Bishop's Conclave

The Bishops’ Conclave: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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What is a conclave? Put simply, a conclave is a private meeting of bishops gathered to select a new archbishop or for other important business. The conclave’s Biblical prototype is the apostles’ gathering, on the first Easter evening, behind a locked door. Theologically, a conclave puts emphasis on Christ as the key.

Etymology of the Conclave

Conclave is a Latin term with two component parts: con, meaning with, and clave, meaning key. Put literally, a conclave is a place accessed with a key. Indeed, the term has been used sometimes to describe a lockable room.

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In ecclesiastical use, the term originated with the gathering of cardinal bishops to select a new pope. In secular contexts, a conclave can describe any private meeting of leaders.

History of the Conclave

The first official conclave was held in January 1276 to elect a successor to Pope Gregory X. As pope, Gregory X had legislated a new procedure for the selection of his successor. His motivation was to make the election happen faster. Gregory X only became pope after a three-year election process, from 1268 to 1271.

Gregory X wanted a faster selection process, so he forced the cardinals to go into a locked room. The purpose of the lock, in other words, was not so much to keep the people out as to keep the bishops in! Gregory X also stipulated that the bishops would get less and less food the longer their deliberations went on.

Under these conditions, it was perhaps no surprise that the cardinal bishops elected a new pope on the first day of deliberation!

The Biblical Conclave

Though the practice of the conclave began relatively late in Christian history, the concept of an apostolic gathering in a locked room has a biblical basis. John records how, on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, the apostles gathered together in a locked room:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

John 20:19

Thomas was not with the disciples that Easter evening, and he refused to believe unless he saw and touched Jesus’ wounds for himself. So the apostles gathered together the following Sunday, again behind a locked door. We read this passage on Saint Thomas Sunday, the Second Sunday of Easter:

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

John 20:26

Notice the points of repetition: the apostles gathered together on another Sunday evening, again in a locked room. John especially points out how Jesus again evades the lock: although the door was locked, Jesus came

Evidently, Jesus’ resurrected body can pass through locked doors. To use Harry Potter’s terminology, Jesus has the power to apparate. After all, he disapparated in Luke 24 after walking the road to Emmaus!

Theology of the Conclave

Theologically, the reason Jesus can go through locked doors is that Christ is the Key. The prophecy of Christ the Key comes from Isaiah:

And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Isaiah 22:22

We commemorate this prophecy of the Messiah as the key of David every year on December 19 as part of the “O Antiphons.” You’ll notice that the Latin term for the day, “O Clavis David,” contains the same Latin term in our word “conclave.”

As the Messianic Key of David, Jesus is able to open more than individual rooms. He is, in fact, the key to heaven, judgment, and hell. When the scroll of judgment is presented in Revelation 5, at first, no one is able to open it:

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it.

Revelation 5:2-3

But then Jesus is presented, the lamb who has been slain. He who sacrificed himself for our salvation is the only one worthy to execute judgment:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Revelation 5:9-10

Praying for a Conclave

In light of this Biblical and theological background, it is especially important to pray for a group of Bishops when they enter into a conclave. Here are a few ways to pray:

  1. Pray that the bishops gather with the expectation of the presence of Christ.
  2. Pray that the bishops receive the peace of Christ.
  3. Pray that the bishops deliberate in the Holy Spirit given by Christ.
  4. Pray that the bishops accept Christ as the Key to solving any situation.
  5. Pray that the bishops look to the wounds of Christ.
  6. Pray that the bishops receive and proclaim the forgiveness of Christ.

May the bishops receive the blessing of the apostles on that first Easter night when Jesus came amongst them:

Jesus showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’

John 20:20-23

The Conclave in the ACNA

In the short history of the ACNA, there have been at least four conclaves:

  1. June 2014 – The bishops met in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to select a new archbishop. Archbishop Foley Beach was elected.
  2. September 2017 – The bishops met in Victoria, British Columbia, to discuss the ordination of women. The result was the Victoria Statement.
  3. September 2022 – The bishops met in Black Mountain, North Carolina. No statement was issued at the conclusion of the meeting.
  4. June 2024 – The bishops will meet this month in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, to select a new archbishop.

Almighty God, giver of every good gift: Look graciously on your Church, and so guide the minds of those who shall choose an Archbishop for our Province, that we may receive a faithful pastor who will preach the Gospel, care for your people, equip us for ministry, and lead us forth in fulfillment of the Great Commission; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

BCP 2019, p. 648

Image: Church Door, by Kelly Sikkema, courtesy of Unsplash.

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

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