For when all the brethren had assembled to select by vote him who should succeed to the episcopate of the church, several renowned and honourable men were in the minds of many, but Fabian, although present, was in the mind of none. But they relate that suddenly a dove flying down lighted on his head, resembling the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Saviour in the form of a dove. Thereupon all the people, as if moved by one Divine Spirit, with all eagerness and unanimity cried out that he was worthy, and without delay they took him and placed him upon the episcopal seat (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 6.29)
Doubtless there is some appeal in the story of Fabian, third-century bishop and martyr, who attained episcopal office at Rome by means of an open window and a bird’s landing on his head. Today the realities of ecclesial polity are more complex and elections necessarily more convoluted. Yet some elements of this story are still relevant, and it underscores the fact that the Church has experienced quite different processes to obtain its bishops from those now known.
In what follows I will seek to identify some key qualities for bishops, and for the episcopate itself. I believe it is difficult to reach very clear conclusions about the ideal process for episcopal election on the basis of our understanding of the office, but we must be able to reflect on how our existing processes reflect or embody our understandings of the office.
Here I use the four “marks” of the Church identified by the Creed as starting points for this reflection on the bishop as a leader and representative of that Church in one place. For reasons that may become apparent I work backwards, from apostolicity to unity.
Apostolicity – the Historic connection
The Church regards the bishops as “successors of the apostles”. We need not reduce this quality to literal continuity with a family tree of predecessors, whether to support or dismiss it. Historical continuity is important, not because it gives the Church all it needs, but because it connects us with the living tradition of the historic community that is “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.
This quality may not have much impact on the actual form of election, but more on the criteria for election (is this person committed to that one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, or merely to an idea of Church that they will serve at the expense of the people of God?), and on the ritual of episcopal ordination.
Catholicity – the Universal connection
Bishops lead a “local” Church but are also the links between one Church and another, and need to recognize and actively to seek the bonds of communion with others (this imperative has an ecumenical dimension, and cannot be reduced to participation in Anglican structures).
In our current (Australian Anglican) election processes this quality is reflected largely passively, in consent by provincial bishops, and through the participation of a good number of bishops in the ritual itself . It might also be expressed through active consultation by electors with wider groups of bishops (and other Church leaders). This may often be done, but has perhaps been seen merely as a way to generate lists of names, rather than as a means to embody part of the character of the episcopate.
One of the failures of catholicity in our current situation is the general inability of the Australian Church to identify and form leaders in any intentional way. Our concerns about elections might be lessened if we had a clearer set of understandings and practices about continuing education as something the Church itself fosters and expects. Higher degrees in theology, and specialized professional development in various aspects of ministerial practice, ought to be more widely undertaken. Electors might feel less concerned about processes and alternative candidates, were their qualifications and expertise less in doubt.
Holiness – the Gifts of the Spirit
Perhaps the crucial dimension of election is actually discerning the personal qualities necessary in any bishop, and in the bishop currently being sought. Some of these are general, and expressed clearly in the ordinal (based on scriptural prescriptions – 1 Tim 3, Tit 1). Others must be specific to the realities of a particular Church and time. At present we know that the requirements of "Professional Standards", etc. must be met, not simply to meet “risk management” criteria, but because these are the current form of a concern the Church has always had.
Ensuring that these qualities can be identified and tested is a technical question more than a theological one, but any technically inadequate process is theologically inadequate too. I would venture that under current conditions, an election process – such as a synodical one - without prior diligence such as is only possible through a Board or Committee would be inadequate.
I would also suggest that any role a Synod has in an election process is very unlikely to add much to this fundamental aspect of discernment. It is simply unworkable for a large body to gain real knowledge of the character of an individual or of their working style. Individuals may have such knowledge and share it, more or less adequately – but if this might assist consideration of one candidate, it is a very poor basis for distinguishing between candidates.
Unity – the people of God
Anglicans in Australia are used to a variety of synodical processes for their ecclesiastical government. As St Fabian’s story reminds us, the participation of a wide group (at least representative of the whole Church, if it is no longer possible to gather it all in one place) is actually characteristic of Christian practice. In our context, like others of past and present, this dimension should have a recognizable place in the process.
As the variety of Australian diocesan processes reminds us however, the participation of the whole local Church has a great many expressions. A board or committee that reports to a synod may well exercise the responsibility of the synod, and represent the needs of the diocese, far more adequately than the larger group. As already stated, some more focussed process such as this is inevitable for current circumstances, whether or not in conjunction with a synod election.
Even where a committee undertakes the election, it is worth noting that this does not exhaust or preclude the involvement of the wider body of the local Church. In fact the episcopal ordination (or installation) itself is a very underestimated element of the 'election' (remembering that 'election' does not mean voting, but choosing). Despite the common assumption that a synod vote or a legal declaration finishes the process, it is only when the bishop is welcomed into the Cathedral Church and acknowledged by the assembled people that the election process is really complete.
I believe that our episcopal ordination rites are underestimated in this regard – in Melbourne, what some may be thinking can only happen at Dallas Brooks Hall really only happens at St Paul’s. There a larger form of the local Church can effectively add its voice to the real acceptance of one candidate, carefully chosen, far more than it could add to the actual discernment between the gifts of different candidates. Any synodical election process which insists on a very high level of consensus in distinguishing between candidates confuses the proper unified voice of the Church acclaiming one bishop, with the inevitable diversity of views within the Church about different candidates. The real consensus of the Church can only be expressed at the Eucharistic table, with the new bishop – unless perhaps there happens to be an open window, and a dove nearby.