Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Modest Proposal for General Convention, Pt 1

COD has not forgotten his first, epochal, post-heard-round-the-world, where I applauded the initiative of Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer, to rethink the organization and polity of the Episcopal Church. And, predictably, there were the usual howls from those who objected, more often than not in terms of process than substance. The fact that the presentation was to the House of Bishops awakened the rarely dormant concerns over authority and prelacy which have marked aspects of American religion since the colonial period. Let's not forget, after all, that not only did a large portion of people in the colonies not want any bishops (Anglican or Roman Catholic), there were a good portion of Anglicans in the colonies who did not want bishops. But I digress; feel free to enroll in one of the fine courses Bexley Hall Seminary offers in Anglican Studies to learn more.

Since 2006, when COD had the
epiphany that our system of governance was at best broken, wasteful, and unhelpful and at worst a destructive force in the life of the church, COD has not stopped thinking about ways in which to rethink polity. At some point I will reflect on that epiphany in more detail, but not right now. As such, I don't think COO Sauls' (hereafter COO to your correspondent's COD) proposal went far enough; I think it is too timid of a response.

In this posting, I'd like to lay out what I think could be a more effective roadmap in terms of decision making towards revisioning the polity of the church. In later postings, I'll outline some of the changes I think need to be discussed.

First of all, two main points which guide my thoughts:

1) Essential components of the Episcopal Church's polity remain the same as in 1789. Two houses, equal representation of all dioceses, requirement that legislation pass both Houses, voting by orders and two consecutive Conventions to amend Constitution. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of what has remained the same, just noting the fact.

2) What change has occurred has happened gradually over almost 230 years, mainly in the Canons but to a lesser extent in the Constitution. Our Canons in particular reflect this slow, gradual, incidental (responding to particular incidents), and occasional adjustments. These changes were often a result of our polity not being effectual to meet certain situations. To give but one of a legion of examples: the Presiding Bishop was given the authority to inhibit (now "restrict") bishops because of the case of the Rt Rev George David Cummins, Assistant Bishop of Kentucky (an assistant bishop back then was not the same as our current definition). Cummins went rogue in 1873, announcing his intention to start a breakaway Episcopal Church and consecrate some new bishops (which still exists, BTW, the Reformed Episcopal Church). The PB at the time (coincidentally, Cummins' diocesan) did not have the authority to temporarily inhibit Cummins, only send him written warning and give him time to recant. This was changed to give the PB that authority. We could go on. White & Dykman is nothing but an extended commentary on the backstory to why certain canons and constitutional changes were made.

In some ways, I envy the ELCA (in others, I do not): in the 1980s, heading towards merger, they had the opportunity to sit down and think intentionally about what a church wide organization should look like in the late 20th century. I don't necessarily agree with all aspects of ELCA polity; but at least they were the product of extended thought, reflection, and discussion, instead of relentlessly tweaking of an archaic system designed for a handful of dioceses scattered along the East coast.

OK, now on to Modest Proposal, Part 1:

COD thinks COO's proposal is too timid and tentative. Calling in 2012 for a Special Convention in 2015 will draw out this process to the point that the Episcopal Church becomes even more irrelevant than it is. The 2015 Special Convention will make recommendations to the 2015 General Convention to follow. If any are Constitutional changes, they would need to be voted on again in 2018. Of course, if 2015 GC chooses not to act on recommendations of the proposed Special Convention -- say, to study them for three years -- then 2018 would be a first vote, and 2021 a second vote. Thus we are a decade away from implementing any structural changes.

So: instead of the COO plan, COD proposes the following (see how I have buried the lede? this would make my former newspaper correspondent mother and fabulous current Globe correspondent Pete crazy)

Do not call a Special Convention in 2015. This would allow people to debate process (should we have it or not?) and not focus our attention on proposals for reform.


Step 1: at THE NEXT Convention, 2012:

--Take a first reading/vote on suspending the entire Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. The intention is to give an umbrella framework for gradually replacing the Constitution and Canons without constantly having to take votes by orders over and over for consecutive Conventions for every change made in the Constitution

--Take a first vote on stripping voting by orders in its entirety in the House of Deputies, to be replaced by a 2/3 vote in *both* Houses in a *single* Convention for Constitutional or Prayer Book changes. We have a situation where small minorities in the House of Deputies can slow if not defeat measures which have overwhelming support, and which, correspondingly, only require a simple majority in the House of Bishops. This would seem to be a more fair and equitable way of requiring a supermajority for important changes (which COD supports) instead of an arcane system which gives small minorities the ability to disrupt things oftentimes for disruption's sake. And it extends the supermajority concept to the House of Bishops (we need to strip retired bishops of their vote LIKE EVERY OTHER CHRISTIAN COMMUNION THAT HAS THEM INCLUDING CATHOLIC, ORTHODOX, METHODIST, OTHER ANGLICANS, ETC but that will happen, hopefully, in step 2 below)

Then, from 2012-2015,

--Draft a revised Constitution and prioritize which canons need revising (most of Title I with its cumbersome, repetitive, inefficient, overlapping structures). I would imagine things like Title IV, so recently overhauled, might not need much changing at all.

Step 3: In 2015,

--Take the second vote on eliminating voting by orders.

--Take a second reading on the suspension of the Constitution and Canons. Word the resolution initially in 2012 so that any places where the work has not been completed (say, a draft Constitution but no Canons have been drafted) the 2012 version remains in place.

Under COO's proposal, it's quite possible no major changes would come into effect until 2021. We do not have another decade to fritter. We need a massive mobilization for evangelism, Christian formation, advocacy, and social justice. We need not to spend such a ridiculous amount of money which could be used for mission for our internal governance. We have lost most of Gen X and the Millennials. We have talked change enough without ever actually doing anything other than react -- General Convention 2009 being a classic example. Instead of asking hard questions about how to shape our mission and ministry in the context of a financial downturn, a small group of people decided who and what needed to be cut, presenting it to Convention to take it or...well, there was no other option given.

Let's look at options. In Part 2, COD will humbly propose a few.


  1. This sounds like a great proposal to me. A slower age could handle the polity of the eighteenth century. In the 21st century, a different polity is needed, but we need to specify some basics in voting membership first. If the Episcopal Church is to be a Christian organization, then voting member should probably be Christians. I realize that should be covered with baptismal vows, but our ability to handle doubters has broadened. Yes, everyone is welcome, but not everyone gets to vote.

    Leadership, COOs, CODs, and canon lawyers don't always have much in common. And, a Christian polity in today's age could be very different. We need some new thinking about polity.

    Thanks for tackling this subject again.

  2. Naturally, sharecropper. Currently only confirmed communicants in good standing who have been elected by a diocesan Convention can serve as Deputies. I would imagine we would keep that more or less the same but COD doesn't want to give away too much of upcoming parts of the proposal.

  3. We await with bated breath... An autonomous collective? An Anarcho-Syndicalist Commune?

  4. Oddly enough, some people hate the ELCA's structure for the same reason you almost envy it. For them, it is TOO easy to change things.

    I've always thought that the ELCA church structure was a strange amalgamation of different ideas on church polity. It doesn't feel very cohesive, and sometimes I wish for what you propose--sitting down and totally rethinking how we do things to make it better.


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