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Screening Out
In choosing a bishop, do nominating committees increase, or limit, diversity?

I won’t blame you if you’re thinking, “What in the world is LeBlanc doing back in this space?” I had a brief sojourn with the Anglican Communion Network, and quickly learned that public relations is not the sharpest tool on my editorial belt. Episcopal Life asked me back, and I’ve happily returned to the world of journalism.

Perhaps I should begin this new season of columns with a confession: I am an episcopal election junkie. My habit began in 1998, when the Diocese of Newark was searching for the person who would succeed John Spong. This election marked the first time the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson was on a slate of nominees, which made the walkabout and the election enough of a news story for me report on it for Episcopalians United.

I had nursed many assumptions about the Diocese of Newark, few of them charitable. For some conservatives, the Diocese of Newark will provoke the same shudders and clucking you’ll hear among some liberals if you mention Nashotah House or Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.

But when visiting Newark for both the candidates’ walkabout and the election, I was impressed by fellow Episcopalians who were deliberate and thoughtful about choosing their next leader.
Since then, I’ve followed any episcopal election in which a friend is involved, or for any diocese that has a reputation for a prevailing conservative or liberal spirit, or for any diocese that puts together an even remotely interesting profile or slate.

One of the more interesting debates regarding episcopal elections is whether a diocese should rely on a nominating committee, as the majority of dioceses do, or forgo the committee and allow any duly qualified candidate to be nominated by a set number of electing deputies. I know the dioceses of Eau Claire, Texas and West Texas have relied on this latter press, and the Diocese of Albany chose to use it in seeking the successor to Bishop Daniel Herzog.

Albany’s choice prompted objections from Albany Via Media, which has posted letters claiming that the process “severely limits the roles of the clergy and laity,” producing “no candidates who are of a more moderate, Episcopal positioning.” For a superior way of nominating a bishop, Albany Via Media cites the work of what it calls a “real diocese”: California.

Albany Via Media Vice President Robert Dodd wrote early on that Albany’s “fast track” would not allow time for electors to meet the candidates in person. (As Via Media’s site later acknowledged, Albany’s standing committee somehow found time to schedule two “meet the candidates” days).

One of Dodd’s more peculiar arguments is that declining to designate a nominating committee “severely limits the roles of the clergy and laity.”  The electing convention for Albany will choose from 11 nominees. Members of the Diocese of California will choose from five.

In a letter posted on Via Media’s website, Richard Angelo mocks the nomination of Tory Baucum, an associate professor at Asbury Theological Seminary and an associate international minister for Alpha International and Holy Trinity Brompton: “I am curious as to why we need to cross the ocean (not [that] Dr. Baucum is a resident of England) to find a bishop  and, in addition, why we see no candidates who are of a more moderate, Episcopal positioning.

Certainly, we may possibly know the answer to these questions. The diocese just can’t seem to find someone in the “Episcopal” Church that suits [it]. Why not get Pat Robertson on the list also?”

Tory Baucum never has renounced his ordination vows as an Episcopal priest, but because of his affiliation with Holy Trinity, Brompton, he’s compared to Pat Robertson. Oh, that “more moderate, Episcopal” sense of humor! Apparently not even Marshall Vang, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints, qualifies as a “more moderate, Episcopal” voice, although Via Media describes the cathedral elsewhere on its site as “a welcoming community.”

Albany Via Media has struck a kinder tone as the election draws closer: “We do not expect our new coadjutor to be liberal, nor should you: Every candidate was able to give locally acceptable, orthodox answers to all of the diocese's 17 questions! We do hope he will be a reconciler, one who will strive to bring left and right, high church and low, together in one many-faceted but solid Diocese of Albany.”

I’ve reviewed this topic here because I would love to hear anyone’s explanation of why the Diocese of California’s five nominees — which dodo not include even a token conservative or evangelical — are any more diverse, at least theologically, than Albany’s slate of 11.

The Very Rev. George Werner announced during Executive Council’s last meeting of the triennium that he soon will ask the House of Bishops to move toward an open nominations system when the Episcopal Church chooses its 27th presiding bishop in 2015.

I hope my endorsing Dean Werner’s suggestion doesn’t strangle it in the cradle, but I’ll cheer for it in any case.