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The Election of a Presiding Bishop

General Convention 2024 didn’t bring a revolution like some of our conventions have done in the past. For instance, nearly 50 years ago, the General Convention approved the ordination of women; more recently, in 2015, our church added canonical provisions to allow marriage equality.

This convention’s biggest news had to do with the election of leaders – primarily the new Presiding Bishop-Elect, Sean Rowe, who will officially take office on November 1. Our current, beloved Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, will retire on October 31, after an eventful nine-year term. Bishop Curry has been instrumental in emphasizing the love of Jesus and making evangelism a household word in the Episcopal Church again. He raised the profile of the Episcopal Church significantly when he preached at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. His term has seen increasing emphasis on racial reconciliation and creation care as part of the mission of the church.

Bishop Sean Rowe brings a different emphasis. He has a deep faith in Jesus and is well known for his signature phrase, “It’s a great day in the Kingdom!” He strongly supports the priorities of evangelism, racial reconciliation, and creation care, and preached a powerful sermon on the last day of Convention about the work ahead of us as a church. But Bishop Rowe is also a strategic thinker who has a strong belief in the kind of organizational work our church needs to do to give us new strength in the 21st century. Bishop Rowe is a bridge-builder between groups that have often been at odds in our church (like the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies). He believes we need to refocus our budgets, missions, and staff to support dioceses, where the on-the-ground work of the church happens. I believe he has the leadership qualities that we need to transform the churchwide structure from a top-heavy administrative bureaucracy to an efficient, focused center dedicated to support of the dioceses, where ministry occurs on the ground. As we do this work, I believe we will discover new avenues of growth and vitality for our church.

As one example of his leadership, two days after his election, Bishop Rowe announced that he would forego the traditional installation service at Washington National Cathedral, a grand extravaganza that has celebrated new Presiding Bishops since the 1930s. I attended Presiding Bishop Curry’s installation in 2015 as a member of The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council, and it was a delightful day. I was looking forward to attending the next one, as all bishops are invited to attend. But a service at the National Cathedral could easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, in addition to the travel costs of all of us attending from all over the world. That is money better spent on the mission of the church. It would also take us away from our dioceses into the heart of Washington DC right before Election Day, a fraught time for our country. I have great respect for our new PB’s decision, which rightly focuses us on church mission rather than a grand spectacle.

It was new for me to experience the Presiding Bishop election process from the House of Bishops side. In our church, the House of Bishops elects the PB, and the House of Deputies confirms the election. In 2015, I was a deputy from Arizona and got to vote to confirm the election of Presiding Bishop Curry. This time, I got to see the whole process from the other side.

The day started with a Eucharist in the convention worship space, alongside all the other other convention attendees. After communion, the whole assembly sang “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (Come, Holy Spirit) while the bishops gathered and were dismissed. We processed out of the convention center and walked several blocks (guided by volunteers with purple flags!) to Christ Church Cathedral in Louisville, where we gathered in the nave. After prayers and hymns, the voting process began.

The process began with a roll call, as it was vital to know how many bishops were voting. All living bishops are eligible to vote, whether active or retired, so it was interesting to listen to the roll call and greet the many retired bishops who were present. Names are called in order of the bishops’ ordination, beginning with the senior bishop present (Leo Frade, resigned of Southeast Florida). Then ballots were handed out one by one. I was surprised that we were voting on paper in the year 2024, but it seems that the paper ballots are kept for posterity in the Episcopal archives. When I received my ballot, I sat in prayer for several minutes before marking it. Then, all of us were asked to fold our ballot once and hold it aloft to be collected. The House of Bishops Dispatch Committee took the ballots to a private place to count them while the rest of the house took a break for conversation and coffee.

We had been asked to turn our phones off and not to communicate with the outside world during the election time. I was annoyed with this restriction, as we are all so dependent on our phones these days. Also, the House of Deputies was holding an election that morning for the Trustees of the Church Pension Fund, and I wanted to know whether I was elected! (Later, I found out that, yes, I was elected on the first ballot.) Despite my annoyance, I found the waiting time to be a joyful and blessed time of conversation with good friends and new acquaintances in the House of Bishops.

After about 45 minutes, we were called back into the nave for an announcement of results. I was expecting the election to go several ballots, so my notebook and pen were poised to note totals to inform my next vote. Like a diocesan bishop election, the PB needs to be elected by a greater-than-50% vote, so ballots are cast until that total is reached.

As we gathered in the nave, Presiding Bishop Curry announced that there were 158 votes cast, 82 needed to elect. He started to read the results in alphabetical order but skipped Sean Rowe, the 4th in line. He read out the vote totals:

Bishop Scott Barker            24

Bishop DeDe Duncan-Probe     9

Bishop Daniel Gutierrez     17

Bishop Rob Wright             19 

Then, while I was wondering why he had skipped Bishop Rowe, he read out the total for him: “Bishop Sean Rowe, 89 votes. We have an election.” A gasp went up around the room as everyone realized that we had finished our work with a decisive first-ballot vote. All the gathered bishops stood and gave an extended standing ovation for Bishop Rowe, then for each of the other candidates, thanking them for being willing to take on such a challenging role. Then Bishops Rowe, Curry, and Katharine Jefferts Schori stood at the front of the church for a photo of three Presiding Bishops, while all the bishops jostled for position to take photos, like any paparazzi.

Our work for the day was not yet done. We were still sequestered in the church while we waited for the House of Deputies to confirm the election. A delegation from our house went over to inform the other house and ask for confirmation. By this time, it was lunchtime, and while we waited for confirmation, we had box lunches and more conversation.

At about 2:30, we reconvened to receive the delegation from the House of Deputies, informing us that the election had been confirmed. We stood and cheered Bishop Rowe as we recognized that we had an official Presiding Bishop-elect. Then, we all were conducted back over to sit in the gallery in the House of Deputies while Bishop Rowe was conducted to the front by his family and the deputations from his two dioceses (Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York). He greeted the two houses, and we greeted him back with a standing ovation.

Bishop Rowe will be a very different kind of Presiding Bishop than his predecessor. That goes without saying, as no one is like Michael Curry, and it takes a brave person to be willing to follow him! But Bishop Rowe preaches with truth, insight, and deep faith. I believe his election reflects a strong recognition in the House of Bishops that it’s time to strategically refocus our church on ways we can grow and support God’s mission. Bishop Curry was great at inspiring us to do God’s mission – now it’s time for us to take the next step and take concrete, strategic steps to accomplish it.

As a side note, Bishop Rowe is well-known and liked in the House of Bishops. He is our youngest Presiding Bishop ever, at age 49, and was also the youngest bishop in the church when he was elected at age 32 and the youngest priest in the church when he was ordained at age 25. He has served Bishop Curry as parliamentarian for the House of Bishops and is widely respected in that role. But I don’t believe his election was a popularity contest – the other bishop candidates are also popular. It was a true recognition of a need for a new kind of strategic direction for the church. I am looking forward to seeing how Bishop Rowe leads us for the next nine years.

Get to know the new Presiding Bishop, Sean Rowe, by listening to this short sermon.

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Category: #Bishop's Blog, #Communications

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5 replies to “The Election of a Presiding Bishop

  1. Jan Wacker | on July 3, 2024

    It’s Meghan, not Megan.

  2. Joyce Vogel | on July 3, 2024

    Thank you Bishop Susan for your clear, concise, and heart felt description of your experience at General Convention. I am pleased at the leadership that Presiding Bishop Rowe is showing. Also, thank you for your continuing leadership here at home.

  3. Bill Zettinger | on July 3, 2024

    A good choice for our times. Passing on installation at the National Cathedral was a good first step. I sense if we let some of the pomp and circumstance go we might attract new folks who are interested in Jesus ‘ ministry. I stand with the PB elect!

  4. Scott Crispell | on July 3, 2024

    Dear Bishop Susan,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your account of the election and confirmation of our new Presiding Bishop-elect. Thank you. I think the margin by which he was elected and confirmed demonstrates the work of the Holy Spirit. And thanks to everyone who represented our Diocese. I look forward to the new Presiding Bishop’s visitation to San Diego.

    And congratulations to you on your election as Trustee to the Church Pension Fund!

  5. SydneyBreeze Lowe | on July 4, 2024

    Bishop Snook, thank you for your informative article. Congratulations on the election of Bishop Rowe. It was a wonderful surprise for those of us at the Daughters of the King Triennial to hear that a new presiding Bishop had been elected on the first ballot.

    I was lucky to meet Bishop Rowe when he came over to the Triennial and introduced himself to the Daughters.

    Sydney

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