Bishop Sauls’ reform proposal, I: the political context

Bishop Stacy Sauls’ presentation to the House of Bishops last week in Quito, Ecuador has stirred significant comment, not to mention anxiety, in the church. We hope to devote significant time and space to discussing his proposals in the days ahead, and would like to begin by describing the context in which it has landed.

Tensions between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies are high, as are relationships between the Executive Council and the staff at 815. Some bishops have even discussed encouraging a candidate to run against Bonnie Anderson, President of the House of Deputies. Bishop Sauls seems, on one level to be sensitive to this. His power point presentation includes the following:

Slide 42—


A general word of caution about continuing this conversation.

The problem is a systemic one and not an individual one.

There will be reactivity to these proposals. That is the nature of systemic issues.

This is not a problem with the leadership of the House of Deputies or with anyone individually.

Let me say something about the President of the House of Deputies.

This is not a problem about Bonnie Anderson.

Bonnie Anderson is a good and faithful person who loves Jesus and loves the Church and is devoted to serving the Church.

To be perfectly honest, the level of conversation in the House is sometimes not helpful on this issue and, in fact, the people of the Church deserve a higher standard of leadership from their Bishops.

When I need to ask Bonnie about something she has said or done, or when I need to consult with her on something, what I do is pick up the phone and call her. I have never, not once, had Bonnie do anything other than have a collegial and helpful conversation with me. I suggest you do the same.

Before I say more, a moment of full disclosure: Bonnie Anderson is a client of mine. (So are several of the bishops in the house.) I was with Bonnie when the news that Bishop Sauls had called for a special convention focused on reforming our church’s governing structures first broke. She was completely blindsided, as were the other members of her Council of Advice, which was then meeting. So was the Executive Council, whose executive committee had met with Bishop Sauls just two weeks before his presentation in Quito. So was the Standing Commission on Structure, which had recently held a lengthy consultation on governance reform at the Maritime Center near Baltimore. So were the members of the Budgetary Funding Task Force, on which Bishop Sauls serves, and in which many of his proposals had been discussed—but not, to this point, accepted.

So, on the one hand, Bishop Sauls seems to be aware that the two houses must learn to trust and respect one another, on the other hand, he has preempted the work of a task force on which he himself serves, and gone to the bishops with a presentation emphasizing the savings they would realize if the House of Deputies met less often—and didn’t bother to inform any of the clergy or lay people involved in church governance that he intended to do so.

A number of church leaders expressed their concern to Episcopal News Service, but their views were not represented it its story on this matter.

In his proposal, Bishop Sauls also suggests that the Executive Council, a body on which clergy and lay people constitute a majority, should no longer exercise control of the Church’s finances. At least that is the conclusion that I draw from Slide 26:

Slide 26—Principle 2: Separate Mission Decisions from Fiduciary Decisions

Let people do what they’re best at

Executive Council best at mission

DFMS Board of Trustees is different (currently vested with Executive Council)

I am not sure precisely what Bishop Sauls intends here, or how he intends to redefine the Board of Trustees, but one would have thought that alerting Executive Council ahead of time that he was about to float a proposal stripping it of its fiduciary role would have been the courteous thing to do.

Church reform in a polity such as ours, in which authority is shared by bishops, clergy and laity, is a politically delicate matter. The bishop has made a substantial and significant proposal on an issue that is critical to our church, and it deserves serious and energetic consideration. However, he has made it in a way that has put many of the lay people and clergy who are most deeply involved in issues of governance and structural reform on their guard. That is unfortunate, because it may make it difficult for the bishop’s ideas to receive the consideration they require.

We will move on to substantive discussions of the bishop’s proposals in subsequent posts.

Past Posts