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Hallo again to all.

Many people, when they learn that it's Lent, ask 'So what are you giving up for Lent?' We usually respond with an overlong explanation that that's not what Lent is really all about. Probably the length of our explanation encourages them not to ask that question again. But now that you've asked: what we might be giving up for Lent here at Anglicans Online is writing about Lent.

Over the years we've watched many dozens of dioceses acquire a new bishop. In some provinces bishops are elected by a relatively democratic process. In other provinces bishops are appointed by one authority or another. In some provinces, bishops are 'elected' Soviet-style, on ballots listing only one candidate who was chosen by a behind-the-scenes power. Occasionally bishops in earlier centuries distastefully came to power by murdering everyone else who might be considered for the job.

Given this episcopal panorama, we find ourselves reflecting on the means by which dioceses preserve or force change to their cultural and political identity through the years. Consider the following.

The Diocese of Alpha and Beta is known for its liberal stance, its early acceptance of the ordination of women, and its involvement in civil politics. Its former bishop was somewhat of a blowhard, never at ease with the ambient politics of his flock, but somehow the selection process delivered it a bishop who is startlingly compatible with the majority of the diocese.

The Diocese of Gamma was for decades a tranquil middle-of-the-road place whose kindly and wise bishops had sound fiscal management skills but no particular opinion on the galvanizing issues of sex and power that are so woven into church politics. Its previous bishop was so political that he withdrew many of his people from the province and announced that it was now affiliated with a province based in another country. We'd guess that the remaining members of that diocese are pretty jumpy about not again electing a bishop who will damage it so. But how can they be certain?

The Diocese of Epsilon somehow got a terrible and destructive man for a bishop and had to pay him an enormous amount of money to leave so that they could replace him with someone non-toxic. Parishioners at the bad bishop's former parish tell us that they wrote letters to hundreds of people and committees warning them that they were about to make a big mistake, but no one seems to have listened. The current Bishop of Epsilon appears to be quite wonderful, and has made great strides in healing the place after the damage caused by his arrogant predecessor, but when he does eventually retire, that diocese needs to make sure it doesn't accidentally get another rotten apple. How can it be careful?

The Diocese of Zeta recognized a half-century ago that the key to avoid being forced away from its spot on the doctrinal fringe of church politics was to create its own in-house theological college and only appoint parish priests from the graduates of that college. Those priests could then lobby or vote or argue in favor of properly fringe-dwelling candidates. The technique seems to have worked, though the formerly-large wealth of the Diocese of Zeta was lost to hubris on the part of diocesan financial staff, who might have believed that they had as much power over financial markets as they did over parish staffing. It remains to be seen how this plays out; perhaps we'll live long enough to find out.

An interesting sidenote: Gamma, perhaps after seeing how well the technique worked for Zeta, seems to have accomplished its revolutionary take-over of a formerly middle-of-the-road diocese by creating a captive theological college, hiring only its graduates, and waiting a generation for things to settle in.

We're not entirely sure how it works in the provinces that do Soviet-style elections (those with only one candidate). A number of years ago Anglicans Online received a press release from such a province announcing the election of five new bishops. We wrote back and asked who the other candidates were in the various elections, and received a reply indicating that the provincial press officer didn't even know what it meant ot have 'other candidates' in a bishop's election. The world is full of examples of how easy it is to remain in power when you can control all of the events that you call 'elections'.

We've done a great deal of pondering over the years about the true nature of the process of choosing bishops in the Church of England. If you look at this chart from Modern Church in the UK, which shows voting on the Anglican Covenant by dioceses in the Church of England, you'll notice that there is usually a large discrepancy between bishops' votes and laity votes, and a moderate discrepancy between bishops' votes and clergy votes. In the Diocese of Rochester, for example, whose former bishop was well known for his ultraconservative church politics, the clergy and laity votes were overwhelmingly against the bishop's vote. One can never be certain how to interpret such numbers, but one obvious interpretation is that the choice of bishop for that diocese was made from above, with the intention of pleasing someone other than the people of the diocese. There are similar vote imbalances in Gloucester and St Edmundsbury & Ipswich and Portsmouth.

The church is one of the last bastions of the past, so change is unlikely. In churches — and everywhere else — people who have power rarely give it up without a fight, so power structures in dioceses that have figured out how to remain in power from the reign of one bishop to the next are unlikely to go quietly. After reading about all of the combat that the press has called 'Arab Spring', we sometimes wonder if there will be church duels — aspersorium at 20 paces — between those wanting to stay in power and those wanting an open selection process.

Perhaps with a lot of pushing by the Holy Spirit, someday the selection of bishops can be as open and fair as the election of public officials. No, on second thought, we ought to be able to do a lot better than that. Drawing lots, anyone? After all, it worked for Matthias.*

See you next week. Vote early and often, and get your dead friends to vote, too.

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26 February 2012

*Scripture doesn't indicate the reaction of the loser, Justus. Perhaps he smiled and wiped his brow with relief.

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