The Presiding Bishop as master carpenter

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Many years ago in a galaxy far away, I was an apprentice to become a master carpenter. Experience in every phase of residential building was essential. So I served as a helper for experts in every stage of the process.

I once tended a plasterer who was truly an artist. He described the intricacies of his craft thus: “Hold the trowel like a fragile bird. Firm enough to guide with authority, gentle enough to “feel the moment.”  Every batch of plaster is unique, depending on the ingredients-the lime, gypsum, sand and water. Climatic conditions matter, is it raining out or really hot and dry. What’s the base—masonry, or wood lath? There needs to be a strong foundation, called the scratch coat, that the finish plaster will adhere to.

It’s a tricky, complicated endeavor, much I am sure, like being the presiding bishop.  How much direction is enough, but not too much?” There has been a lot of conversation in the church of late as to exactly what the role of the presiding bishop should be: Is it authoritative, handing out decrees? Is it consultative, or ceremonial? Is it all of the above?

Since the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) began its deliberations—for the most part at the top of our Episcopal food chain—discerning identity has become vital. But identity of what?  As TREC thinks about reshaping the church it will, without ground work being accomplished at the most basic level—the “scratch coa,”—be shaped by the person who becomes presiding bishop, rather than the presiding bishop moving into an established role.

Now, surely this is the situation all new leaders find themselves in. Bringing new ideas and energy while holding fast to the mission identity is a quality of all competent leaders.  But it’s certainly less complicated in an organization that is not in the process of a major transition. Leadership in the Episcopal Church right now is at a critical place.  Work that has brought us to where we are right now, conducted during the tenure of Presiding Bishop Kathrine Jeffers Schori, prepared us for this moment, but cannot lead us forward.

Which is why I like my plasterer analogy so much.  Careful, moment-by-moment assessment of situations which are constantly changing, and a considerable amount of elasticity and creativity, are going to be critical attributes.  At the same time, a firm recognition of our historical and theological foundation, the ingredients that make up the Episcopal Church, will allow us to build on our strengths: the Prayer Book, our emphasis on the Eucharist, and our dedication to social justice.

Bishop Michael Curry, The House of Bishops has elected you as our new Presiding Bishop, we put our trust in their decision and in you.

Hold the trowel like a bird, that we may soar.

The Rev. Jim Papile, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Virginia, is rector of St. Anne’s Church in Reston.