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Toward Columbus: Presiding Bishop's role, election process steadily evolving since 1789

By Lauren Wilkes Auttonberry
[Episcopal News Service]  The Episcopal Church historically has had as its leader a bishop of "senior position," beginning with the presidency of the Rt. Rev. William White at the first session of the 1789 General Convention.

Until the church began electing a Presiding Bishop in 1925 -- choosing the Rt. Rev. John Gardner Murray as the sixteenth Presiding Bishop -- the office had been automatically assumed by the most senior bishop in the House, measured by his date of consecration.

This summer in Columbus, the church will elect its 26th Presiding Bishop to a nine-year term.

Beyond being the most visible spokesperson for the Episcopal Church at large, the role of Presiding Bishop, according to the canons, includes the charge to be both "chief operating officer" and "chief pastor." The position includes broad demands and responsibilities equivalent to that of the CEO of any modern corporation. In fact, the first occurrence of the phrase "chief operating officer" in the Constitution and Canons occurs in the constitutional amendment, passed for final adoption at the 1919 convention in Denver, which called for electing the Presiding Bishop.

There were three main attitudes at that time regarding the role that the Presiding Bishop should fill, according to Dr. Don Armentrout, professor of church history and academic dean of the School of Theology at Sewanee, Tennessee. Two called for the Presiding Bishop to be the "chief operating officer" for the church, yet none of the three included any specific reference to the characteristic of "chief pastor," which would later become a pivotal item in the Presiding Bishop's job description.

"This new vision for the church placed major emphasis on administrative and executive duties which were to be performed to the end of achieving an efficient ecclesiastical system," said Armentrout.

Amendments to Title I, Canon 4 in 1919 established the Executive Council, "whose duty it shall be to carry out the program and policies adopted by the General Convention. The Executive Council shall have charge of the coordination, development, and implementation of the ministry and mission of the Church."

Modifications to the Constitution regarding the Presiding Bishop's office, and to the Canons concerning the role of the Executive Council, triggered major changes in the way leadership was chosen for the church. But no clarification was offered for how the Presiding Bishop would take on the added responsibility of the churchwide office while also remaining a diocesan bishop—a question church leaders were also working to resolve.

In the proceedings of the 1940 General Convention, both houses adopted a recommendation from the Rt. Rev. Henry St. George Tucker, elected Presiding Bishop in 1937, suggesting that Washington National Cathedral was the suitable seat for the Presiding Bishop. Tucker was thus seated in 1941.

Three years later, another radical change was made: the next Presiding Bishop would be required to resign his previous jurisdiction within six months of assuming the new office. To set the precedent, Tucker voluntarily resigned as Bishop of Virginia in 1944.

In 1967 General Convention adopted the recommendations of the Commission on Mutual Responsibility for the office of Presiding Bishop -- the first such changes since 1922 -- and for the first time used the term "chief pastor" to describe the theological responsibilities of the office. Placing the emphasis back on the pastoral role of the office, the changes also gave the Presiding Bishop the right and responsibility to make a visitation to each diocese during his time in office.

Even as recently as the 1997 Convention, there was confusion over the administrative jurisdiction of the Presiding Bishop: did staff at the Episcopal Church Center in New York work for the Presiding Bishop, or for the Executive Council?

"The 1997 General Convention made it clear that the staff worked for the Presiding Bishop," said the Rev. Canon Carl Gerdau, canon to the current Presiding Bishop, Frank T. Griswold. "The convention did so by stating that the CEO was to be chosen by the Presiding Bishop and then confirmed by the Executive Council."

For a complete listing of the Presiding Bishops, consult page 444 of the 2006 Episcopal Church Annual or visit