I am self-conscious that I go on so much about what a
wonderful group of colleagues I have in the other bishops, how kind and
supportive they are, what a sane, gentle, and caring group I encounter each
time we meet.
But it was not always so. Back in the bad old days I kept my
distance from bishops, even when they were solo. As for when they gathered in a
pack, I’d have sooner hung out with a pack of wild dingos. So I don’t know much
first hand about those days. But I am told that it was bad.
There were times when one faction of the bishops refused to
stay at Camp Allen with the others. That faction held their own separate
worship services rather than receive communion with the rest. Bishops would
stand on opposite sides of the room shouting insults at each other. This did
not happen during the main era of seceding congregations and dioceses. The era
of bishop rancor was what led up to it the fracturing of the Church. For better
or worse, bishops do lead. That dysfunctional group of bishops led us into
chaos. Of course, there had to be good bishops in those days. I am sure there
were excellent bishops among them. I knew some of them and admired them. But
the group as a whole was, as I am told, not playing well together.
I remember when one of the leading left wing bishops and his
arch enemy, one of the right wing bishops, retired within a short while of each
other. Rather than stop fighting, they went on the road together continuing to
duke it out for the entertainment of churches around the country. I am not sure
but I think this may have coincided with the popularity of The Jerry Springer
Today, things are different from that as the night from the
day. But how did the change happen? Yes, of course, some of the hotheads
retired and went away. But that doesn’t always change things. Usually when one
troublemaker leaves, another arises to take his place. So the departure of the
difficult bishops may have created the opportunity for change, but it did not
I am told that Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, with his
contemplative spirituality and devotion to the discipline of conversation,
undertook a specific program to change the way the bishops behaved. We went
from sitting in straight lines with seats assigned according to seniority to
sitting around tables with the same small group assembled for three years at a
stretch. We began to meet more often. The College For Bishops worked on
building relationships among the new bishops coming in, and connected the new
folks to veterans as we were assigned first a 90-day-companion and then a
bishop coach for our first three years. I don’t know what all the changes were
or when they were made. But I am reliably informed that there was an
intentional plan to change the way the bishops related to one another. We now
have a network of personal relationships that bridges differences of theology
and politics. We work well together and my life is the better for knowing these
As the tenor of the House of Bishops has changed, it seems to
me that a different kind of people are seeking the office. A different kind of
people are being elected. How that happens is a mystery. But I observe it to be
true. We are more measured, balanced, temperate in speech and action than many
of the bishops in decades past – not all of them certainly, but many of them,
the ones who grabbed the headlines.
The point here isn’t to praise the current team. It’s to say
that a bad system became a good one through intentional action. With Bishop
Griswold’s leadership, continued by Bishop Katharine, we decided to change.
Could a congregation do the same? I have seen it happen
there too. I have seen a congregation that has been swimming in its own
rancorous bile for years decide to get healthy. It takes some action steps, some
intentional work. It doesn’t change all at once. It takes time, patience, and
determination, but it can be done.
I am intrigued that our new Archbishop of Canterbury is going around the
world having a one-on-one meetings (the basic building block of community
organizing) with each of the Primates of the Anglican Communion before he calls
another Primate’s Meeting. It looks to me as if Archbishop Justin has got it. I
confess I sometimes slam my head against the wall in frustration over how hard
it is to get our people in Nevada to sit down together one-on-one and just
talk. We want to make speeches and send out e-blasts, anything but relate
eyeball to eyeball.
Our best turnaround in a parish has been led by a priest trained in Christian conflict transformation at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. http://www.lmpeacecenter.org There are other models that invite relationship building –
the Indaba Process, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry, etc. I don’t know that
any one model has all the answers. But what I do know is this: a group can
change how it functions. Old habits can be broken. New habits can be formed.
The bishops have done it.
As I look at some of our congregations that have been stuck
in bad habits, relational vices that may even have seeped down into them from
the bad influence of the bishops in decades past, I wonder which of those
congregations might decide to give up their familiar rancor and misery to try
something new, something like becoming the Church the New Testament calls us to
be, the kind of community worthy to be called the Body of Christ, a community
that looks like Jesus, heals people instead of wounding them, and ushers in the
Kingdom of God.