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William White: A Selfless Leader

Today is the Feast Day of William White. He was the first Presiding Bishop in the Episcopal Church. Yet, putting unity before his own personal ambition, his tenure as Presiding Bishop lasted only 67 days. For this reason, White is instructive for how we think about leadership. Yet first, a bit of context.

Following the American War for Independence, there was no formal expression of the Episcopal Church in the newly formed United States, only a loose collection of Anglican parishes which had severed ties with the Church of England. To make matters more complicated, the church landscape in the newly formed republic was fractured. Three groups vied for control: High Church Anglicans, Low Church Anglicans and the newly formed Wesleyans. The pressing question of their day was how would this new expression of the Anglican Church stay united in the midst of turmoil.

Setting aside his personal ambition and Low Church sensibilities, White pursued a path of unity over division. After 67 days, White stepped down as Presiding Bishop to allow Samuel Seabury, a noted High Churchman, to serve as Presiding Bishop. White’s example shows us what selflessness looks like, particularly in the area of leadership.

This is precisely what Jesus wants from each of us. He wants us to put our love and devotion to Him before our personal ambitions. Today’s lectionary Gospel reading is from John 21, when Jesus appears to His disciples a third and final time after His resurrection. Jesus asks Peter three questions: First, “Do you love me?” And then a second time, “Do you love me?” And yet a third time, “Do you love me?” To these questions, Peter answers in the affirmative, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus then tells Peter: “Feed my sheep.” The idea is if we love Jesus, then we will love others. This runs through so much of Jesus’ teaching and especially that “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) This is something that Bishop White, who we remember today, knew all too well. And this is something that Jesus calls each of us who are His followers to model in our lives.

Jesus asks each of us: “Do you love Me?” We answer this question by demonstrating our love for others. “By this, ” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
The Rev. Alex D. Graham III
Associate for Children and Family Ministries
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