Rethinking Episcopal Church structure Part II

Clarity about the purpose and value of our connectedness (see Part 1) suggests that The Episcopal Church (TEC) move into two directions. I write this with some trepidation about getting too much into the weeds, but TEC, if it is not merely to survive but to regain the vibrancy that once made it a powerful and forceful witness for the gospel must reinvent itself before it becomes entirely irrelevant.

First, TEC should eliminate its triennial General Convention. Instead, TEC should adopt a virtual legislative and electoral process. A virtual process, unimaginable to eighteenth century Episcopalians, might advantageously:

• Preserve our national bicameral structure and the option to vote by orders (i.e., the basic principles of representation and democracy inherent in our approach to governance) ;

• Expand the number of deputies (lay and clergy) per diocese, broadening representation;

• Recognize that the large number of lay and clergy deputies already precludes meaningful floor debate, i.e., the real action happens either in smaller bodies (the House of Bishops, for example, or, more often, in a committee or commission);

• Substitute virtual interaction for physical interaction, a change some national committees and commissions have already made;

• Permit more timely decisions, with the virtual successor to General Convention convening annually or perhaps even quarterly;

• Enable delegates to have more time per issue by focusing on fewer issues at a time;

• Require minimal national staff support to track actions, disseminate documents digitally, train new diocesan IT staff (dioceses train and otherwise support their deputies), etc.;

• Save the substantial sums now spent on deputy travel, per diem, etc. (approximately $35,000 per diocese).

Here’s how this process might work at the national level for two important issues, the election of a Presiding Bishop and approving a rite of blessing for same sex marriages. The House of Bishops at one of their regular meetings would, using the current process, choose a candidate to become the next Presiding Bishop. The House of Deputies would meet to discuss and vote whether to confirm that person electronically while the House of Bishops remained in session. The possibility and problems stemming from the House of Deputies rejecting the House of Bishops’ choice are less costly but otherwise the same as if the House of Deputies were meeting in person rather than virtually. Deputies vote by diocesan delegation, minimizing any problems caused by people being in various time zones. Diocesan delegations could easily have more members and include persons now excluded by practical considerations from serving. In other words, a virtual process would be more representative, more inclusive, and far less costly than the current process.

Approving a liturgy for blessing same sex marriages might begin, as does the current legislative process, with a resolution that originated in either the House of Bishops or Deputies to form a national consultation tasked with drafting a proposed rite. The national consultation could function through a combination of physical and virtual meetings. Once drafted, each diocese might then choose its own process to study the proposed rite and any supplemental materials the consultation furnishes. Dioceses, within a stipulated timeframe, could then vote, again using their own process, to commend the text in whole or part, propose revisions, or recommend against approval in whole or part. If a majority (or a super majority, depending upon the issue and canons) approves, the text stands adopted. If a majority recommend against acceptance, the issue dies.

If, as is most likely, a majority of dioceses proposes revisions, the national consultation reconvenes, revises its original draft, and then submits the revision to the dioceses. This process is admittedly unlikely to produce quick results. However, a process that takes longer and involves more people will quite likely achieve greater acceptance for the final text upon adoption, important in a denomination riven by recent controversies that led to schism. Since group processes often produce inelegantly worded documents (i.e., bad liturgy), successive iterations of the process (i.e., each time the national consultation sends the text to the dioceses) might progressively narrow dioceses’ latitude in proposing additional revisions to parts of the text not yet agreed.

Each General Convention faces hundreds of resolutions including proposed revisions to the Church calendar, possible changes to the liturgy, nominations to various boards and groups, proposed positions on international and national social justice issues, resolutions recognizing or commending individuals or groups, etc. To the maximum extent feasible, groups or structures other than General Convention will most appropriately deal with these matters. For the remainder of the agenda, virtual processes similar to those sketched in the two examples above will work.

Second, TEC should devolve ministry and mission, to the maximum extent practical, with the national church not performing any ministry or mission that provinces, dioceses, or congregations can reasonably provide. Examples of efforts more effectively performed elsewhere within Christ’s body include not only starting new congregations but also most programming (youth work, curriculum development and writing, funding national and international missionaries, etc.). Devolving these endeavors to provinces and dioceses (and wealthy parishes) would creatively build on local strengths, help to ensure that local experience informs global practice, and reduce administrative overhead. Communication and rapid transportation increasingly make central staff expensive and unnecessary.

For example, the superb Diocese of North Carolina youth missioner could devote half her time to training and resourcing youth ministry in other dioceses in the province. Under such an arrangement, everybody wins. The diocese expands its youth ministry, hiring a second youth missioner paid with funds previously forwarded to the national church; a gifted person meets provincial needs; the new youth missioner learns from a great role model; and NC youth benefit by interacting with two adults. With nine provinces, TEC would have the equivalent of four and a half full-time staff supporting youth ministry; if some larger or wealthier parishes discerned a similar call to serve youth ministers, the potential benefit to TEC is still greater.

By expecting provinces, dioceses and larger/wealthy parishes to expand their local ministries and missions to include a gift of intentional ministry to the broader Episcopal Church, we would create a broader, more inclusive community that better utilized the diverse gifts of more of God’s people. Collegial conversations between parishes, dioceses, and provinces could coordinate this effort to ensure comprehensive programs (e.g., some diocese or parish undertakes to write religious formation materials for every age group).

Third, and finally, TEC could host a regular (once every 1-4 years) gathering of 50,000 plus Episcopalians in a large sports arena. This event would: (1) visibly demonstrate The Episcopal Church’s health and vitality in a newsworthy event; (2) energize attendees for ministry and mission; and (3) inspire attendees with a vision of who God calls us to be and what God asks us to do in response. In other words, TEC would intentionally adopt a mission strategy that complements the many strengths inherent in being a denomination in which 97% of its congregations have an average Sunday attendance of less than 351 people. Megachurches and political rallies, rock concerts, and professional sporting events achieve similar results, creating community, engendering commitment, and motivating people by hosting large gatherings. TEC has the advantage of having an existing small group structure (5000 plus congregations, 110 dioceses, 9 provinces, and untold other groups, committees, choirs, schools, and so forth) through which freshly inspired and motivated thousands can engage in ministry and mission. The importance of the once a decade gathering of Anglican bishops at Lambeth only hints at the magnitude of the potential effect that these regular mega-gatherings of Episcopalians could have on the denomination, the larger Church, and the world.

In many respects, this third proposition is the most critical. The first proposal, reinventing General Convention as a virtual process, provides the organizational resources of time and money required to fund a mega-event. General Convention now costs approximately $12.2 million every three years. With a virtual process, $10-11 million should be available to fund mega-events.

The second proposal, devolving as much ministry and mission from the national church to provinces, dioceses, and congregations disperses and multiplies the opportunities for people to become meaningfully involved in the Church. With creative and thorough implementation, the second proposal conceivably allows the national church to fund its revised operation through reliance on endowment and rental income and 1% or perhaps even ½ of 1% of congregational giving.

Currently, TEC, according to its Chief Operating Officer, spends 47% of its revenues on overhead. That is scandalous in comparison to the standards by which donors and rating agencies judge other non-profits. I’m confident that our disproportionately large overhead does not make God happy. We can do better. And if we truly believe that we have the bread and water of life in a world that is dying for lack of them, we must do better. Bishop Sauls’ plan takes steps in the right direction. But we need to go further, to remember who we are and what God has called us to do in the twenty-first century. Then we need to move forward boldly and quickly, seizing the moment, exchanging the tired structures and patterns that have brought us this far for ones better suited for the present.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings (

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