offer a fractured church a vision of unity and a clarity of purpose centered in Jesus Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel. While I do not doubt that the presiding bishop firmly believes that the programs directed from 815 contribute to Gospel proclamation, she is not backed by the full imagination of a united church. We need more than a nebulous appreciation of the word mission; instead, we need a concrete picture of what mission means and how it relates directly to the proclamation of Jesus that can kindle the hearts of the whole church, not just elites.

Furthermore, as senior bishops around the world vie for a greater role for the primatial leaders of the Anglican Communion, as a church we need heartfelt discussion about what we mean by primate. A sliding scale exists from primus (a titular or ceremonial first among equals, as in our earlier model) to pope (a prince of the Church with supreme authority). Certainly ours belongs on the primus side but exactly where is up for discussion.

Where does this leave the president of the deputies? Unlike the presiding bishop, this role is much less defined. The Constitution and Canons do not give the attention to this office that they do the other; no books have been written about its history and scope. My limited research suggests that the president of the House of Deputies did not become a full-time position (albeit unpaid) until the tenure of Pamela Chinnis (1991-99). While the presiding bishop must balance administrative, sacramental, and pastoral roles, the president has an overwhelmingly administrative role that must balance, complement, and — when necessary — challenge the administrative role of the presiding bishop.

The president operates in a different order, either clerical or lay, from the presiding bishop, and experiences the church on a different level. The president is the Episcopal Church’s senior warden, charged with ensuring that voices from the pews resound in the halls of power. Constitutionally, the president is both a partner and a foil designed to assist and temper the presiding bishop’s vision, ideally representing the corporate voice of the people. Isolating the president from that collective voice would compromise the president’s ability to speak from the pews.

As we discuss further organizational restructuring, my prayer for the church is that whatever structures arise will help nurture a vibrant representational Anglican voice prepared to proclaim the sacramental presence of Christ in his world.

The featured image of Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori  (2009) was uploaded to Wikipedia by user Ozma1981. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

Derek Olsen, theologian in residence at Church of the Advent, writes about liturgical spirituality at the weblog

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Checks and Balances

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