On Wednesday, the 14th Bishop of Barbados will be chosen by an Elective Synod of the Anglican Diocese at the Ivan Harewood Centre adjoining the Christ Church Parish. The successful candidate will succeed the Most Rev. Dr John Holder, who retired at the end of February as the Diocesan and Archbishop of the West Indies upon reaching the mandatory age of 70.
Dr Holder had been at the helm of the local diocese since 2000 and for the last eight years, he doubled as primate of the Province of the West Indies. It was in 2009 that regional bishops elevated him as the successor to the Most Rev. Drexel Gomez, a Bahamian who was chosen by regional bishops in 1972 to fill the Barbados See.
Rev. Gomez [stepped into that role] after the Elective Synod failed to agree on a replacement to the late Lewis Evans when he retired as Bishop.
As expected, Wednesday’s election has generated keen interest not only within the Anglican church but also in the wider Barbadian society. As leader of the largest Christian denomination on the island, the Anglican Bishop has traditionally wielded considerable influence and is also looked to by the society to provide moral and spiritual leadership, especially to support the search for solutions to vexing problems confronting the nation.
According to tradition, candidates for the bishopric are not supposed to be known until formal nominations are made at the start of the Elective Synod. However, in a surprising departure from this tradition, the church’s quarterly newspaper, The Anglican, listed five contenders in its latest issue. Whatever the reason, the introduction of this list into the public space has intensified the discussion, especially in the mainstream press, over the last few weeks.
The list includes the Very Rev. Dr Jeffrey Gibson, Dean of St Michael’s Cathedral; Rev. Dr Michael Clarke, Principal of Codrington College, Rev. Dr Monrelle Williams, a former deputy principal of Codrington College who is now a parish priest in the United States; Canon Noel Burke, Rector of St David’s and Rev. John Rogers, Rector of St George’s Parish Church who is a nephew of the retired bishop and archbishop.
However, Dr Gibson, 60, and Rogers, 45, are seen as the frontrunners. Those supporting Dr Gibson, a priest of 34 years’ standing, point to his maturity, extensive pastoral experience, inspirational leadership, effective administration at the parish level, and his reputation for coming up with new ideas and getting things done. These credentials, they contend, are critical to moving the Diocese forward, given the complexity of the challenges it faces. Should Dr Gibson be elected, his episcopate will last 10 years at the most.
Supporters of Rogers, on the other hand, point mostly to his charisma, preaching skills and relative youthfulness which they believe can serve as a magnet to attract more young people into the church. The Anglican Church which boasted a membership of 70,000 up to about 10 years ago, has been experiencing declining congregations for various reasons, including proselytizing by other churches and the increasing secularization of society where the focus of people has generally shifted from the spiritual to the material.
While hardly anyone disputes Rogers’ great promise, the question going through the minds of many Anglicans is whether now is really his time. There are various factors working against his candidacy, which reportedly has the backing of an entrenched “old guard”. Being the nephew of the retired bishop, whose popularity was in decline during the final years of his tenure, some Anglicans perceive Rogers’ candidacy as similar to a dynasty which promises more of the same instead of an opportunity for a new beginning.
If Rogers gets the nod, it also means he may be around for the next 24 years which is quite a lengthy wait for any ambitious priest looking to move up the hierarchy. In such circumstances, the temptation to explore greener pastures elsewhere may be irresistible. Besides, having such a key leadership position occupied by the same person for so long is [not considered] good for any institution. Burn-out can easily set in after about 10 years and the progress of the institution may become stymied as a result – which supports the case for term limits for both bishops and parish priests.
Another concern is Rogers’ limited experience, having been a priest for just 15 years. Certainly, in the case of this Diocese, the not too distant past provides reminders of possible risks associated with assuming the bishopric at a relatively young age with limited experience. Costly decisions can sometimes result; a good example being the case involving the former Rector of St Andrew’s Parish Church, Rev. Edward Gatherer, who successfully challenged, all the way to the Privy Council, then Bishop Gomez’s decision to send him into retirement at age 65.
Based on the historical trend, it seems that Bishops in the Province of the West Indies are generally elected in their 50s. Where younger priests have been so elevated, it has been only after the Elective Synod of a Diocese failed to decide on a candidate as happened here in 1972. It was then, at age 36, that Rev. Gomez was chosen by the House of Bishops. In the unique case of Belize, the House of Bishops always appoints a Bishop when the See becomes vacant. The incumbent Diocesan, Rt. Rev. Philip Wright became Bishop at age 38.
Reform and modernization are a must for the local Anglican Diocese to move beyond the current crossroads. Over the last six years, I have taken a particularly keen interest in this subject, looking specifically at how strategic communications and other tools of modern marketing can be applied to generate and maintain a high level of interest in the work of the church. [While serving] as the strategic communications adviser to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgetown four years ago, when former Bishop, The Most Rev. Dr Jason Gordon, was preparing for the historic first Synod, [I saw] the relevance and effectiveness of such an approach.
The Anglican Diocese of the Windward Islands too has taken a keen interest in modernizing its approach to ministry and has been re-examining how it communicates. Ministry is a communications-driven exercise. It was an honour two years ago, at the invitation of Bishop C. Leopold Friday, to deliver the third annual Sir Cuthbert Woodroffe Memorial Lecture, honouring a former Archbishop of the West Indies and Bishop of the Windward Islands who once served as a priest in this Diocese. The title of the lecture was Revisiting ‘Word’ and ‘Way’: Communicating Christ to Contemporary Caribbean Audiences.
It is important that this week’s Elective Synod produces a conclusive result to avoid a repeat of 1972. There is no need for an acrimonious fight as was reportedly the case back then. Differences can easily be resolved through a willingness to compromise because, ultimately, everyone’s objective, regardless of which side they are on, is a better church where God’s work takes precedence over all other considerations.
With the right choice, supported by a united, strong, re-energized and refocused church, the path becomes immediately clear for embarking on an exciting journey towards a genuine Anglican renaissance.
(Reudon Eversley, a practising Anglican, is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist, and journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)