This Saturday, August 29th, the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon will elect its 11th Bishop. Over the last few weeks, we have all watched interviews and listened to a wide-ranging set of questions and discussion around topics that are close to our heart.
We all yearn for a bishop who will lead us well, whose abilities and gifts align with the needs and hopes of our diocese, such that together, we can pray, sing, feed, clothe and love one another and our neighbors into God’s beloved community.
Yet, many of us have heard, and said, something like the phrases the Rev. Matthew David Morris identified:
“I’m concerned about her size.”
“I’m concerned about his age.”
“I’m concerned about her [insert coded racist language].”
“I’m concerned about her [insert coded sexist language].”
As chaplain of the search committee, one thing became abundantly clear to me. We are an anxious diocese. We are afraid for our future, we are afraid to repeat the mistakes of our past. We disagree on what that future might hold, and what mistakes were actually made in the past. And we are projecting the weight of our fears for the future on our next bishop.
Often, our anxiety comes out as the voicing of our biases, so often phrases as “I am concerned about…” or “I don’t think a [insert characteristic] will be received by [insert another part of the diocese].”
As someone trained in theological ethics, I recognize this as the language of internal bias. We all have internal biases, and we MUST name them. Naming a bias is not about shame, but truth: we have a bias, and sometimes, that bias serves as a shorthand for something we must know about ourselves. While age may or may not be an indicator of maturity, race may or may not be an indicator of experience and wisdom, we must flesh out what we really mean by these shorthand stereotypical descriptors. Sometimes, we may find a valid concern. For example, if we are worried about the relative youth of a few of our candidates (or, conversely, are excited about youthful energy), then we need to have examples showing maturity or immaturity, energy or passivity. If we don’t have such examples, then we have no grounds on which to decide that age is a factor. Rather, what we have discovered is our own assumptions around age, assumptions which may have no bearing on the gifts and capabilities of the candidates before us.
Each one of these individuals is a responsible adult. They are capable of deciding if their body, its sex, its gender, its size, its age, its race, is capable of functioning as a bishop. Each one of these people has already decided that they believe themselves capable of doing so. It is simply not our place to question their discernment about themselves and what their bodies can or cannot do. “Worrying” about someone’s body and whether it is capable of surviving the rigors of being a bishop, or how it will be received by other parts of our diocese (notice again, it is never about whether I will receive their body well, but always about whether the phantom “other” will receive their body well), says far more about our personal fears, insecurities, anxieties, and biases than it says anything about the individuals who have presented themselves for our discernment. It is our place to discern their call to be our bishop in this time and in this place.
The search committee struggled with these same questions, we expressed these same biases. Yet all four candidates are individuals each member of the search committee saw as particularly and uniquely capable of loving our diocese and the people of Oregon, of leading us as our bishop. Some of these particular and unique gifts come through the very bodies that bear our biases. It may be that youth will bring energy, age will bring wisdom, size will bring compassion, and race will bring insight. The point in naming our biases is not to dismiss them, but to acknowledge how they form, or misform, our ability to see the gifted people before us.
Then, we must see them for who God has called and created them to be, see their true gifts (and weaknesses), see ourselves likewise, and prayerfully discern together, in love, compassion and hope, who will lead our diocese.
I learned another thing as chaplain of the search committee: we love our communities, our state, our church. And we have hope. Whoever our next bishop is, we are capable of bringing our unique (and biased) selves forward to work together in faith, hope and love to move us ever closer to the beloved community God is creating in our midst.