As I write this, we are fast approaching our diocesan convention. Convention mirrors the Anglican tradition’s basic approach to decision-making. That approach is an amalgam of hierarchy and democracy, which, despite many variations holds true throughout the worldwide Anglican communion.
The catch phrase for this is “episcopally led, synodically governed.” That is to say, led by bishops, governed by synods. (“Synod” is simply the Greek word for walking one path together, and so is a close synonym of our word “convention,” which means a coming together.) If you attend our convention you will see this distinction clearly played out. As your bishop I will lead the meeting, but it will be the whole body of clergy and elected delegates who will vote on resolutions, choose people for various diocesan offices, enable the establishment of the 2020 mission share budget, and, depending on the year, consider any number of matters relating to how Southern Ohio lives out its particular way of fulfilling the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church.
This way of organizing ourselves as a church attracts me for at least two reasons. First, it is deeply democratic while preserving the distinct role of ordained persons who have been set apart to serve the church as preachers, teachers, healers and pioneers. Many lay people bring these gifts to the church as well — indeed, all baptized persons are empowered to exercise one or more of these roles. But deacons, priests and bishops are members of the body who have been singled out to keep the body as a whole on track to follow Jesus. There is a creative tension here built into the ancient constitution of the church. It’s the clergy’s job to encourage and sometimes to cajole, but in holding the clergy to account, the laity claim their own authority as the people of God.
Second, and on a more personal note, the phrase “episcopally led, synodically governed” says something important to me about being a bishop. In the early years of my episcopate I was sometimes asked what surprised me most about this ministry. My answer was that I had not anticipated how challenging it would be to preach and preside in a different congregation every Sunday. I’m quite used to that now, and every church in this diocese has become familiar territory. But what I finally figured out was that my job was to be an outsider.
I used to bristle inwardly when people would say some version of “welcome to Saint Godfrey’s” as if I were from somewhere else, until I realized that they were right. The whole point was for me to swing in from left field as a literal reminder that the church is never merely local. The particular sort of leadership bishops should provide is to lead from outside, and in so doing to try, however inadequately, to embody the unity that is ours across all our differences as disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is why I look forward to convention, despite all the work and the inevitable anxiety that go into it. To see more than four hundred people from all our congregations together in one room is a tangible sign of connection that is ours.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.