A few weeks ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, appeared on CNN’s Starting Point to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement and the process of determining his successor. In the conversation about the possible motivations for the Holy Father’s retirement, Cardinal Wuerl introduced a very helpful distinction that I believe I’ve always embraced but struggled to articulate.
Cardinal Wuerl identified a subtle distinction between election and selection, acknowledging that each concept has a place in the identification of a new pope. Clearly, there is a papal election in which the cardinals gather together in the conclave to vote for the next pontiff, and apparently, this process has long been recognized as an overtly political process. In 1824, John Adams lamented to his friend Alexander Johnson, “What a rattling & crackling and clattering there is about the future presidency. It seems like a Conclave of Cardinals intriguing for the Election of the Pope.”
The reason for Adams’ lament was that he thought the presidential election should rise above such political wrangling. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in First Family: Abigail & John Adams, “The more explicit style of political campaigning offended John’s personal sensibilities, which had been formed in an earlier era when any overt expression of political ambition was regarded as inadmissible” (252-3). How surprising is it that one of our founders saw papal elections as more explicitly political than presidential elections?
Even as they participate in an election process, however, the cardinals believe that God has already selected the next pope, and their responsibility in the conclave is to determine together that man’s identity. Put simply, the cardinals’ election is a process of discerning God’s selection.
Cardinal Wuerl speculated–and please realize that I’m summarizing rather than quoting–that Pope Benedict XVI may have focused on the fact that he was an elected leader of the church as he decided to retire. Perhaps he felt that he had served his term and that it was time for the incumbent to step aside and made way for the next elected Bishop of Rome to lead the church.
The historical norm among popes, by contrast, has been to focus upon their selection by God, to understand that they were chosen and set apart for their unique role at the head of the church and to believe–at least during their lifetimes–that they alone could fulfill the responsibilities for which they were chosen.
Who knows whether Cardinal Wuerl is right in his speculation about what may have motivated Pope Benedict XVI to do the unprecedented. Who knows whether Benedict XVI gave any thought to the intricacies of election vs. selection. Regardless, I believe Cardinal Wuerl is onto something crucial in regard to church leadership in the world today.
Roman Catholics are not the only ones to have walked the fine line between election and selection. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of which I am part has historically held the two concepts in a similar tension. In jurisdictional conferences around the nation and world–not so coincidentally, every four years and in the very same years as presidential elections–United Methodists elect bishops to lead the church. All candidates for the office of bishop are nominated by annual conferences, again underscoring the concept of election in our process of naming episcopal leaders. Yet many of the delegates voting in those conferences believe that God has already selected the people for the job, and the voters’ responsibility is to discern whom God has chosen.
After all the ballots are cast, we walk the election/selection tightrope again as we consecrate the men and women we have just elected to the office of bishop, an office they will hold until resignation or death. Even in retirement, these men and women are still bishops, as our Book of Discipline clearly states: “A retired bishop is a bishop of the Church in every respect” (par. 409, The 2008 Discipline). This practice suggests that we believe they are, in fact, selected and set apart by God for the rest of their lives.
We Methodists have always intertwined the ideas of election and selection. Our first two Methodist bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury are proof. Coke was content that he was named (read selected) and “set apart” by John Wesley to be a “general superintendent” of American Methodists in September 1784. Weeks later, when the Christmas Conference met in Baltimore, Maryland, to establish officially the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury insisted that the conference members confirm his role as general superintendent by electing him.
In later years, every bishop would follow Asbury’s precedent of being elected, perhaps because the constitution of the Methodist Episcopal Church was formulated in the very same era as the Constitution of the United States of America. The polity of the church and the nation share many features in common.
Regardless of any disagreement over election or selection, according to noted Methodist historian Frederick Norwood, there was little confusion over whether a general superintendent equaled a bishop. He quotes Thomas Ware, “the plan of general superintendence, which had been adopted, was a species of episcopacy” (The Story of American Methodism, 100). A major ecclesiastical question is whether Wesley, a parish priest in the church of England, had authority to consecrate a bishop or a general superintendent. As Norwood concludes, “Methodists in America have not worried overmuch about it, but they have never quite reconciled themselves to a clear interpretation. Here beginneth the definition–or lack thereof–of the office of bishop in the Methodist Episcopal tradition” (Story, 97-8).
Apparently, we still seek that clear interpretation. I’ve already mentioned how we elect/select our bishops in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. A relatively recent and unprecedented conversation and controversy pertained to how we deselect them.
In July 2012, the episcopacy committee of the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction voted to retire involuntarily Bishop Earl Bledsoe, based on his ineffectiveness as a bishop. Days later, the jurisdictional conference whose delegates had elected Bishop Bledsoe just four years earlier, voted to uphold the episcopacy committee’s decision.
On the committee’s behalf, chairperson Don House said, “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question” (United Methodist News Service, http://www.umc.org, June 9, 2012). In a later report, House went on to say, “Our only concern about Bishop Bledsoe was his administrative skills, but as a spiritual leader, as a dedicated Christian, never any question” (UMNS, http://www.umc.org, July 17, 2012).
These statements suggest that the jurisdiction and its episcopacy committee view the office of bishop primarily as an elected role, in which administrative and managerial skills are paramount. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the committee’s and the conference’s action as a recall of an elected official. The suggestion that his skills as a spiritual leader are less vital to the office of bishop than his administrative and relational skills seems to presume that he was elected by people do manage and administer effectively, rather than selected by God to change hearts.
In its deliberations and decision on November 10, 2012, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church overturned Bishop Bledsoe’s involuntary retirement and required the jurisdiction to reinstate him. According to a November 12 release by the United Methodist News Service, “The Council cited ‘numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process’ and ‘an inability to articulate’ what the ‘best interests’ of the church or of the bishop or of both would be.”
At stake is whether the bishop is an elected administrative official or a selected spiritual leader. Is the bishop ultimately chosen by people or chosen by God? Is a bishop or a pope best understood as a consecrated leader for life or an elected official for a specific term?
Some protestant denominations have arrived at clearer answers to these questions by developing systems of leadership featuring elections and term limits. For example, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which also claims John Wesley as its founder, has no office of bishop. Instead, an elected president presides for a one year term. The Uniting Church in Australia functions similarly but elects its presidents to three year terms. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elects moderators for its presbyteries and assembly, usually for a one-year term.
Clearly, there is great variety among denominations in their practices of electing and/or selecting leaders. To what do we attribute this? On the one hand, we lack a clear biblical prescription for how leaders are to be identified. In the Hebrew scriptures, God does the selecting and makes his selections known through various media, from burning bushes to prophets. In the New Testament, the disciples cast lots to name a replacement for Judas–trusting that God will identify his choice by that process–in Acts 1, but the early church “selects” or “chooses” seven deacons in Acts 6. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul offers counsel about the qualifications of a bishop, but he doesn’t say how they are to be chosen. In the absence of specific biblical instructions, various denominations and traditions of the Christian church have determined their own processes of election/selection.
Among protestant churches, especially in the United States, the democratic processes of electing church leaders may be an example of church imitating society or a reaction against a perceived “monarchical” hierarchy in the Roman Catholic tradition.
So, who’s right? Should church leaders be understood as elected, selected, or both? Should they be elected to serve in office for specific terms, or should they consecrated for life? The answer may very simply be: God only knows.
This much is clear. Christians of good faith and clear conscience have come to different conclusions, or at least to different points in their journeys toward conclusions. Maybe we all “see in a mirror, dimly.”
With his retirement and the accompanying process of identifying his successor, Pope Benedict XVI may have opened the door to new conversations and discernment processes toward clarity. Or he may have just muddied the water.