Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why Generation Convention is Broken, Part 1: A Personal Reflection

Crusty Old Dean has been inundated with a veritable trickle of questions from people about the 2006 moment I have alluded to, when I realized that General Convention no longer worked. In these next two posts, I hope to outline how I came to that revelation.

And, for once, COD says that GC is broken without any of his trademark snark and with an absence of assonance. I come to this conclusion with a great sense of dread and despair, knowing that our church has so much to offer to the world, yet wastes so much time, energy, and money.

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church is meeting as we speak, and, in part, reacting to some of the proposals but forth by COO in a presentation to the HOB last month. In a sense, COD agrees with PHOD (President of the House of Deputies) Bonnie Anderson: yes, in general, the system works – IF you by works you mean a representative body of elected bishops, clergy, and lay persons meet at regular intervals and provide oversight to the Episcopal Church. Other than that, I don’t think we agree that the structure works. I think it is wasteful, repetitive, and in some ways profoundly un-democratic and un-representative. I think there are longstanding ecclesiological issues between how diocese relate to a denominational structure, the role of the Presiding Bishop, the place of Executive Council, what the internal Provincial groupings are – just to name a few – which have never been addressed.

Change is needed. And you know what? We have always had change. No reason to stop now.

The organization and structure of the Episcopal Church has been continually updated and tweaked to reflect events and realities that were not foreseen. For instance, the requirement that a bishop visit parishes in a diocese once every three years emerges from the refusal of the Bishop of Massachusetts, a staunch evangelical, to visit the even more staunchly Anglo-Catholic Church of the Advent. In 1853, the greatest presbyter ever (GPE), William Augustus Muehlenberg, presented a daring, innovative, and forward-looking proposal for restructuring the church. It, of course, was buried in a committee whose eventual recommendations included such earth shattering proposals such a that the Litany might be left out of the liturgy on Sunday mornings. In 1919, the National Council was created to bring some order to a bunch of overlapping, ad hoc, and semi-official commissions and organizations that were carrying out the mission work of the church -- and in addition made the Presiding Bishop an elected office, recognizing the needs of the church and society required qualifications more than the most senior bishop. We have realized many times, on many occasions, that our structures need some fixing. Sadly we seem to be under the opposite sense now, that, in reality, they are just fine. It is the belief we don't need change which is the anomaly, not the push for reform.

OK, introductory remarks concluded.  In response to underwhelming demand, as
the movie director Wolz tells Tom Hagen in the Godfather, “I'll be even more frank, just
to show you that I'm not a
hard-hearted man.”

Back then, five long years ago, Crusty Old Dean was Assistant Deputy to the Presiding Bishop for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations. I served as liaison to the Standing Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations, consultant to the Joint Legislative Committee on Ecumenical Relations at General Convention, and coordinated the attendance and hosting of our ecumenical and interreligious partners at Convention. I was there from the beginning to the bitter end. There were a number of moments at GC 2006 when Crusty Old Dean (who was neither as Crusty nor as Old as he is now, and by no means a Dean) began to feel unsettled.

One was the election of the Presiding Bishop:  not the result, which COD applauded,
but the process.COD was sitting at a coffee shop across from Trinity Church, staking
out the conclave, joined by a colleague who was ecumenical officer in another Christian
communion which also has bishops.  CODwas explaining the process.  I began by
noting there was some concern about the conclave itself, since our polity required 2/3rd
of all living bishops to attend an electing conclave to constitute a quorum, and that we
only barely managed to clear that.  "Why?" asked COD's colleague.  "Because we have
so many bishops who aren't either diocesans or suffragans."  His colleague was perplexed:
"Huh?"  I explained about assisting bishops, who had been elected and served somewhere,
who resign and serve in another diocese, and the fact retired bishops vote.  My colleague
was particularly unnerved by retired bishops.   "That's crazy," was his reply.  "Why would
you do that?  They’re not accountable to anyone and get to vote on matters they don’t
have to have any responsibility to implement?"  I replied because when the process was
developed there was no way they envisioned 109 dioceses spread over 16 countries
with multiple categories of bishop, so many retired bishops, and bishops increasingly
serving in other ministries (seminary deans, cathedral deans, denominational staff, etc.).
The quorum managed, the election's stunning and prophetic choice announced, and
COD's flush of excitement quickly faded when he learned the vote:  95 in favor, just one
above the majority needed.  COD was concerned that conservative bishops had swung
their votes to Bishop Jefferts Schori in order to elect her, so that this could then be used
in their efforts to convince conservative allies home and abroad about the liberalism of
the Episcopal Church.  They elected her in order to caricature her, COD thought.  Sure
enough, Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh and Bishop Benitez, retired of Texas, both later
publicly admitted they voted for the PB more or less for these reasons.  
After her election by the Bishops, the House of Deputies then took up the confirmation
process.  COD was sitting with ecumenical colleagues from other Christian communions,
again explaining the process.  COD saw the chair call on someone whom he
recognized.  The person announced that he had a procedural motion, and COD
groaned.  "Why are you groaning?" an ecumenical colleague asked. "We're going to
have a vote by orders," I replied.  Despite the fact that it was obvious Bishop
Jefferts Schori would be confirmed, the usual suspects stood up and demanded a
vote by orders, which is neither debatable or votable.  Thus we wasted time taking
a vote by orders, which, from beginning to announcement of results, takes about an
hour, purely because of the spite of the losing side, knowing what the results would

Thus while applauding the election of the PB, the whole process was filled with
elements that caused COD pause – with the glaring, and un-democratic, fact that a
retired bishop, answerable to no one and with no necessary involvement in the church
under her primacy, was the 95th and deciding vote that elected a PB for the church as a
whole.  How can one retired bishop with ill motives decide a primate for a church of
over 2 million members?

And there were the consents to episcopal elections.  From 1789-1901, the election of
bishops required the consent of a majority of bishops with jurisdiction and Standing
Committees.  In 1901, this was changed to allow for General Convention to give the
consents ordinarily given by Standing Committees, should an election occur within a
prescribed number of days.  This was for convenience and expediency, and reflected
the fact that by allowing the House of Deputies to give consent, clergy and laity from
each diocese were still represented.  From 1901-2003, these consents were more or
less de rigeur, with a few notable exceptions here and there (the election of Jon-David
Schofield in 1988, for instance), until the election of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New
Hampshire in 2003. A process was developed in 2003 for what had been more or less
by-the-book GC confirmation, including open hearings and voting by written ballot in
the House of Bishops.  COD was roped into counting episcopal consents, though not
for Bishop Robinson, and had to spend 45 minutes hand counting and rechecking
written ballots for the unanimous confirmation of a different bishop-elect.  A time
consuming and tedious process designed solely with regard to one candidate was
nonetheless repeated for all the other consent processes in the House of Bishops.
(Aside:  COD watched the debate from the House of Bishops on bishop-elect
Robinson’s consent not in the HOB – I wanted to be able to get up and pee if
need be – but in the overflow hall next door.  While waiting for the vote to be
announced, COD started a betting pool at the table where he was sitting, guessing
the number of “yes” votes only.  COD went first and guessed, “Sixty-two.”  The result
was 62, meaning I won the pool, resulting in one of COD’s colleagues
speed-dialed *62 for COD on her cellphone.)
Back to the corruption of the consent process. Leading up to 2006, there was an
election in the diocese of California which had openly gay/lesbian candidates
on the ballot, and there was the anticipation that there might be another consent
process which would in essence be a referendum on the church's view towards
service in the ordained ministry by gay/lesbians persons. In particular, conservative
action groups in the church were gearing up for the consent hearings. However, this
did not happen, and no openly gay/lesbian candidates were elected. COD remembers
seeing representatives of conservative groups like the American Anglican Council
and Institute on Religion and Democracy walking the hallways, dejected as though
their puppy had just died: there would be no dramatic, bitter, confirmation hearings
that they had so been looking forward. So they decided to create their own drama,
digging up whatever they could on bishops who were having their hearings at that
Convention, manufacturing controversies about incidents in the pasts of bishops-elect
Beisner and Andrus. A colleague commented to COD, "We seem to have turned the
consent process into Senate hearings on Supreme Court justices...what used to be
the church collectively giving consent is turning into a kabuki theater where people
get to grandstand."

Then came the A161-B033 debacles. For this, friends, you will need to wait for Part Two. For part 2, click here.

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