Springfield Cathedral—Matthew 21:23–32, 1 Samuel 10:1–16
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
When I was first consecrated, I was invited—effectively, required—to attend a five-day training conference for new bishops, over three consecutive years, called Living Our Vows. At the first of these, on the afternoon of the first day, we had a long session with a lawyer who, at the time, was chancellor to the Presiding Bishop—he ended up being chancellor to three Presiding Bishops in a row, for at least part of their terms. He was an extraordinarily influential figure in the life of the Episcopal Church for the better part of 15 years. He began his time with us by simply posing a question: Where does your authority as bishops come from?
He allowed us to offer various responses to his question, being careful not to appear to pass judgment on them, one way or another. So, we heard answers like the canons, the Prayer Book, the Bible, and church tradition. But our “instructor” soon made it clear that the correct answer, as far as he was concerned, is … General Convention. Dioceses and their bishops are creatures of the General Convention, which is itself fully powerful and accountable only to itself. None of us pushed back on this in that moment; there hardly seemed to be any point in doing so. I was told, though, that one of the bishops in the class ahead of ours did call this lawyer out, using a popular expletive that it would not be seemly for me to repeat from the pulpit, but you can probably imagine what it was. And he was right, of course. The authority of a bishop comes from the Prayer Book, the Bible, church tradition, and, through them, ultimately, from God. It’s pretty hard to disconnect a bishop’s authority from God’s authority.
Indeed, this is the implied response that Jesus gives to his questioners in the 21st chapter of Matthew’s gospel, when they ask him where he got his authority. He made them work for it by asking a counter-question that sent them into a bit of a tailspin, but the bottom line is the same: Jesus gets his authority from God, because Jesus is God. Bishops—let me take pains to remind you—are not God, but bishops do get their authority from God. General Convention just takes care of the logistics.
Now, being on a mission from God may have been easy for the Blues Brothers, but, for any bishop who is a sinful human being, which is any bishop, it’s a burden with a palpable weight. I remember being in a meeting, back in February of 2011, devoted to planning some of the ancillary details of my consecration. In response to a particular detail—I don’t recall what it was—I said something like, “Well, if it were up to me …”, to which the others in the room looked at me with a collective wry smile and said, “It is up to you!” It may have been at that exact moment that the full weight of what was happening became clear to me.
This is very personal. In the Catholic tradition, of which the Anglican stream is a tributary, the person of the bishop and the office of the bishop cannot really be neatly pried apart. A bishop is not a mere judicatory—how I hate that word!—an administrative functionary. A bishop is a personal icon of Christ the Good Shepherd. The teaching and ministry of the Bishop of Springfield is the teaching and ministry of the Diocese of Springfield, and the teaching and ministry of the Episcopal Church in 60 out of the 102 counties in the State of Illinois. Since March 19, 2011, title to all the property, real and personal, of the Diocese of Springfield has been held personally by Daniel Martins. Now, in three days time, of course, that will cease to be the case, and it will take a lawyer to figure out who owns what until my successor is consecrated.
The ancient and catholic notion that a bishop is a sign of connection to the apostles is primarily personal and only incidentally functional. My ministry has been only secondarily about what I do. Before that, it has been fundamentally about what I am. As I have many times told those on whom I am about to lay hands in confirmation or ordination: it is irrelevant that these hands belong to Daniel Martins, but it is of supreme importance that they belong to the Bishop of Springfield.
This is to say, of course, that the relation between a bishop and a diocese is sacramental. Yes, a bishop has legal or canonical jurisdiction over this, that, or the other thing, but all that is ancillary to the primary vocation of simply being, manifesting a concrete connection to Christ through the apostles that is at the same time historic and alive. A parish’s relation to its bishop is not to an administrative functionary, but to a person — a person who, in turn, is a sacramental icon, one who personally represents the whole communion of saints, embodying the inheritance of the apostles, prophets, and martyrs.
At no moment is the Church more evidently and tangibly herself than when gathered at the Eucharist in synod, with the deacons and presbyters vested according to their order, gathered with the baptized faithful at the altar of God. This moment demonstrates why the diocese — not the parish or province — is the fundamental unit of the Church. The bishop, then, by logical extension, is the chief pastor, chief teacher, and chief liturgical officer of the diocese. And in this context, a faithful bishop will be extra careful about how these responsibilities are exercised.
The appointed readings also bring us the story of Samuel’s anointing of Saul as King of Israel, and the oddly mysterious signs that confirmed it—the whole bit about looking for donkeys and meeting men who will give him a loaf of bread, and so forth. There was no ambiguity about where Saul got his authority. He had appropriate fear and trepidation about becoming King of Israel, but he was fully confident about his call and where that call came from. I can’t deny that this reminds me of the early days of my episcopate, when I felt like more of a round peg in a round hole than I ever have in my life. It’s the territory than my successor will inhabit a year from now.
But … we all know what eventually happened to Saul. It did not end well for him! The conclusion of my time among you, I’m grateful to say, is not the unmitigated disaster that marked the end of Saul’s reign in Israel. Yet, it’s ending very much not as I had hoped. I had looked forward to a seamless transition—it was supposed to happen a couple of weeks ago, in fact—where, instead of laying Bishop Seymour’s crozier on the altar as I will in a few minutes, I would hand it off with a smile to the Twelfth Bishop of Springfield. Between the complications of personal and family challenges, an unforeseen global pandemic, and a bit of tension in my relationship with some diocesan leaders, my well-laid plans came to naught. While this has brought me some measure of sadness, I embrace it as the reality that it is, and as the very location where grace is to be found, grace that is not only sufficient to our needs, but abundantly overflowing, of which the banquet that we will shortly share next door is a robust sign.
I’ll shortly be giving you the formal traditional pontifical blessing. But, by way of valediction, let me insert this one little bit from St Paul to the Galatians. He calls his readers his “little children,” and, in a gender-bending metaphor, proclaims that he is “in travail”—in the pangs of childbirth!—”until Christ be formed in you.” When I wake up on Thursday morning, I will not suddenly cease caring about the Diocese of Springfield, into which I have poured a decade of my life, and nearly a third of my active ministry—my “career,” as it were. I will not suddenly cease praying for the clergy and baptized faithful of this diocese, and for the mission of the church in central and southern Illinois. I will continue to be in travail until Christ be formed in you.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.