June 15, 2015
Dear Deputies and Alternate Deputies:
Are you ready? In a week, we’ll begin gathering in Salt Lake City for General Convention. During the last three years, I’ve met so many of you online, over the phone, and at meetings, and I can’t wait for the chance to be together in one place and continue our work.
In today’s newsletter, you’ll find some resources to help you prepare, some great news about our campaign to raise $75,000 for Episcopal Relief & Development’s 75th Anniversary Campaign (there’s still time to contribute online), and an invitation to join with Bishops United Against Gun Violence in a prayerful procession on Sunday morning at convention. Plus, you’ll find a new video interview with House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing, who attended his first General Convention in 1970 and was first elected a deputy in 1973.
Recently, someone asked me what question I have most often been asked by deputies. By the end of next week, my answer might be “How do I turn on this iPad?” or “Where’s the bathroom?” But in the last six months, the question I’ve been asked far more often than any other is “What do you think of the proposal for a unicameral General Convention?”
As you can imagine, I’ve thought a good deal about this issue. I’ve tried to think about it abstractly, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
The proposal for a unicameral legislature would bring together three sets of people with very different roles in the governance of the church. One group would meet separately five times in three years for several days at a time. That group would then join together to form a legislative body with two other groups that would not meet at all during the same three-year period. The members of the group that meet most often would also, by virtue of their day-to-day work, control most of the financial and human resources of the church, and would therefore be able to communicate their views on the issues that would come before the governing body and to hire people from the other groups who agreed with them to help spread their views about those issues. In addition, the members of the first group would be in touch with each other regularly as they did their work in the church, but the members of the other two groups would not.
So it’s not hard to see that if the three groups came together in one legislative body, the members of the first group would have the overwhelming advantages of being more cohesive than the other two groups, having far more resources, and in some instances, having the authority to hire, fire, discipline and shape the careers and ministries of members of the other two groups.
Now, you will have recognized that if we apply this abstract model to the Episcopal Church, the three groups are bishops, clergy, and laypeople. Let me say emphatically that I am not suggesting that we restructure by taking away the bishops ability to meet regularly for mutual support, study, retreat, and prayer. I served as a canon to the ordinary for seventeen years for two bishops, and I understand completely that it can be a lonely job and that our bishops and our dioceses benefit from their time together and their close, collegial networks.
But because the bishops’ body of mutual support is also one part of our polity, we have to be realistic about how those advantages work when we are gathered in convention to govern the church. I don’t believe that most of our bishops today are eager to dominate the governance of the church, and I have been gratified by the desire that many of them have had to work cooperatively with me and with the House of Deputies. However, in constructing a governance system, one can’t assume that everyone who participates will always and in every instance be able to see beyond their own self-interest. It isn’t sensible to bestow tremendous advantages on one group within the system and expect that members of that group will never be tempted to use them. Checks, meet balances. Balances, meet checks.
I want to be sure that our polity continues to allow bishops, clergy and laypeople to work together to create proposals, programs and advocacy agendas for the Episcopal Church. Right now, the House of Deputies, Executive Council and the commissions, committees, agencies and boards of the church are among the means through which that happens. No one disagrees that those structures need to be updated, or that our governance needs to be streamlined and made more efficient. But if clergy and laypeople cannot participate in churchwide work between conventions, the ability to create a legislative agenda and lobby for it is in the hands of only one order of ministry. That would make it very difficult for the other two orders to exercise authority in any way other than to vote no. And I don’t think that any of us want to be put in the position of coming to future General Conventions primarily for the purpose of being obstructive. I believe that the overwhelming majority of people who come want to cast votes that move the church closer to the kingdom of God.
I also believe that the bicameral system is both more open and more deliberative than a unicameral structure would be. In a bicameral system getting an issue to the floor of convention requires the support of only one legislative committee. If a House of Deputies committee votes against a proposal but a House of Bishops committee votes for it, the issue comes to the floor of General Convention. The opposite is also true. It is good to have more than one path by which an issue can reach the floor of convention, because if there is only one path—if there is only a single legislative committee—that path can be blocked by the person appointing the committee. But if a bicameral system makes it easier for a new proposal to be heard, it makes it harder for that proposal to pass. The resolution has to impress two legislative houses with significantly different makeups in order to become the will of General Convention. More people get heard, but we have more safeguards against rash action, or action that serves the interests of only one order of ministry.
Traditionally, because the members of the House of Deputies live close to or at the grassroots of the church, they have a sense of what issues are urgent and what people are passionate about. The House of Bishops, given its frequent churchwide consultation, may have a stronger sense of how those significant local issues are perceived churchwide. Our bicameral system helps us harmonize these sometimes discordant demands of unity and urgency. Sometimes we need to travel fast, but we always need to travel together.
None of this is to say that the proposal for a unicameral house is without appeal. On paper, it seems more efficient and more conducive to unity, and those virtues are attractive in the current climate. A unicameral house is also the polity of our ELCA sisters and brothers and other Anglican provinces. But I am mindful that these churches have different traditions and systems than ours. In particular, in the ELCA, bishops do not have life tenure—they serve only for a term, and I know from my Lutheran friends and colleagues that this fact makes the dynamics of that system different.
I am grateful to those of you who have asked my opinion on this subject, and hope this summary of my current thinking is helpful. The wonderful thing about General Convention, and the reason that I’ve devoted years of my ministry to it, is that by this time next week, we’ll all have the chance to debate the polity and the structure of the Episcopal Church. Between now and then, please join me in praying for the future of our church, for wise discernment on all of the issues that will come before us, for safe travel for all deputies, and for me, as I embark on my first General Convention as your president.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings