Saturday, October 22, 2011

Why General Convention is Broken, Part 2: A Personal Reflection

This is Part 2 -- for part one, click here.  
This may seem like ancient history, but, in the run-up to the 2006 General Convention,
the House of Bishops met and announced they would not give consents in *any* episcopal
until General Convention had had a chance to meet.  In response the usual Luddite anti-bishop, 
histrionic factions in the church lambasted 
this as a unilateral, uncanonical, arrogant action by the bishops.  COD, in turn,
thought the bishops were respecting the polity of the church saying only Convention
could weigh in on such a matter. A Special Commission was set up in advance of
Convention to receive all sorts of resolutions and proposals coming in from diocesan
conventions. There was the need to make an official response to the report of the
Windsor Commission, which came out in 2004, and to make some sort of policy
clarification or decision on how to handle any potential future elections of openly
gay or lesbian persons in committed partnerships. The Commission issued a
resolution, A161.

It originally read: "Resolved, the House of Bishops concurring, That the 75th
General Convention of The Episcopal Church regret the extent to which we
have, by action and inaction, contributed to strains on communion and caused
deep offense to many faithful Anglican Christians as we consented to the
consecration of a bishop living openly in a same-gender union. Accordingly,
we urge nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees,
and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution in the
nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops whose manner
of life present a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further strains
on communion."

It was amended in legislative committee at Convention to: "Resolved, the
House of Bishops concurring, That the 75th General Convention of The
Episcopal Church regret the extent to which we have, by action and inaction,
contributed to strains on communion and caused deep offense to many
faithful Anglican Christians as we consented to the consecration of a bishop
living openly in a same-gender union. Accordingly, we are obliged to urge
nominating committees, electing conventions, Standing Committees, and
bishops with jurisdiction to exercise very considerable caution refrain
the nomination, election, consent to, and consecration of bishops
whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will
lead to further strains on communion.; and be it further Resolved, That
the General Convention not proceed to develop or authorize Rites for
the Blessing of same-sex unions at this time, thereby concurring with
the Windsor Report in its exhortation to bishops of the Anglican Communion
to honor the Primates’ Pastoral Letter of May 2003; and be it further Resolved,
That the General Convention affirm the need to maintain a breadth of
responses to situations of pastoral care for gay and lesbian Christians
in this Church; and be it further Resolved, That the General Convention
apologize to those gay and lesbian Episcopalians and their supporters
hurt by these decisions."

This was taken up first in the House of Deputies. There was, of course,
a move to vote by orders. COD would have bet all the money in his
bank account which lay and clerical deputations would be moving the
vote, and, course, he would have won.
Then the following series of events occurred:  Debate continued on the
resolution. The House took a recess. After the recess a substitute
resolution from one of the conservative deputies was proposed, which
would have put a formal moratorium in place ona gay and lesbian persons.
COD said to a colleague, "They can't do that, the qualifications for bishop
are outlined in the Constitution, not just the canons." There was general
nodding in the group where COD sat.

Someone tried to move the substitution out of order; the chair ruled
that motion out of order; the chair's ruling was challenged; a vote was
held to try to overrule the chair, which failed. All of this, mind you, for
a proposed substitute motion which had absolutely no chance to pass
regardless of its obvious unconstitutionality. Then the time allotted for
debate had expired, so there was a motion to continue debate, which
failed. After termination of debate the chair announced that, after
consultation, the resolution was in fact out of order because it would
require a constitutional change (since qualifications for bishop are
outlined in the Constitution as well as canons). Of course, this ruling
was challenged, a vote was held, and the ruling was upheld. So the
entire time spent on the substitute was a waste and debate returned
to the A161 as amended by the legislative committee. The vote by
orders (remember the vote by orders called ages ago?) was held, and,
of course, the resolution failed anyways. Everyone knew it would have
failed even without a vote by orders, but such is the system we have.

But wait, it's not over. There was then a motion to take up the original text
before it had been amended - there was suddenly almost a panic in the
House, with the realization that an enormous amount of time and energy
had been put into having the Episcopal Church say something, anything,
in response to the Windsor Report and to the broader Anglican Communion.
And after voting down amended A161, there was nothing in the pipeline. So
the vote to reconsider was proposed, mainly to be able to amend the original
A161 to make it more palatable. There was no debate as the question was
immediately moved. And the motion to reconsider failed, through a combination
of conservatives and liberals who did not want A161 to be considered, each
for their own reasons.

We all walked out of the House of Deputies kind of stunned. It had be a
long and emotionally draining session, much of the time in COD's opinion
frivolously wasted on procedural obfuscation and downright inability of
people to know what the Constitution and Canons required. And nothing,
nothing, had been accomplished. COD thought of all the money, time,
and resources the church had spent over the past few months to bring over
800 people together in this representative body and accomplish nothing.

COD retired to the House of Bishops, hoping to have something else
attract his attention. They were debating a fairly innocuous resolution,
COD really forgets what it was, until one bishop rose to amend the
resolution -- a fairly moderate bishop, neither liberal nor conservative.
He stood and proposed an amendment, changing "The General Convention
shall direct," to "The General Convention shall advise" the dioceses to adopt
some kind of report. Speaking to the amendment, the bishop said, shortly
and curtly, "The General Convention can't tell dioceses to do anything," and
sat down. Without any further discussion, the HOB voted in favor of the amendment.

COD wanted to stand and shout, "OK, first of all: that's wrong. General
Convention can tell dioceses what to do. You may not ordain dogs,
for instance, or permit communion of the unbaptized – even though some
dogs would make excellent priests, and bishops and dioceses and congregations
seem able to ignore the ban on communion of the unbaptized. Second of
all, even if true: THEN WHY ARE WE HERE? If this in fact the case, hold
General Convention once a decade to let church folk mingle and reminisce
and pass useless resolutions, and fully empower every diocese do
whatever the f**k it wants."

You may gather COD was becoming a trifle irritated at this point. But
that's not the case. The frustration was bubbling from depths of despair.
So much needing to be done in the world and in our church, and we seemed
incapable of doing it.

But it wasn't over. Like Rasputin or a Monty Python plague victim, the
debate over A161 was not dead yet. Presiding Bishop Griswold took
the unusual step of calling for a special joint session. Remember that each
House treats the others like vampires: bishops may not enter the floor
of the House of Deputies and vice versa unless special resolutions are
adopted permitting it. The only time there is usually a joint session is to
consider the proposed budget. Bishop Griswold called for a joint session
and essentially asked the HOB and HOD not to go away from this Convention
without making some kind of response to the broader Anglican Communion,
citing as much "confusion" from our Anglican partners as anything else about
the actions of the Episcopal Church. There were those who praised Griswold
for his leadership; but also murmurings that the mind of the HOD had been
clear and that some back-door process was in motion, instigated by bishops.

A substitute was proposed from the House of Bishops, B033. It read: "Resolved,
the House of Deputies concurring, That the 75th General Convention receive
and embrace The Windsor Report's invitation to engage in a process of healing
and reconciliation; and be it further, Resolved, That this Convention therefore
call upon Standing Committees and bishops with jurisdiction to exercise restraint
by not consenting to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate whose
manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church and will lead to further
strains on communion."

Here the official Journal of the General Convention understates matters that infolded in the House of Bishops. COD was there during the debate. One bishop stood and offered an amendment to the Resolution, after which COD's colleague from another Christian communion leaned over and said, "That's a statement, not an amendment." Nonetheless debate proceeded on the amendment for about five minutes before the chair announced, "The proposed amendment is not in the proper form." That amendment was withdrawn and debate continued, with various amendments proposed and the usual arguments from both sides. COD was sitting near a table that had one prominent conservative bishop waving his table card to speak. The chair announced that it was time for a vote. The bishop flung his card on the table in disgust at not having had the opportunity to speak. Even COD thought: in for a penny, in for a pound; we're here, we might as well not let people walk away feeling they had not been heard. The vote was taken and B033 passed.

Then came what is not in the minutes: after the Resolution passed, a bishop from the liberal wing stood and disavowed the action taken. Other bishops stood and agreed. Conservative bishops, not to be outdone, expressed their disavowal of the action. COD walked out of the HOB and saw that Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh was already speaking to reporters, denouncing the action of the HOB in passing B033. COD found himself thinking, "Then what is the HOB for? What was the whole debate for, if not for people on the left and the right to say their peace within the framework of our canonical structures? What is the whole process for, if anyone can then stand and disavow any result they disagree with?"

Again, it was not over. B033 now had to go to the House of Deputies. There was yet another twist: The Presiding Bishop-elect addressed the House of Deputies and urged them to adopt the resolution, putting her ecclesial capital behind it. After considerable debate, the Resolution was adopted. It was a spirited debate: many deputies thought the House was turning its back on full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons; others were resentful that the bishops seemed to be pushing a new resolution after one pretty similar had already been defeated; others said that while they might be opposed they would vote for the sake of the broader communion, to give a signal that we were not turning out back entirely on the Anglican Communion, and because Bishop Jefferts Schori had said she needed this. Some deputies were openly weeping once the resolution passed – wait for it -- on a vote by orders.

COD bumped into a clergy friend who asked him how the debate went. COD replied with the last verse of the Book of Judges, "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes." We had a Constitution, and Canons, parliamentary process, representative governance, but none of that mattered. Liberals and conservatives had been and would continue to more or less do as they pleased, and we would gather every 3 three years and pretend we were somehow the pinnacle of democracy in the church.

But it was not over. Convention still had business to attend and discuss. As assistant ecumenical officer, Crusty Old Dean had been working on the dialogue with the United Methodist Church. We were proposing Interim Eucharistic Sharing, where Episcopalians and United Methodists could hold joint eucharistic services while continuing in dialogue, similar to the arrangement between Lutherans and Episcopalians between 1982-2001. The United Methodist Church's Council of Bishops had passed this in 2005. We needed to sign on for it to come into effect. Yet it was now the last day of Convention and there was an enormous backlog of resolutions. Remember, if not passed by both houses, resolutions are listed as defeated by non-concurrence. House of Bishops had passed Interim Eucharistic Sharing. Deputies just needed to get to it.

COD was concerned the witching hour of 6pm would arrive, the resolution would not be voted on, and we would have to go to our partners and say, "Sorry, I know you passed this, but we were debating a resolution supporting the teaching of evolution." Which we were: the House of Deputies was debating a resolution to endorse and support the teaching of evolution, an utterly meaningless piece of legislation that no one would remember and would do absolutely nothing. COD called over a page, wrote a note, and asked her to deliver it to a Deputy. The deputy got COD's note, walked to a microphone, and asked whether we could move on and prioritize other resolutions that could be considered more urgent. The chair replied resolutions were considered in numeric order by their legislative committee -- each Committee is numbered, beginning with Committee #1 on Constitution and Canons, and going through #19, Communications (these numbers are from Convention 2009 -- with the lovely Committee #20, "Miscellaneous Resolutions"). The deputy could, of course, vote to suspend that process -- which would have required a motion, and debate, and then an argument about which resolutions were more important, and by that time 6 pm would have come and even less would have been done. The message was clear: too bad, people, we're stuck with our polity.

They got to the resolution on Interim Eucharistic Sharing with the United Methodist Church. COD was relieved. A deputy then rose to amend it, to specifically include the historically black Methodist Churches. COD was furious. There had been an explanation in the Blue Book Report on how this dialogue was dealing with the black Methodist churches. The exact same matter had come up in legislative committee. We were only proposing the United Methodists because we were reaching out to the black Methodists and didn't seem right to vote on something that was not on those churches' radar screen. We were continuing in dialogue and relationship with those churches, but only taking this action now with the United Methodist Church. This deputy making the proposed amendment had even asked someone to bring these concerns to the legislative committee, which were communicated back to the deputy in question. For whatever reason the deputy apparently still wanted to amend -- knowing that amendment means defeat, because the House of Bishops would not have time to consent. After discussion with the chair, the deputy did withdraw the resolution, but again not without using precious legislative time to restate for the third time issues that had been dealt with in the Standing Commission on Ecumenical Relations in its Blue Book Report and by the Legislative Committee at General Convention. The vote was taken, Interim Eucharistic Sharing approved, and COD had had enough. I was done. I walked out of the House of Deputies.

I bumped into a friend in the hallway, and we went for a drink. We were both in a kind of daze. He asked me how I thought Convention went, and I found myself blurting out, "I used to roll my eyes at General Convention and think of it as an annoyance. Now I see that it is a destructive force in the life of our church."

It gave me no pleasure to say that. But it also made me realize the system is not fine.

Stay tuned to COD. In the next set of postings, I will be outlining suggestions for sustained overhaul of our entire system of governance.


  1. This sounds like a parliamentary procedural nightmare... have you been to other national church general assembly/conventions? How do you experience them?

  2. ecumenicallife, it seems all COD did for 10 years was attend other churches' assemblies and/or conventions. They all have the plusses and minuses, to be sure, but given the mergers (UMC, 1968; PCUSA, 1983; ELCA, 1987) there was at least intentional thought as to how they should be structured. Episcopalians are kicking a mule and expecting it to run a horse race.

  3. You know, I knew you were the ecumenical officer, so why I wondered if you ever attended other assemblies seems like a pretty silly thought now... I can't even chalk that one up to late night posting.

    I hadn't considered how mergers meant that church structure had been revisited rather recently. It of course makes perfect sense, seeing as whole new churches were being created. I sometimes wonder about my own church structure, as it was of course a compromising mix of two different ways of determining polity. That some congregations run under different rules depending on their predecessor body is still somewhat baffling to me. I see the perspective, to a point, from when the merger happened, but it's been 25 years now and lines are still drawn between former LCA and ALC churches.

    This is probably why if I ever end up in church politics, it will either be because of direct Divine intervention or a clerical error.


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