Reflections on the Bishop Walkabouts
The race for bishop of California is on. The "walkabouts," a grueling series of 4-5 hour public meetings, six in as many days, between the seven nominees for bishop and California Episcopalians began on Monday night. Approximately 650 people came to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco the first night, and nearly 400 at St. Paul's, Oakland the next. I moderated break-out sessions at each, with the nominees rotating through each room in 30 minute intervals to answer questions.
I'm glad I attended two walkabouts, because my impressions of the nominees changed as a result of seeing them in a different setting and in a different order of appearance. It was quite different to meet in the nave of Grace Cathedral with a "small group" of 150 people as compared to a classroom at St. Paul's School with 30-40 people. I found that, in the more intimate setting, some of the nominees rose in my estimation, while others did not fare as well. Moving beyond a first impression was really valuable.
Overall, I was impressed with the quality of the nominees. All are accomplished priests (or bishop, in Mark Andrus' case), with obvious gifts for episcopal ministry. I was also impressed with the diversity of the nominees, and I don't mean by that the fact that they span the usual politically correct categories. The are all very different people.
Robert Taylor is modest in his demeanor, understated in his speech, gentle in manner. Jane Gould is confident, direct, and bold. Eugene Sutton is spontaneous, almost flip; relaxed, yet passionate. Donald Schell is intense, forceful, and loquacious. Bonnie Perry is pure energy: kinetic, dynamic, fully present. Mark Andrus, too, is fully present, but a grounded rather than live wire; serene yet engaged. Michael Barlowe is focused, methodical, well prepared.
I dwell on these matters of disposition and style, because the differences among them in terms of theology are minimal. Schell, Andrus, and Barlowe are probably the more intellectual of the lot; the others struck me as more pragmatic and politcally savvy in the best sense of the word: but all of them are smart people, no doubt about that. All are deeply committed to compassionate Christian service to the world, to social justice, to Anglican comprehensiveness in liturgical and theological matters. The differences are in leadership style and, I daresay, in their ability to combine the contemplative and the prophetic dimensions of lived faith. With regard to the later, I believe Andrus clearly stood out from the rest.
The social location and life experience of the nominees is also of some interest, I believe, in thinking about their ability to lead in the context of our diocese. Taylor, as a native white South African and immigrant to this country, has a compelling life story and demonstrated capacity to understand and navigate racial and cultural diversity; a sensitivity to the outsider that I suspect gives him moral gravitas. And yet, that is true of all of the nominees in one way or another, particulary Sutton as an African-American in a church shockingly oblivious to its own culture of white privilege. Both of the women have had to struggle with the sexism endemic to church and society (including the tendency for people to confuse them during the walkabouts; a problem that for some mysterious reason didn't plague the men!). And the gay and lesbian nominees have been treated as "issues" rather than as people by many in our church, when they haven't been vilified outright. Surviving such experiences either makes one cynical or compassionate; they have chosen the better path.
It is also interesting to note the ways in which the two "straight white men" have taken risks in solidarity with outsiders in church and society. Andrus has been a strong advocate of racial, economic, and environmental justice, as well as supportive of gay and lesbian people in a diocese that has been notoriously inhospitable to them. Schell's risk-taking is perhaps less obvious, but his affinity for ministry with artists, prophets, and queer folk of all kinds is no less authentic.
All of this leads me to believe that, while I am coming to identify my preferred candidates, all of the nominees would make good, albeit very different, bishops of California.
On May 6, the clergy and lay delegates of the diocese will meet to elect one of these seven people. I was as heartened by my experience of the electors at the walkabouts as I was by the nominees. People were attentive, respectful, and prayerful. They asked a mix of pointed and run-of-the-mill questions. As a moderator, they pressed me to keep the playing field level and to ask similar questions of all the nominees so that we could compare "apples and apples."
Some have worried about the "gay question" leading up to this election. I didn't sense that our electors are preoccupied with it though. They aren't particularly anxious or fearful. They seem to me to be genuinely open to figuring out who the best person is to lead our diocese.
Nigel Renton, long-time secretary of our diocesan convention and deputy to General Convention, has commented that the small number of people in our diocese who would automatically vote against gay or lesbian nominees, and the small number who would automatically vote for one of them, probably cancel each other out. This election will be decided by the vast majority of us who will simply vote our conscience based on the best assessment we can make of who we need as our next bishop. And we will figure that out together - through prayer and conversation - without competing factions.
The truth is that all of these nominees are leaders who will push the envelope on a whole range of issues. All of them would challenge us to embrace the stranger, include the outcast, and reconcile with the enemy. Whoever we elect, "the gay issue" is not going to go away in the Anglican Communion. We will be faced with another well qualified, openly gay or lesbian bishop-elect soon enough, whether it is here and now or somewhere else later. But that is not what will drive decisions on May 6. The politics here are local, focused on evangelism, multicultural ministry (which is the same thing as evangelism in our context), congregational and clergy health. Yawn! How unexciting. But there it is. We aren't out to make news for its own sake; just a bishop, and a good one at that.
I've learned a lot about myself through this election process, and it isn't over yet. I'm learning to be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, finding myself surprised by the nominees who excite me. I'm learning to let go of my need to be in control - a power far greater than myself is going to determine the outcome of this election. My ego wants MY nominee to win; but in truth, God will bless us - yes, even me - just as well if "someone else's nominee" wins. There can be only one eighth bishop of California. And that makes me a bit sad, because I've come to wish that all seven of them could stay with us. Ain't God good to give us such an embarrassment of riches from which to choose?