Liberia: Episcopalians Elect New Bishop Tomorrow

Candidates for the Episcopal Church of Liberia Bishopric election (from left): Rev. Fr. James B. Sellee, Rev. Fr. Michael t. Sie, Fr and Rev. Fr. Herman B. Browne .  

Hundreds of delegates and non-voting members of the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia will on February converge at the Good Shepherd Episcopal Parish in Paynesville to elect a successor to their bishop, The Most Rev. Fr. Jonathan B.B. Hart, who is currently ill and whose tenure expires next year.

The Episcopal Diocese of Liberia is a diocese in the Anglican Communion, founded by missionaries from the Episcopal Church. During the 1851 general convention of the Episcopal Church, the Rev. John Payne, a missionary from Virginia was consecrated as missionary bishop for cape Palmas.

As the Episcopal Church of the United States has its beginnings in the church of England, so the Episcopal Church of Liberia is derived from the Episcopal Church of the United States. 

The special convention, which is expected to take place on Saturday, February 19, will bring together representatives from Episcopal parishes across Liberia’s 15 counties to make decisions for the diocese. It will be one of the high points in the life of the Episcopalians, as well as its highest gathering. 

Key on the agenda for the convention will be the financial sustainability of the diocese and the election of a new bishop. 

Speaking to the Daily Observer earlier this week, Mr. Charles B. Allen, Jr., a lifelong Episcopalian, said the upcoming convention will be historic in the life of members to elect their new bishop.

Not everyone gets to elect a bishop in their lifetime because bishops are usually elected for life, unless some form of disability or other excruciating circumstances warrants their replacement. 

According to Mr. Allen, it is not only the Episcopal church, but also other denominations are going through similar events. 

For example, the Lutheran Church in Liberia will also be electing a new bishop in April this year. 

With such changes in ecumenical leadership come changes in ways of thinking about things and ways of doing things. 

“It is historic. All the churches are going through lots of challenges, including sins of the flesh and dogmas. The Episcopal church might not be a large congregation in Liberia, but has always been influential. Our members occupy critical roles in the church and the state,” he said. 

According to him, under the canon, the set of rules that govern the church, it has become necessary for the church to have a bishop coadjutor (a bishop appointed to assist a diocesan bishop, and often designated as his successor).

He further said the coadjutor will run the church in line with the ailing bishop now (Bishop Hart) and he will succeed him automatically when his retirement time reaches.

“The current bishop will reach his retirement age next year and, as such, they need somebody that will represent the church as bishop. Sadly, the Episcopal institutions have fallen into disrepair for various reasons and this is why this election will determine the future of the church, by the election of a new bishop,” Allen told the Daily Observer.

Church at a cross-roads

“All the churches — the Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran churches are faced with these challenges,” Allen explains. “They are not unique to the Episcopalians. But let’s go one step further. The mainline churches are facing challenges from the Evangelicals (Pentecostals), who believe in the prosperity Gospel. So the church itself is at a crossroads. All churches face dilemmas. 

“Regarding homosexuality, that is not only in the Episcopal Church. But, our Lord and Master and the people who followed Him — Paul, Peter, they were quite clear. When you become a leader, a fisher of men, you are called to stand apart. You cannot be doing things that the average man would do, your standards are high. As a Christian, I am not encouraged to drink until I get drunk. A priest may imbibe, but you don’t want your priest to be everyday at the liquor table. 

“Whereas you cannot condemn a man or a woman for their sexual proclivity, but in the event that the person wants to become a leader, a different standard is set. However, as a member of the church, homosexuality has to be discussed. Some people see it as heredity; some see it as a social vice. Those discussions need to be held. 

Stewardship

According to Mr. Allen, contrary to information that the Episcopal church of America stopped its financial support to the Episcopal Diocese of Liberia due to differences regarding same-sex marriage, he clarifed that the Episcopal Church of Liberia became independent of its parent church in America and became a member of the Anglican Communion for West Africa — that is the English speaking countries.

This includes Episcopal Churches in The Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria and Cameroon, all of whom formed an Episcopal district.

The American Episcopal Church didn’t just cut off support to Liberia. They did it gradually.

This gradual repositioning, he said, was intended to allow the Liberian leadership of the Episcopal church to handle its own affairs appropriately but it became unfortunate that the Liberian leadership did not handle it well.

He said the church does not exist in isolation from the society it operates in. If the society itself condones corruption, the church equally gets affected because those who attend the church are from the society.

“If the society refuses to condemn corruption, it feeds into the church. It is not only unique in the episcopal church. The devil does not go to places that are sinful, but to the areas where perfection is taking place. He goes to the people or places that are pure.” 

So, the stakes are incredibly high for the future of the Episcopal Church in the upcoming bishopric election. 

Mr. Allen sums it up this way: “We define ourselves as good or bad depending on the actions we take. Given where we have arrived, not where we have come from as a Church, we hope on Saturday we will make a decision that moves our Church forward.”

There are three main candidates in this election, Rev. Fr. Herman B. Browne, Rev. Fr. Michael T. Sie, Fr., and Rev. Fr. James B. Sellee.

Rev. Fr. Browne’s most recent high profile position was at the helm of Cuttington University. He says if elected bishop, he will inspire vocations, promote clergy welfare, encourage youth, promote women and family values, sustainability of the church’s own operations, lead advocacy on national concerns, broaden overseas linkages and shift the culture of governance.

Rev. Fr. Sellee, who served as Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral (Trinity Parish), said in his platform that if elected bishop, his priorities will be the development of spiritual life, evangelism, effective management, clergy welfare and training, investments for better sustainability of the diocese, inclusive ministry, education and higher learning, youth empowerment and healthcare. He also plans to cave the Episcopal Church of Liberia into three dioceses. 

Rev. Fr. Sie, if elected, promises to foster new partnerships, support the upgrading of all Episcopal higher education institutions, especially Cuttington University, to more viable institutions in the age of the framework of global technological growth. He also promises to train more lay readers and encourage females into the ordained ministry and leadership role in the Church, as well as set up an Episcopalian Resource Center (in honor of an eminent Episcopalian), among others.