The recent Episcopal General Convention was an intense 10+ days of committee meetings, hearings, worship, research, drafting, and floor sessions of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. It also was fellowship with friends old and new. The Convention accomplished a lot of good things, avoided some bad things, and made me grateful for the experience for myself and for my beloved Episcopal Church in Vermont.
I arrived at Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22, although the first official “legislative day” was on Thursday, June 25. I arrived on Monday as I had responsibilities the next day, as Secretary to the legislative committee on Governance and Structure (Committee # 5), and as Assistant Parliamentarian to the House of Deputies. My Committee started meeting and holding hearings on Tuesday. So, while there were nine legislative days in the Convention, there were two additional days of committee and other work plus two travel days, for a total of 13 days. Pictured below is the General Convention schedule, to show how packed each day was.
There was a ton of stuff going on at this Convention, but the four biggest items or issues were electing a new Presiding Bishop, approving marriage liturgies, taking some significant, if perhaps not bold, steps to start restructuring our Church, and passing a church-wide budget that lowers the revenue assessment for dioceses.
On Saturday, June 27, Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina was elected by the House of Bishops from among four candidates, on the first ballot and with over 70% of the vote. This was notable, for these elections usually go through a number of ballots before a winner emerges. The House of Deputies confirmed that choice later the same day.
The Resolutions adopting the marriage liturgy and associated canonical changes were approved with strong votes in both Houses a few days after the election. In these efforts, Bishop Ely was an effective and inspired leader in the House of Bishops (both on the marriage committee and in conversation with bishops who were undecided), as Deputy Stan Baker was likewise in the House of Deputies, as Vice Chair of the Deputies’ legislative committee on marriage. Vermont continues to take a leading position on this issue.
Although structure and governance are not usually compelling topics for most Episcopalians, they were a big concern at Convention in 2012 and in 2015. This reflection outlines the over-all structure of The Episcopal Church, (2) sets out the proposals of the Task Force to Reimagine The Episcopal Church (TREC), (3) briefly explains how General Convention 2015 changed parts of our structure, (4) notes a significant budget change that will save money for dioceses, and (5) talks a bit about what did not happen at General Convention.
Basic Governance Structure of The Episcopal Church – the Status Quo
At the top level is our General Convention,a “lawmaking” body with a House of Bishops (about 300 Bishops, including those retired; around 140-160 attend General Convention) and a House of Deputies (880 Deputies – 4 clergy and 4 laypersons elected from 110 dioceses). To be enacted, Resolutions must be approved by both Houses.
Next is Executive Council(often referred to as the Council) whichfunctions in two ways.First, in some ways it functions as an interim, quasi-legislative body when General Convention is not in session. Second, it is the Board of Directors of a nonprofit corporation that holds the assets of the Church and employs the people who work for the church-wide organization. That corporation is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, Inc. (DFMS). Executive Council has 38 members (20 elected by General Convention and 2 elected by each of the 9 Provinces). The Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies are voting members, and there are three ex officio non-voting officers. Council conducts the “business” of the Church between General Conventions by implementing the Resolutions and the budget adopted by Convention, and providing oversight of the officers and management of the Church.
Between Conventions, the work of the Church is also conducted by 15 “Standing Commissions” which study and propose changes to such things as our Liturgy and Music, the Constitution and Canons of the Church, and policies relating to Christian Formation. These Commissions recommend legislation to General Convention for adoption. I have served on two of these Commissions over the last 12 years, the one on the Constitution and Canons of the church, and the one on the Church’s Structure.
Geographically, the Church is divided into nine Provinces and 110 Dioceses. Dioceses are made up of the parishes and missions in those Dioceses. Our Diocese is within Province I, which includes all of the seven New England Dioceses.
TheTask Force for Re-imagining The Episcopal Church (TREC)
In 2012, General Convention created TREC in response to a groundswell of prayerful concern for the future of the Church. That General Convention adopted a Resolution that, in relevant part, said:
- General Convention believes the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself, so that, grounded in our rich heritage and yet open to our creative future, we may more faithfully: • Proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom • Teach, baptize and nurture new believers • Respond to human need by loving service • Seek to transform unjust structures of society • Strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
- The task force shall be to present the 2015 General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration
- The task force shall gather information and ideas from congregations, dioceses and provinces, and other interested individuals and organizations, including those not often heard from.
- The task force shall report to the whole Church frequently, and shall make its final report and recommendations to the Church by November 2014, along with the resolutions necessary to implement them, including proposed amendments to the Constitution and Canons of the Church.
The task force was organized in February 2013 and responded to its mandates by studying and proposing ways to streamline the Church’s governing structures and administration. Its 25 members – Bishops, Clergy and Lay – from all over the Church issued a 100-page Report proposing, among other things: (1) unifying General Convention into one House, but allowing the Orders (Bishops, Clergy and Lay) to vote separately; (2) reducing Deputies per Diocese from eight to six; (3) reducing Executive Council to 20; (4) encouraging Dioceses to collaborate and combine; (5) eliminating Standing Commissions except for Liturgy/Music, Constitution & Canons, and Structure; and (6) clarifying the roles and authority of the senior Church officers vis a vis themselves and Executive Council.
I was appointed to this task force. As you may have figured out by now, I had a busy three years leading up to the Salt Lake City Convention!
Changes to the Church Governing Structures and Administration – What’s New
I served on the Legislative Committee on Governance and Structure at Convention. In addition to seven complex resolutions from TREC, we considered 40 other resolutions calling for (1) the elimination of Provinces, (2) strengthening Provinces (do you note a difference of opinion on this topic?!); (3) establishing a new budget process and (4) numerous other matters. Our focus was to make changes to structures to assist dioceses and congregations live into God’s Mission for the Church. I was the Committee’s Secretary, meaning I was responsible for taking Minutes, and for assuring that the legislation the Committee revised was drafted properly for filing in the electronic “portal” that brought it to the floor of the House for debate and action.
After hours of hearings and discussion, our Committee presented resolutions to the House of Deputies that would: (1) eliminate all Standing Commissions except for (a) Constitution, Canons and Structure, and (b) Liturgy and Music; (2) “sunset” all task forces and interim bodies at each General Convention; (3) keep the Executive Council at the same size and have the work of “disappearing” Standing Commissions performed (if necessary) by task forces reporting to Council; (4) maintain General Convention with two Houses, but amend the Constitution to permit the Houses to sit, debate and vote together when they both agree to do so; (5) keep the number of Deputies the same; (6) encourage Dioceses to collaborate and combine; (7) require Provinces to develop and share “best practices,” and (at the same time) establish a task force to present in 2018 a thorough plan for subject-matter networks to take the place of Provinces – if Provinces were eliminated; (8) establish clear lines of authority and accountability for officers of General Convention, the Executive Council and DFMS, Inc.; (9) streamline the budget process; and (10) grant the President of the House of Deputies a stipend.
One proposal of G&S was rejected by the House of Deputies – that Executive Council, by two-thirds vote, in extraordinary circumstances could direct its Chair (the Presiding Bishop) to dismiss any of the Chief Operating Officer, the CFO, or the Chief Legal Officer, but only after regular facilitated mutual ministry reviews and annual performance reviews. This was intended to give Council authority consistent with its fiduciary duties as the Board of Directors of DFMS and was also recommended by TREC. The two Houses decided, however, to not agree to this provision.
The “package” of Resolutions (as amended) was sent to the House of Bishops. The HOB concurred in all the Resolutions approved by the HOD with one significant exception – granting a stipend to the President of the House of Deputies – and two technical issues. These differences arose near noon of the last day of Convention, and threatened to scuttle the entire budget reform resolution. To try to save the legislation, a Committee of Conference was appointed to meet with representatives of the House of Bishops, a rare but not unprecedented move. After almost three hours of direct but respectful discussions, the six conferees agreed on the text of an amended Resolution acknowledging the cogency of the reasons the HOD wants to grant compensation to the PHOD and the fairness of the request. A task force will be formed to report on the matter to Convention in 2018. The HOD and HOB each passed the Amended Resolution by 90+% votes.
The General Convention Budget for the Church
For at least the last 20 years, the General Convention has adopted a three-year budget for church-wide mission and operations based on a revenue “asking” of each diocese, calculated in a way similar to how a diocese assesses “askings” of its parishes and missions. For a long time, General Convention set the diocesan asking at 21% of most diocesan income; this was reduced to 20% for 2014 and 19 % for 2015. Based on the new triennial budget adopted at General Convention, the assessment (the new term) will decrease again to 18% for 2016, 16.5% for 2017 and 15% for 2018. Concern about the level of the church-wide assessment has been growing, mixed in with conflicting views of the dioceses that have not been contributing at the 18% level. Some dioceses, like Vermont, have struggled to pay even at a lower rate (15%, currently), and others for philosophical differences have been paying considerably less than the assessment.
Do the lower assessments mean reduced funding of some church-wide programs and mission work? No, not really. The overall budget for the next triennium is higher than the budget for this one, even with the declining assessment. One reason is better income from the endowment fund and another is increased success in renting out space at the Church’s office building in New York City. This is not a hardship budget.) Regardless, the sense that pervaded Convention was that some programs and mission work should be shifted “downstream” to dioceses and congregations. This matches actions of our own Diocesan Council and Diocesan Convention, which over the last number of years has lowered the askings of congregations, acknowledging that much (but certainly not all) ministry and mission work is best done by vigorous, active parishes and missions around our diocese. In my view, this is a significant and sound development.
Separately, in Resolution D013 the Convention initiated for the first time some mild accountability measures for dioceses that do not pay their assessments. These are not harsh; the legislation recommends that Executive Council either designate an authority to meet with dioceses not fully participating, either to develop a plan to reach the assessment or to agree to some form of hardship exception. There seemed to be a spirit moving at the Convention that as the asking descends toward 15%, bishops in dioceses paying less than 15% will motivate themselves and their constituents to ascend toward 15%.
Dozens of Resolutions passed revealing the “mind of the Church” on a wide variety of topics and issues, taking stands or urging diocesan and congregation action on issues to make local mission and ministry more vibrant and faithful. As the substance of these Resolutions becomes known at the local level (the Vermont Deputation is working with Bishop Ely and Communications Minister Kathleen Moore to spread the word), each parish and mission will need to discern which of the General Convention Resolutions they want to focus on in their own context.
What Didn’t Happen
Some things that didn’t happen at General Convention included:
- Seven Resolutions were proposed to address concerns about Israeli actions in Palestine. These called for or focused on: community-building dialogue within the Church about Israeli-Palestine policy; restorative justice; positive investment in Palestine; selective divestment or no-buy policies re: certain companies; divestment from four specific companies and boycott of products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank; support of the Diocese of Jerusalem, for an examination of our investment policy, and for parishes to increase understanding in order to engage non-violently; and socially responsible investment policies. Advocates for taking a strong policy stand against Israeli actions in Palestine (or in favor of reiterating past statements of policy) were disappointed with the results in both Houses. Further, the length of debate rules and other practical limitations on debate in the House of Deputies (remember, there are 880 members) made fully engaged floor debate there difficult if not impossible,
- While significant governance and administration changes were enacted, these were incremental fell short of the bolder or “adaptive” changes that many wanted.
- Some were disappointed that the climate change-related legislation did not speak strongly or clearly enough (others felt that what was adopted was a significant step forward for the Church).
Some Final Thoughts
I should not forget to give thanks for the strong bond that the Vermont Deputies and Bishop forged leading up to and especially while at General Convention. We truly worked as a team to support each other, share critical information about developments in committees and at hearings, and pray with and for each other. If you have read and watched the earlier postings and videos from our group, you surely will not be surprised to hear this from me! Our diocese and our state may be small, but we have an inexhaustible energy, fired by the Holy Spirit, for what our new Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry calls the Jesus movement. Now we must move; we must go and we must follow Jesus into our communities. See you there!
July 13, 2015
*These reflections owe much to a review of the major actions of General Convention prepared by Deputy Tom O’Brien of the Diocese of Southeastern Florida, who served as the Vice Chair of the Deputies’ legislative committee on Governance and Structure. Diocese of Vermont stalwarts Anne Brown and Steve Smith gave helpful comments to an earlier draft. I am grateful to each of them.
My committee room:
Official Record of the election of Bishop Michael Curry as Presiding Bishop:
The screen I used to help monitor who was next in the queue for floor debate:
Mormon statue in thanksgiving for seagulls that save the pioneers’ crops from locusts:
Adios to Salt Palace Convention Center:
Sitting on back porch reflecting on General Convention: