Following the failure of the special Elective Synod, after a protracted election process, to agree on who will be the next Bishop of Barbados, it has pretty much been open season on the local Anglican Church. Harsh criticism has come from many quarters, including various social commentators and regular callers on talk radio.
The crux of the criticism is that the image and prestige of the Anglican Church, as the numerically dominant branch of Christianity on the island, have suffered irreparable damage because of the seeming difficulty to resolve what appeared to most onlookers to be a simple matter.
Let’s dispassionately examine the facts to avoid a quagmire of emotionalism where clear judgement is practically impossible. From a historical perspective, it is certainly not the first time that the local Anglican Diocese has failed to choose one of its own as Bishop after going through a bruising and acrimonious selection process.
It previously happened in 1972. The Elective Synod deadlocked on whether the next bishop should be Canon Ivor Jones or the late Canon Harold Tudor, opening the way for then 36 year old Bahamian, Rev. Drexel Gomez, to become chief pastor of the diocese. He was the choice of the Bishops of the West Indies province, to whom selection is referred whenever an unresolvable deadlock emerges at the diocesan level.
History simply is repeating itself. This time around, neither of the two candidates – the Very Rev. Dr Jeffrey Gibson, Dean of St Michael’s Cathedral, and Rev. John Rogers, Rector of St George Parish Church — managed to secure the mandatory two-thirds majority in both the House of Clergy (priests) and the House of Laity (lay people). As a result, the matter has again been referred to the House of Bishops, raising the strong possibility that the 14th Bishop will be a non-Barbadian.
Back in 1972, opposition to the idea of a non-Barbadian heading the Anglican Church in then newly independent Barbados was so strong, there was intense speculation as to whether the then Errol Barrow administration would have granted a work permit to allow Gomez to take up the post. It prompted the Government to assure the Diocese that no such impediment would be placed in the way.
Gomez was eventually ordained and consecrated during a Cathedral service presided over by the late Rt. Rev. John Cyril Swaby, Bishop of Jamaica and the most senior regional bishop after Archbishop Dr Allan John Knight was unable to attend. While Gomez was never fully embraced, the Diocese at least appeared to move past the disappointment of not having a Barbadian bishop and settled down.
Rest assured the same will happen again. The fate of the Church is never in the hands of man but always God’s, as the rousing E.H. Plumptre hymn Thy Hand, O God, has guided, powerfully reminds us. What would be interesting, though, is finding out how many of those washing their mouths on the Anglican Church, are actually practising Anglicans. Not many, I suspect.
Could it be that some with hidden agendas are exploiting the perception of a weakened and divided church, to undermine the traditional strong influence which Anglicanism, as the former established church, has exercised over the direction of Barbadian society? This possibility should not be ruled out. Anglicans are a target as competition grows among the churches for market share.
Though largely negative, the current criticism of the Anglican Church is not altogether a bad thing. What it underscores is the fact that at a subconscious level, Barbadians still look to the Anglican Church, more than any other, to provide moral leadership and guidance. The keen interest in the episcopal election stands as powerful testimony.
Further, it legitimizes the official designation of the Anglican bishop as the Bishop of Barbados. A strong Anglican Church is seen as vital for a strong Barbados. Mindful of this reality, healing and reconciliation, along with image repair and restoration, must be priority #1 after the new bishop is enthroned. But could the church have avoided the present predicament? Definitely! It required effective leadership of the church during the current inter-regnum and effective management of the election process.
The buck stops with Diocesan Administrator, Canon Wayne Isaacs. Until the new bishop takes office, he is ultimately accountable for whatever transpires whether it is of his doing or not. He repeatedly spoke of allowing the process to run its course as frustration mounted over the entrenched division between the House of Clergy and House of Laity. A process cannot be left to chance; it has to effectively managed to get desired results.
While the vote of the clergy was a genuine reflection of their wishes, the same cannot be said for the House of Laity. Though most members owe their Synod positions to being selected by their congregations, their votes in this instance were based on personal choice. Representatives of church bodies and some diocesan staff also voted in the House of Laity.
After the Elective Synod held a 10th inconclusive round of balloting on July 29, it was the erudite intervention of the alternate Synod representative for St Lawrence Church, Cicely Chase-Harding Q.C., that rescued the clearly adrift process. As attention was shifting to the establishment of a special committee to choose the next bishop, the learned attorney, who was taking part in the Elective Synod that day for the first time, drew attention to certain flaws. She convincingly made the point that proceeding along this path opened the church to the possibility of litigation in the law courts.
Silence fell on the assembly, then loud applause erupted for Mrs Chase, followed by the prompt decision to send the matter to the House of Bishops. The process was flawed from the outset because of a perception that it was not a level playing field and one candidate was favoured over the other. While Gibson’s entry into the race was pretty much at the last minute, as long as four years ago, there was talk in certain circles that Rogers was going to succeed his uncle, the recently retired Archbishop John Holder.
Rogers’ rejection by the Clergy, whose support he would have needed to be a successful bishop, speaks volumes of how they felt about any such succession plan. Some critics have tried to rubbish Dean Gibson’s credentials, but the fact is that he was appointed Dean two years ago by Bishop Holder on the strength of an outstanding track record as a parish priest.
At Gibson’s installation, Bishop Holder identified him as the man to revitalize the Cathedral’s ministry. What disqualified him from doing the same for the Diocese? “You must be the leader in terms of the ministry of the diocese, a leader in terms of the vision and the push forward to improve and strengthen our mission and ministry,” Holder said.
The Anglican Church, with many greying heads in the pews, is indeed crying out for an innovative approach to ministry. Gibson’s development plan for the diocese, outlined in a document entitled An Anglican Renaissance, offered some exciting prescriptions for a better future. The Synod did not hear what Rogers’ plan was as none was reportedly presented.
When the history of the Anglican Church for this period is written, Dean Gibson may very well be recorded as the best bishop Barbados never had at a time when the diocese most needed such a bishop. Alas, what a great tragedy not only for the church but also Barbados!
(Reudon Eversley, a practising Anglican, is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and longstanding journalist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)