Recently, the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion issued its final report for the 2006 General Convention. I've commented elsewhere about the report on behalf of Oasis/California. In short, nothing in the report suggests that the Diocese of California should discriminate against lesbian and gay nominees for bishop. We may elect whomever we discern God is calling to be our next bishop. We deserve the best qualified bishop, whether he or she is gay, straight, or lesbian.
The report does include the following cautionary language: we urge nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees, and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution in the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strain on communion, until a broader consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges (Report, p. 17-18).
I've been pondering the meaning of this language, what it requests, and its consequences if implemented. On one level it is a common sense precaution: be careful when electing bishops. Well, sure, I agree with that. The last one we elected in the Diocese of California lasted 27 years. That is a long time to live with the consequences of one's decision: so choose wisely. Given the relative youth of the seven nominees, it is quite possible that our next bishop will be around for 20 years or more.
What concerns me is that the caution is framed in terms of folks whose "manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church." Now, I know that this is left vague on purpose, and probably rightly so. Still, how seriously can Christians be expected to take such an admonition? Jesus was crucified because his manner of life offended deeply the sensibilities of the cultural consensus of his time. He was rejected by the religious authorities, tortured and executed by officials of the Roman Empire. God forbid he should be King, or even High Priest!
So, how does emulating Jesus lead to a refusal to elect bishops who "challenge the wider church"? Are we only to elect as bishops those men who reinforce the cultural and religious status quo (clearly, women would have to be excluded altogether on the basis of this criterion lest we threaten the sexist norms that hold sway in our church)? Can we only elect men who refuse to take risks for the sake of the gospel, who refuse to speak boldly and prophetically, who take care that no one is challenged to grow or change or repent or sacrifice?
Your heritage is the faith of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and those of every generation who have looked to God in hope. Your joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (BCP p. 517). This is how the Ordinal describes the leadership of a bishop. I would add "matriarchs" to the list, but otherwise it isn't a bad definition.
Bishops are called to be risk takers for the sake of God's crucified love. I hope the next bishop of California will be such a leader. I hope she* will challenge me at every turn: challenge my bondage to self, my refusal to see Christ in my neighbor, my tendancy to grasp what God so generously gives away for free. I hope her manner of life will offend me deeply: just like Jesus' life offended his contemporaries by refusing to legitimate a religious or national unity based on scapegoating outcasts and sinners.
Jesus countered scapegoating and violence with love and forgiveness. That is what it means to follow Jesus. If we only elect as bishops those who in their manner of life do not challenge the wider church, we will set in motion a race to the bottom in terms of episcopal leadership. God save us from such leaders. Let the challenge begin!
* I intend the generic, inclusive feminine use of the pronoun :)