Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Bishop's Chair

This past Saturday, people from across the world gathered to consecrate and celebrate Alan Gates as the new Bishop of Massachusetts. At first glance the service—which my sources, incidentally, timed at two hours, seventeen minutes, and forty-four seconds from the first words of the opening hymn to the last line of the dismissal—was all about an individual man. The decorations of the arena were structured around a set of wall hangings brought from St. Paul’s Church in Cleveland, Ohio, where Bishop Alan had been rector. The sermon highlighted the personal qualities that will make him an excellent bishop. The liturgy for the ordination of a bishop includes a lengthy examination, in which examining bishops directly address the bishop-to-be, with everyone else spectating.

But as with so many of the rituals we use to mark the stages of our lives—baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals—this one was only partly about the individual. In a bigger way, it marked a time of transition for the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts: a transition from two decades with Bishop Tom Shaw into a new era.  The length of a bishop’s tenure is long, when we’re accustomed to the constant campaigning of the political calendar. Consider, for a moment: the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and the United States of America were founded almost simultaneously. Barack Obama is the forty-fourth President of the United States. Alan Gates is only the sixteenth Bishop of Massachusetts. The end of a long service marks only the beginning of an immeasurably longer relationship.

Essdras M. Suarez / The Boston Globe

In his sermon, Bishop Mark Hollingsworth of Ohio speculated about the size of the bishop’s chair. The bishop’s chair, he joked, is the largest in the church—because the bishop has the most growing to do.

Almost a year ago, Bishop Tom visited one of our Life Together trainings and we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions. I asked what advice he had for those of us considering a life of full-time ministry in the church. With characteristic and genuine thoughtfulness, he paused for a few moments, then answered: “Be open about the future.”

We can’t know, Bishop Tom suggested, what the church will look like a few decades down the road. We can’t steer it in the right direction; often we can’t even guess what that direction might be.

What we can do—what all of us can do, bishop or layperson, college student or experienced professional, newborn or near to death, as individuals and communities—is to choose, over and over again, a seat that’s just a bit too big for us.

We’ve got plenty of time to grow.

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