House of Deputies

Every three years, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church meets to consider the legislative business of the church. The General Convention, which includes the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, is the primary governing and legislative body of the church. Between conventions, the General Convention continues to work through its committees, commissions, agencies and boards. The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church carries out the programs and policies adopted by General Convention.

What is General Convention like? After the 2012 convention, President Gay Clark Jennings wrote this essay for The Washington Post:

Every three years, the Episcopal Church lays itself open to criticism and ridicule by gathering about a thousand people together for eight days and thinking out loud.

The people at our General Convention come from all over the church, which includes nearly two million people in 16 countries. The topics we discuss also come from across the church: it’s relatively simple for Episcopalians to submit resolutions for legislative consideration. The result at our recently concluded gathering in Indianapolis was that the world was able to watch us debating issues including the blessing of same-sex relationships, peace in the Middle East, and whether dogs have souls.

Our bicameral legislative structure was borne of the same revolution against England as was Congress, and we look alike. It’s easy to stand on the outside and view our democratic process with the same disdain and cynicism that voters feel toward what transpires on Capitol Hill, or to assume we’ve sold out our faith in favor of the secular world.

Read the entire essay.

“There shall be a General Convention of this Church … .” Thus opens the Constitution of the Episcopal Church. Art. I.1. Dr. Pamela Chinnis, President of the House of Deputies from 1991-2000, once summarized General Convention’s authority in this way: General Convention has the authority to change the documents that define us as Episcopalians: the constitution and canons and the Book of Common Prayer, along with its accompanying Hymnal and supplemental music and worship texts. It must also authorize use of national resources and staff who coordinate various missionary, educational and social-justice ministries, and adopt a budget to support them.… Historically, the convention has also considered resolutions addressing a broad range of ecclesiastical and social policy issues. (Decently and in Order, Pamela Chinnis, Forward Movement, 2000)

In order to fully understand the role of General Convention in the life of the Church it is necessary to understand the nearly unlimited scope of its authority. To those familiar with the form of government of the United States, at first blush it may appear that the form of the Church’s governance is much the same. “We often hear it said that those who drafted the Constitution of the United States walked across the street, so to speak, and drafted the Constitution on the Episcopal Church.” (Decently and in Order, p. 1, Pamela Chinnis, Forward Movement 2000).

The question of whether resolutions of General Convention are binding is one that is asked in a variety of contexts. It may be a question of whether it is worthwhile to consider resolutions if they will not be binding. Or it may be a question of what the difference is between a canon and a resolution in terms of whether clergy or church organizations are required to follow the Canon or resolution. Or, it is sometimes a question of whether a clergy person can be disciplined for violation of a General Convention resolution under our ecclesiastical disciplinary system contained in Title IV of the Canons.

There is nothing in the Constitution, Canons, Rules of Order or even General Convention resolutions giving guidance or instruction on the question of whether resolutions of General Convention are mandatory. So, we must look elsewhere for things that may help us. As with many questions of a legal or quasi-legal nature the answer is, "It Depends." It depends on the type of resolution. It depends on the context the question is being asked in. It depends on the exact language of the resolution.