Rethinking General Convention I

This is the first of three parts.

By George Clifford

Shortly after I returned home from General Convention last month, a nearby parish invited me to speak at a mid-week gathering on what had happened at the Convention. These theologically conservative people were the remnant faithful to the Episcopal Church after their previous priest and many of the laity departed for another denomination, convinced that the Episcopal Church had abandoned Christ to follow the idol of popular opinion. The remnant wondered: Is there a place for us in the Episcopal Church? Are the bishops or someone else masterminding the plan to lead us away from the Bible? Is the Presiding Bishop telling us to stop being Christian? Emails from people who had left the parish for another group fanned their fears, inciting concern with misinformation.

The group’s only agenda item that surprised me was the inference that a conspiracy of bishops guides what is happening in the Episcopal Church. Anyone familiar with the Episcopal Church’s governance knows no human conspiracy could secretly manipulate such a convoluted system. Answering their questions and providing accurate information was generally easy. What was more difficult, and I do not know if I was successful, was moving them in the directions taken by the Episcopal Church to truly welcome all people. Most of parishes probably have at least a few people who share some of those concerns.

Although I suspect little energy exists for changing how the Episcopal Church governs itself, I wonder how many of our internal struggles the last few decades have resulted from our structure. Times of relative tranquility, towards which the Church seems headed, not times of great turmoil, best lend themselves to rethinking structure and governance. Emotion clouds the judgment less and fewer people will promote particular changes in order to achieve ulterior aims.

I attended both the 2006 and 2009 General Conventions as a consultant and observer. This perspective differs from the perspective of a deputy or bishop. As an Episcopal priest, I admittedly have an interest in the outcome of some of the proceedings. Given those disclaimers, I offer the following observations (readers familiar with General Convention should skip to the second observation):

(1) General Convention’s purpose is legislative, i.e., General Convention is the Episcopal Church’s governing body. But many other things happen at General Convention: exhibitors hawk their wares and beliefs; people made and friendships; attendees worship and celebrate the Church’s life and work. Governance, however, is General Convention’s central purpose.

a. General Convention, the world’s second largest bi-cameral legislature (the Indian parliament is the largest, or so a deputy informed me) consists of the House of Bishops (HOB) and House of Deputies (HOD) and meets for ten days once every three years.

b. In 2009, General Convention considered a staggering number of resolutions (over 440). Passage requires both houses to approve the resolution, with the exact same wording. Thus, a resolution amended by one house, already approved by the other, returns to the first house for reconsideration.

c. Eighteen committees, comprised jointly of deputies and bishops, work concurrently with General Convention. The committees consolidate some resolutions and recommend action on the resolutions the committee sends to the HOB or HOD for consideration.

d. The Episcopal Church now has dioceses in 17 countries, demanding an international outlook and impetus to the legislative process.

(2) The HOB appears to function collegially and smoothly in spite of manifold, often significant theological differences. The smaller size (about 150 bishops present), more frequent meetings (about three per year), and regular small group Bible study enable the bishops to know each other, appreciate one another’s spirituality, and generally understand their house’s parliamentary procedures.

(3) In sharp contrast, the HOD, with over eight hundred and forty members, meets once every three years for ten days. Half of each diocese’s HOD deputation is lay; priests or deacons comprise the other half. The HOD has a more fluid membership than does the HOB, as dioceses elect deputies for a single three-year term, although many deputies do serve multiple terms. Alternates may also substitute for a deputy during part or all of a Convention. Deputies have no staff to prepare briefings on the vast array of subject matter and a sizable number, based on my observations, seem largely ignorant of HOD parliamentary procedures. These problems were glaringly apparent when eight hundred plus deputies allotted themselves only ten minutes to consider most resolutions, then spent much of that time on parliamentary questions. To their great credit, most Deputies work long hours, strive to do their best for Christ’s Church, and seek to understand an incredibly broad gamut of issues that encompass liturgical, pastoral, theological, and ethical subjects far beyond the competence of any one person. The problem is not with the Deputies as individuals but with the Church’s structure, which imposes this impossible task on these good people. It is no wonder that well before Convention’s end most deputies (and many bishops!) look overwhelmed and fatigued.

(4) General Convention’s structure inherently entails some self-selection on the part of lay deputies. Ten days of sessions with travel can easily mean twelve days away from home. Even with their Diocese paying expenses, few working poor or lower middle class people, who generally receive little if any vacation time, can attend. Single parents may have difficulty arranging twenty-four hour childcare during their absence. I suspect that few high-powered professionals, corporate executives, or small business owners attend, reluctant to be away from their work that long. In other words, those present must have sufficiently flexible schedules to give the Church an uninterrupted block of ten or twelve days, valuing the Church above their other commitments. Anecdotally, rather than based on formal research, lay deputies appear to be mostly upper middle-class and closer in age to retirement than to high school. The deputies were laudably diverse in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. Except for their degree of commitment to the Church, I wonder how well the socio-economic status of HOD lay deputies mirrors that of the Episcopal Church.

In sum, General Convention structure is dysfunctional. In particular, the HOD because of its size, lack of resources, and infrequent meetings cannot give the majority of legislation adequate time or informed consideration. Arguably, the Episcopal Church should revise its governance process.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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