Each edition of The Moravian Magazine now features words from one of our Moravian bishops. This feature, called The Bishop’s Corner, will offer the spiritual leaders of the Moravian Church an opportunity to share their thoughts. This month, we hear from the Rt. Rev. Sam Gray.
Ever since I was asked to write this “Bishop’s Corner,” there have been lots of ideas floating around in the “corners” of my mind… but no final draft! I guess I just needed a spark to get the fire going, especially since the deadline is in a couple of days. Today, the spark finally ignited. How could it not have done so? I’m sitting in Kunvald – not only the place where the Unitas Fratrum was officially organized in 1457, but also the place where, ten years later, the first election and consecration of a Moravian bishop took place.
Right here in this place – Kunwald – people got together and, after lots of prayer and fasting, selected nine “brethren” whom they felt showed the necessary gifts for ministry. But they needed to confirm God’s selection. So, they prepared 12 slips of paper. Three of the slips had the word “j’est” (he is) and nine were blank; it would have been possible for none (or at least not all) of the “j’ests” to be drawn. But three of the brethren were confirmed with “j’ests.” They were Matthias, who was a 25-year-old son of a farmer; Tomas, who was a tailor who knew Latin; and Elias, a miller. Matthias was consecrated as the first Moravian bishop in 1467. Tomas and Elias were ordained as priests, and 32 years later, in 1499, Matthias consecrated them as bishops. In 1500, Luke of Prague was consecrated as the fourth bishop and the rest, as they say, is history.
Since that time, there have been more than 370 bishops consecrated in the Moravian Church. For almost 270 years, all of those consecrations took place in Bohemia, Moravia and Poland. But on March 13, 1735, the 63rd bishop, David Nitschmann, was consecrated in Germany. From that point on, a dual numbering system was set in place. Bishops are identified by the sequence of their ordination since 1467 and by their sequence in the Renewed Moravian Church. So, for example, I am the 337th bishop since 1467, but the 275th in the Renewed Moravian Church.
Throughout the years of the Renewed Moravian Church, the worldwide unity has expanded to include many countries on several continents. In 1746, the first consecration took place in the Netherlands (Zeist). In 1770, the first consecration in the “new world” (in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) was celebrated, with more to follow in other parts of North America. 1874 brought the first consecration in Salem (North Carolina). Additional dates and places include:
- 1891 Antigua
- 1901 Jamaica, and eventually more
- 1907 Ireland
- 1946 Czechoslovakia
- 1960 South Africa
- 1977 Nicaragua
- 1979 Tanzania
- 1980 Suriname
- 1983 Alaska
- 1988 Honduras
- 2018 Cuba
In June 2023, two bishops were elected at the Synod of the Northern Province in North America. One of them, Sister Amy Gohdes-Luhman, is the sixth woman to be elected as a bishop in the Worldwide Moravian Church. All of them are living today, and there are a total of almost 60 bishops living today (out of less than 370 since 1467!).
In the Moravian Church, bishops are not considered to be bishops of a particular place or province, but rather bishops of the Worldwide Unity, residing in a particular province. Moravian bishops have a pastoral and not administrative function. Our Church Order says that the orders of ministry (deacon, presbyter, bishop) are reflections not of rank but of service. Besides ordaining and consecrating ministers, bishops serve as pastors to pastors and have a special responsibility to pray for the worldwide Moravian Church. Tonight, before I go to sleep, I am lifting up a prayer for the entire Moravian Unity, remembering that vision that started here and spread throughout the earth!
The Rt. Rev. Sam Gray is a bishop of the Moravian Unity and currently serves as pastor of New Philadelphia Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.