By Leander S. Harding
Not long after I was ordained some 40 years ago this June, our bishop took a leave for health reasons. After about six months he was back in office and a changed man with a winsome combination of humility and prayerfulness. He immediately adopted a new model for his episcopacy. He announced that each month there would be a day-long clericus at a central location in the diocese, and that he expected all clergy to attend unless prevented for good cause. He made a separate arrangement for those bivocational clergy that could not attend during the week. I was bivocational — my wife and I raised sheep — but I could arrange my schedule to be present, and I made the four-hour drive to Waterville, Maine, which is just about in the center of the state and two hours closer to my mission parish in the far north of Maine than the See in Portland. I drove through more than one northern Maine blizzard to get there. I regarded these meetings as essential and only missed when the driving was altogether impossible.
The model for the meetings was Benedictine. Our monthly meetings were essentially monastic chapter meetings with the bishop in the role of abbot and the clergy in the role of monks. We started with Morning Prayer at 9:00 a.m., which meant a very early start for many of us. The 50 or so clergy sat in a circle with the bishop, and we went around the circle checking in with blessings and challenges. Over time the quality of the trust and the depth of the spiritual community increased and we became willing to share what was really going on in our lives and ministries. We grieved together and we celebrated together. This sharing took us to just before lunch when we took a break and set up for the Eucharist. The bishop celebrated the Eucharist, sometimes preaching, and other times asking a member of the clergy to preach. We then had lunch in smaller groups where there was time to follow up more closely with what had been shared in the morning and where we collected agenda items we would like to see discussed by the whole college of clergy.
After lunch we came together as the larger group again and the bishop would lead us through an hour of teaching about some basic of the Christian faith. We worked our way through the Apostles’ Creed and subjects such as baptism, Eucharist and holy orders. We discussed the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, which was still hot off the press, and issues like what our policy should be about preparation for baptism, marriage, and confirmation. After a break we would discuss some challenge before the diocese as a group. In those days there were maybe a dozen financially strong churches in the diocese, and most of the other churches were missions that received some kind of financial support from the diocese. Determining who got what and by what criteria was a difficult conversation, but we had it. It was a very early church model: the bishop as the president of the college of presbyters who in the manner of a Benedictine abbot hears out every member, including the most junior novice, and then gives judgment.
I remember Mark Dyer, a former Roman Catholic Benedictine who was bishop of Bethlehem, using this model in a slightly different form. He divided the diocese into five regions and spent one day each week in each region and then did a long visitation over the weekend, spending several days in the parish being visited.
In a recent conversation with a colleague who had been a priest under William Frey when he was bishop of Colorado, he described how the bishop would spend the week in a region of the diocese with a parish visitation on each end. During the week Bill Frey was meeting with the clergy in the region as a group and having one-on-one time with each of his priests.
These models prioritize the role of the bishop as a witness to the resurrection and a steward of the apostolic teaching. They realize the ideal of a bishop as the president of a college of clergy and pastor to the pastors — capable, because of deep conversation and consultation with both clergy and people, to speak on behalf of the diocese. These models depend upon a willingness to delegate an immense amount of important and even urgent administration to diocesan staff. My observation is that in many of our dioceses the role of chief official of a regulatory agency has overtaken the catechetical and pastoral work of the bishop. Most of our bishops are drowning in meetings and committee work whose relevance to the challenges in front of the church in late modernity is sometimes hard to discern.
The Diocese of Albany is in the process leading up to the election of our next bishop. It is an excellent time to think hard about what we hope a bishop will do.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany.