When I was a parish priest, sometimes I would contact my bishop and get the reply “I’m at House of Bishops.” I had two bishops over those years. They would say it as if they were doing something important. I accepted it as a holy mystery, not caring to know anymore than I had to about the “councils of the church” except what directly affected the life of my small parish.
After being consecrated bishop of Nevada, I attended my first HOB meeting with a sense of foreboding. I expected bishops to be opinionated, pompous, judgmental, arrogant, and stuffy. What I found instead was a warmer greeting, a readier acceptance, than I had ever encountered in any group. I felt instantly safer than I had ever felt in my small town clergy “support” group.
So 6 years later, here I am in Nashville. No this is not a boondoggle. I am not seeing the sights. I spent today in hotel conference rooms learning the art of coactive coaching. For my first three years as bishop, Tom Ely, Bishop of Vermont, was my bishop coach, helping me to identify how my subjectivity was at play in my ministry and to clarify goals and plans. Now it is my turn to do that for future bishops. Tom of Vermont and Dan of Nevada bonded over those years. Tom also bonded with another new Bishop, Porter of Western North Carolina. But I know Porter from back when we were both priests in the Diocese of Atlanta. I even did a Celtic Spirituality program at his parish in Athens while he was on sabbatical. Connections. These are the sinews of that tie the church together. Tonight I met the new wife of a Florida bishop friend. They are close friends with the fiancée of a Nevada priest. More sinews.
Some folks are concerned that HOB meetings are governance councils in which all sorts of decisions are made, that the bishops are running the church (perhaps with foolish minds or evil intent) between General Conventions. Not actually. There is another body of mixed orders, the Executive Council, which exercises most of that kind of authority, hopefully with wise minds and benign intent. There is a business meeting at each HOB meeting, but it is short and limited to the narrow range of matters over which we have canonical jurisdiction. There really isn’t much governance going on here.
We gather for education and formation, for programs intended to make us better bishops back in our dioceses -- I hope to do a better job because of things I learned today – and to connect personally, to strengthen the bonds of affection that unite the church across its various fault lines. Tonight I had dinner with a bishop who is of quite a different theological and political leaning than myself. But we shared stories of our life histories, our families, and similar struggles in our respective dioceses. The bishops are here to engage in a process that is essentially personal and formational. So rest easy, there is no serious danger we will repeal the Nicene Creed or adopt a new Prayer Book. There is a distinct likelihood that those of us from different regions and opposing ideologies will encounter each other at a human level and become friends.