The Diocese of Springfield (Illinois) will be electing its eleventh bishop on September 18. Two days ago, I learned that my name will be among the three that appear on the ballot at that election. This is a great honor, and I am still taking it in.
It is also a place of some risk and vulnerability. Whatever transpires over the next six weeks, I am aware that one of the results--not the only result, of course, but one of them--will be agony, agony for me and agony for others. No, not life-shattering or even gut-wrenching agony; it will hardly be the torment of the damned. But it will be more than just the prick of a needle to draw blood; it will be a wound, a wound that leaves a scar. The scar will fade into nothingness rather quickly, I expect, but it will be there.
The election of a bishop is a dynamic process. It is a simultaneously holy and unholy alliance between faithful spiritual discernment, raw power politics, unintended consequences, deep and worthy aspirations, hedging of bets, the operation of the collective unconscious on a scale that would impress even Dr Jung, and, one hopes, a generous dollop of the sovereign action of the Holy Spirit. I'm not entirely persuaded that the Church would be any less well-served if we just threw dice, or had each candidate pull the lever of a consecrated slot machine. Nonetheless, the process we have is the process we have.
The process in Springfield began with some 24 priests, I am given to understand, having had their names submitted to the Election Committee. Fifteen then opted to fulfill the rather demanding requests that the diocese asked them to comply with. These included reading and digesting a lengthy profile of the diocese, a large number of statistical data compiled from a survey of clergy and communicants there, and writing nine 500-word essays in response to specific questions, each of which had to then be rendered as a video presentation. This required a considerable investment of time, initiative, intellectual energy, and prayer. One of the fifteen subsequently dropped out along the way.
Then the poor clergy and lay delegates in the Diocese of Springfield had to deal with dossiers that I have not seen but could only have made War and Peace seem like the Sunday comics! They all got together last Saturday at their cathedral church with the intention of winnowing the list of fourteen down to four. Three "selections"--your humble blogger among them--were made relatively quickly. But they then ran into a snag, with one of the remaining nominees showing strong support among the clergy and the other showing strong support among the laity, but clearly there was not going to be any significant movement. It was getting late, and some the delegates had long drives ahead of them, so they opted to stick with the three birds they had in hand rather than continue to pursue one more of the two in the bush.
A process of this sort is one of discernment. For me, at least, discernment requires imaginatively "trying on" the role under consideration. This is psychically and spiritually costly--worth it, one hopes, but costly. I have found no other way to faithfully do the job. I have to make myself totally available, in an interior way, to the possibility that is being discerned. I can only assume that my two colleagues who are in the same place in the process also have to do the same. Sometime on September 18, two of us are going to be invited to suddenly close the book on that work (as eleven others had to do last Saturday). I imagine they (or should I say "we"?) will wince, at least, as we do that. A moment of agony. It isn't that my self-esteem is tied up with becoming Bishop of Springfield (or bishop of anything else, for that matter). The pain will be in the sheer suddenness of the conclusion.
If I am elected, there will be the joy and excitement of taking up new work, but the challenges of being a bishop are legion. It will not be a walk in the park. I have served as a Rural Dean and a member of Standing Committees long enough to be familiar with the sorts of very un-fun issues bishops have to deal with. There is agony in that. But the greater agony, I think, flowing from my election, should it occur, will be that of taking leave once again of a congregation and a community that Brenda and I have come to love a great deal. We like our life in Warsaw. We have been at St Anne's only three years, but it's long enough to have put down some roots and form relationships that are quite precious to us. We have dreamed big dreams together at St Anne's, and I remain energized and joyful in my ministry. It would be not only agonizing, but wrenching indeed, to leave it all.
The point, of course, is that agony, of whatever scale, is not something to be avoided, but embraced. It is the way of the cross, and only by taking up the cross do we find it to be "the way of life and peace." Of your charity, do pray for me--as well as for Father Gunter and Canon Stevenson, and for the clergy and delegates of the Diocese of Springfield--that we will be courageously faithful in taking up the cross of guaranteed agony in the time between now and the election, and that the wind of the Holy Spirit will permeate St Paul's Cathedral on that day.