To the average Barbadian, secular politics is associated with intrigue, conspiracies, manipulation, treachery and other dastardly acts. What may be surprising, especially for those looking within the four hallowed walls of the church for purity and perfection, is to learn that pretty much the same sometimes can be found there too.
Sad to say, anyone looking to find the epitome of purity and perfection within the church is bound to be disappointed for church politics sometimes can be just as brutal or more brutal than secular politics. It so happens that the church, like any other institution, reflects human weakness and imperfection. Little wonder St Augustine, an early Christian father, theologian and philosopher, rightly described the church as “a hospital for sinners”.
At the heart of politics, whether secular or church, is a fierce competition for position and power which sometimes can bring out the worst in human beings. We can point to numerous examples throughout history where this struggle has caused bitter strife and division within families, and turned good friends into sworn enemies as irrational behaviour took hold of otherwise sane and reasonable persons.
In the contest to elect a new Bishop for the Anglican Diocese of Barbados, some of these forces have been evident. In some regards, observers say it seems to be a virtual replay of 1972 when the Elective Synod became hopelessly deadlocked and the matter had to be referred to the House of Bishops which eventually appointed then 36 year old Bahamian, Drexel Wellington Gomez, as the successor to retired British-born Bishop Edward Lewis Evans.
On April 25, when the Elective Synod met for the first time, a field of four candidates was reduced to two. The remaining two nominees, Dean of the Cathedral Church of St Michael and All Angels, The Very Rev. Dr Jeffrey Gibson, 60, and Rector of St George’s Parish Church, Rev. John Rogers, 45, failed to achieve the required two-thirds support in both Houses of Clergy and Laity. A majority of priests stood solidly behind Gibson while a majority of the laity strongly backed Rogers.
As a result, the Elective Synod was adjourned until this coming Monday, May 14, when a fresh attempt will be made to agree on a 14th Bishop for the Diocese. Whether the deadlock is finally broken in a magnanimous show of compromise is left to be seen. There is a view, certainly within clergy circles, that Rogers should give way, just as Rev. Canon George Knight did 17 years ago to pave the way for the election to Rogers’ uncle, Dr John Holder, who retired as the 13th Diocesan Bishop at the end of February.
A bishop is considered, first and foremost, pastor to his priests and then the laity. Secondly, a bishop must enjoy the full support of his clergy to ensure the smooth running of the diocese. The support of the clergy, therefore, is critical to the success of a bishop. In light of these considerations, Rogers was reportedly asked by a respected senior priest to step aside and throw his support behind Dr Gibson but refused.
Given the significant lack of support for Rogers’ candidature in the House of Clergy because of a view that he is being pushed by an entrenched old guard seeking to retain the status quo, it is unlikely that he will muster the required two-thirds. Besides, any likelihood of that happening now is diminished because priests supporting Dr Gibson have taken umbrage to their being branded “dissidents” reportedly by the old guard.
“Wasn’t [former South African Archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner] Desmond Tutu also called a rabble rouser for justice?” asked a priest, expressing the view that the laity, mostly unaware of the many critical issues affecting the church at the leadership level, were vulnerable to manipulation by the so-called “old guard” to advance their narrow agenda.
Another concern among the clergy is that should Rogers get the nod, he will be bishop for the next 25 years which will stymie the upward movement of ambitious young priests to leadership positions. As a result, some priests could easily leave the diocese in pursuit of brighter opportunities elsewhere at a time when there is a shortage of priests.
A Rogers episcopate would mean that together with his uncle, they would have been at the helm of the diocese for almost 50 years which some persons consider to be way too long and not good for the development of the church. One priest saw the attempt to push Rogers now, when he could easily wait and offer himself as a more mature and experienced candidate in another nine years when Gibson would have to retire, as similar to the controversial issue of supercession in the public service.
It is unclear what is Rogers’ development agenda for the diocese as he has reportedly not spelt it out. However, it seems, based on various comments, that his appeal to the laity is premised on a belief that a Rogers episcopate would lead young people to return to the church. It is certainly not a realistic expectation and persons espousing that view seem to seeing the world through the eyes of the past when going to church was the only option open to most people, especially on Sundays.
With the subsequent secularization of society, it means there are now many other options which, to young people, appear more attractive than going to church. Besides, Rogers has served as diocesan youth chaplain for more than ten years and his performance in this role should be the test of how successful he is likely to be in this endeavour. If anything, youth numbers across the diocese have actually fallen during this period than increased.
Making church attractive to young people will call for much more than a youthful bishop. It is known that our young people are hooked to exciting brands and the solution to the problem seems to lie more in innovative marketing that will present the church as offering an exciting and fullfilling experience as other activities.
Supporters of Dr Gibson’s candidacy have presented, with his approval and endorsement, a comprehensive plan for the modernization of the Anglican Church. Themed An Anglican Renaissance: Towards 2020 and Beyond, the nine-point plan speaks to developing a vibrant youth ministry, bringing the church into the technological age to capitalize on opportunities for more effective ministry, and making the church more outward-looking through pursuing mutually beneficial relationships with other dioceses in the worldwide Anglican communion.
The plan speaks too to putting idle assets of the church to work to develop sustainable new revenue streams to reduce the current heavy dependence on contributions from members, setting up an Anglican credit union to promote financial empowerment of members, offering improved working and retirement conditions for priests so that the sacred ministry is made more appealing to young men and women as was the case in the past, and expanding opportunities for education and training for the laity.
Will the current deadlock be resolved next Monday? Alternatively, will a compromise candidate emerge? If neither occurs, the next Bishop of Barbados most likely will come from elsewhere and will be imposed, as happened in 1972, rather than chosen by the diocese. It is a choice which only the Elective Synod can make.
(Reudon Eversley, a practising Anglican, is political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist.