Surprised by Article XII, or What can be achieved at a special convention?

Someone who knows the Constitution of the Episcopal Church better than I do called my attention to an issue that has been hiding in plain sight in the church’s debate on structural reform.

More than 15 dioceses, and one province, have put forward a resolution calling for the creation of special commission on church structure that would make a thorough review of the way in which our church operates. The commission would

“endeavor to issue its report and recommendations along with resolutions necessary to implement them, including proposed amendments to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, so that they might be considered by a special General Convention prior to the convention of the 78th General Convention in 2015, but in any event, not later than February 1, 2015.” (emphasis mine.)

I was working under the assumption that the purpose of the special convention was to quicken the pace at which the church’s constitution could be altered. Constitutional amendments must be passed by two successive General Conventions before they can take effect. If we have two General Conventions in 2015, I was reasoning, we can get the job done in that calendar year, whereas without a special convention, we couldn’t change the constitution until 2018.

I was working under the further assumption that supporters of this resolution believed that making constitutional changes in 2015 rather than 2018 was worth the cost of a special convention, which people familiar with our conventions tell me would be about $2 million. (And I have to admit I didn’t think to ask whether that was the cost to the general church, or whether it included diocesan costs as well.)

All of my assumptions crumbled, however, when I was directed to Article XII of the Constitution, which states:

No alteration or amendment of this Constitution shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed at one regular meeting of the General Convention and be sent to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops … and by an affirmative vote by orders in the House of Deputies in accordance with Article I, Section 5, except that concurrence by the orders shall require the affirmative vote in each order by a majority of the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies.

(emphasis mine.)

I claim no expertise in interpreting the constitution, but based on my layman’s reading of Article XII, it would seem that holding a special convention couldn’t not hasten the amendment of the constitution.

I don’t know whether the folks who drafted and supported this legislation are as surprised by the language of Article XII as I am, whether they never intended to hasten the pace of constitutional change, or whether they are aware of other constitutional provisions that render my analysis moot. (As my previous understanding of these resolutions now seems to be.)

My tentative conclusion is that this situation demonstrates that reforming the church is going to require a great deal of care and humility, and that if we are too hasty, we may not entirely understand what we are doing.

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