Convention is more than legislation. One of the most interesting parts of convention is the Exhibit Hall. The Exhibit Hall reminds me of an oriental souk: it is a marketplace of goods and ideas in which the organizations and interest groups within the church present their wares, recruit members and do their best to influence legislation. It is a colorful part of convention, and it would not be General Convention without it.One would be hard-pressed to find an account of any of the Conventions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which used the word "exciting" as a descriptor. Conventions today not only have a complete program; they have a "theme", replete with a specially designed logo.
Many church-related organizations hold meetings in conjunction with convention, and there are lunches and dinners hosted by seminaries, provinces, societies, boards and staff offices of the church. One gathering not to be missed is the triennial meeting of the Episcopal Church Women. The ECW meeting has changed over the past several decades; it focuses on the mission and service of the church, and many of the church’s most distinguished members are invited to address this body.
General Convention is a combination of legislative assembly, bazaar of goods and services and family reunion. It is one of the most exciting and, truth be told, one of the most awe-inspiring gatherings in the world.
Another of our interviewees, with a quarter-century of experience as a deputy, aptly described General Convention as consisting of "a representative cross-section of Episcopal Church activists." That is, the General Convention hardly reflects the average Sunday churchgoer. General Convention deputies are selected at diocesan conventions, whose membership in turn is selected by congregations. Although dioceses pay for the expenses of their deputies to conventions, thus removing a direct basis for socioeconomic discrimination in deputy selection, the duration of the convention itself plus pre- and post-convention meeting expectations---not to mention possible appointment to an interim body---ensure that the majority of lay deputies are likely to be either people with excess leisure time or people with a cause. . . .
. . . A recent move by General Convention to track the resolutions process has created an interesting data set for a statistical analysis of General Convention resolutions. Beginning in 1994, the General Convention office reported on responses from the dioceses to Gneral Convention resolutions "referred to dioceses for action" . . . . By 1997 (reporting for the 1994 convention resolutions) . . . [o]nly twenty-two resolutions were referred to the dioceses, but . . . whereas only 6 percent of the resolutions in 1994 received no action from any of the reporting dioceses, this proportion rose to 32 percent in 1997. . . . If we take the combination of considered (but not acted upon) and not considered at all, then the negative figure rises to 32 percent in 1994 and 45 percent in 1997.The low reporting rate for 1997---barely over half, less than half if the nondomestic dioceses are included---combined with a "rejection rate" of almost half among those that did report suggests a considerable gap between General Convention's priorities and those of the dioceses. This is doubly curious, because the representatives to General Convention are sent from the diocesan level and are canonically bound to report back to the dioceses, while the dioceses are canonically bound to make provision for these reports. Yet in spite of this, it appears that in the majority of dioceses the majority of General Convention resolutions fall on a deaf ear, and that this is increasingly so---in spite of a decrease by over half in the total number of resolutions referred.
Deputies are not delegates; that is, they are not elected to represent the electing dioceses.Deputies vote their conscience for the good of the church. They cannot be instructed to vote one way or another, for to do so would preclude godly debate and preempt the work of the Holy Spirit. . . .
“In the Episcopal Church the belief that God speaks uniquely through bishops, laity, priests and deacons, enables our participatory structure and allows a fullness of revelation and insight that must not be lost in this important time of discernment . . . . [T]he joint work of the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops is the highest institutional expression of this belief.”
This remark actually invokes, as George Conger points out in the article linked, a magisterial role for General Convention that is without precedent in the annals of the Church. The claiming of such a role is all the more remarkable when one considers that just as the Pope controls membership in the College of Cardinals, so do the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies control membership on all the standing commissions and interim bodies of General Convention. The Presiding Bishop appoints the episcopal members, and the President appoints the lay and clerical members. In the opinion archives over at Episcopal News Service is a letter written on September 9, 2008 from a church archdeacon in Australia expressing dismay that the American church would resort to such an undemocratic procedure:
Perhaps it is that I am an Anglican from the other side of the Pacific but the description of the method of appointing committees of the General Convention looks like just about the most undemocratic possible.The Rev. Edwin Byford is correct. General Convention has gone completely adrift from its moorings, led by two captains who claim that the voice of God speaks through them and the deliberations they lead. It has gone so far astray as to render it almost irrelevant to its original purpose.
In a Church that used to be renowned for its broad based democratic processes how is it that all committee appointments fall to just two people — Bonnie Anderson and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori? Surely it is the Convention, itself, that should appoint its own procedural committees.
What has happened, that such power is concentrated in so few hands? Since some sort of formal establishment of the modern Anglican Communion a century and a half ago Anglicans have been determined to have power dispersed. We have not wanted magisterial power at the center of our international or national lives. We have seen the diocese as the fundamental building block with the unilateral power of the bishop extremely limited by synods and standing committees.
But the American Church seems to be concentrating more and more power in the center and removing power from dioceses and even the deputies of the General Convention.
I thought you guys fought a Revolution to make sure that you were never ruled by a king and his flunkies.You divided power and made sure it was not concentrated. From Australia your system for appointing committees looks very un-American, and most certainly very undemocratic.
In the past, delusions of grandeur have always preceded a fall from grace. General Convention 2009 is shaping up to be the grandest Convention ever. When the fall comes---and mind you, it will---I fear there may not be enough contrition left to go around, because when you are doing the work of the Holy Spirit, there is no time to look back. Episcopalians, pray for your Church:
that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.