I'm just back from my second meeting of the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops. While in Quito, I observed both the anniversary of my election, and the six-month mark of my consecration. I'm still getting a feel for the culture and ethos of not just being a bishop, but being a bishop in a community of bishops. Those really are two related but distinct things, and I'm a little further along with the first learning curve than I am with the second, though solid progress has been made in the last few days.
While we were in South America, there was a bit of an internet buzz back home over the fact that we were assembled in such a faraway location. On balance, I concur with the skepticism. The airfares were steep, and the travel was inconvenient. For what it's worth, attendance at this meeting was perceptibly lower than when we met last March in North Carolina. That said, the hotel room rate--and we were at a Hilton--was dramatically lower than what we would have gotten domestically, and restaurant meals were downright cheap by comparison. Plus, in a time of crisis in the Diocese of Ecuador Central, I believe our presence there was a beneficial influence.
But the internet buzz was not only about the fact that we were meeting in Ecuador, it was about the fact that we were meeting at all. The criticism goes something like this: "The House of Bishops is only one of the two key players in the governance of the Episcopal Church. Why should bishops get to meet six times during a triennium, while the members of the House of Deputies only meet once?"
If one focuses narrowly on the process that produces legislation that governs the church, this critique may have some merit. It would appear to give the bishops, collectively, an unfair advantage. With only some 130 active bishops, it is already a more nimble body than the unwieldy 900-member House of Deputies. Adding to this the effect of the collegial relationships that are formed and sustained by meeting twice a year, and the fact that either house has an effective veto power over any proposed legislation, it would, in fact, appear that the "junior house" (as some Deputies are wont to call it) has disproportionate influence--some might say, unjustly so.
However, despite the experience of a not inconsiderable number of General Convention "wonks", I think it's safe to say that General Convention is not the church, and the church is not General Convention. There's a great deal of being and doing within the Body of Christ that has nothing to do with the legislative process. Much of that being and doing either requires or is enhanced by the presence of a bishop. This is amply evident at a diocesan level. To the baptized faithful within a diocese, the Bishop is an iconic sign of Christ the Good Shepherd, living and moving and having being among the flock of Christ. One of the lessons I've learned over the last six months is that a good percentage of my job involves just getting out of my car looking like a bishop, and then posing for pictures. Other things I do and say are pretty important, of course, but the significance of just being the Bishop cannot be overstated.
But, just as a diocese, despite possessing within itself the fullness of the Church's being, does not exist in isolation from other local churches that also possess the same fullness, a bishop does not exist in isolation, but is, rather, part of a college of bishops. There is a network of accountability--most of it mutual, some of it hierarchical. For bishops in those dioceses that are ordered by the structures of the Episcopal Church, the collegial character of the office is defined with some precision in the constitution and canons of the church, as well as in the rules and customs of that collegial community.
A bit of confusion--confusion leading to consternation--is perhaps engendered by the fact that, when the bishops of the Episcopal Church meet, they meet as the House of Bishops. This may be unfortunate, though there is so much inertial momentum behind it now that changing it is probably not worth the energy it would take to make it happen. The reality is, however, that when the HoB meets apart from General Convention, there is absolutely no legislative business that can take place. No canonical amendments can be proposed, debated, or voted on. Any resolutions that are passed (and they are rare) are strictly "mind of the house," with no binding effect on anyone. Instead, what happens at five out of every six HoB meetings concerns those aspects of a bishop's life and ministry, and the life and ministry of the college of bishops, that are non-legislative. This includes issues of leadership development, ongoing theological and spiritual formation, and teaching. While I dissented from the Pastoral Teaching promulgated by this most recent meeting, I wholly affirm that it is within the purview of the bishops' collective ministry to teach the faithful. Need I even be so explicit as to say that the House of Deputies has no cognate responsibility?
(Of course, subjects will from time to time be discussed among bishops that may eventually find their way into the legislative process, as was the case this week with regard to structural change. But the same can be said of any of the 50+ CCABs, all of which include priests/deacons and lay persons, to say nothing of any number of informal networks, especially in this internet age.)
So ... bishops are not mere agents of General Convention. They are accountable to a whole panoply of duties and expectations that have nothing to do with General Convention. Look at the ordination vows and examination questions in the Prayer Book, as well as the catechism. Taking a share in "the councils of the church" is a relatively small piece of the puzzle. I do wish we could refer to these assemblies as something like "bishops' meetings." Perhaps then there would be less angst about the disparity of opportunity between the two houses of General Convention. It's been said that TEC is "synodically governed and episcopally led." There is some wisdom in this, I think. The House of Bishops should not try to govern apart from the church's synod (i.e. G.C.), and the House of Deputies should let the bishops do their job, which is to lead.
Nor, it must be added, are bishops really creatures of General Convention. Yes, the life and work of a bishop in communion with the Episcopal Church is defined and described in the canons and in the liturgy. But, as Episcopalians, if we are true to our own heritage and identity, we are quite clear that we don't make any of this up. We are part of the Church Catholic. The structures of church order, the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the pastoral oversight (episkope) of the flock of Christ--these are all gifts from God that we hold in trust, as stewards, along with other ecclesial bodies that drink from the same well.