Sunday, March 29, 2009

The 2009 Church Follies (I)

As the Episcopal Church (USA) gears up for its triennial convention, which meets in Anaheim, California, from July 8 to 17, 2009, its Website now has online the text of all the resolutions that have thus far been proposed for adoption. There is a lot that can be learned about the current state of ECUSA from looking through them.

The first thing to realize is that the General Convention of ECUSA comes into existence for just ten days out of every 156 weeks. In other words, it is around for just 0.91% of the time---yet it consumes nearly ten percent of the Church's triennial budget (see page 3). Approximately $13 million is budgeted for the costs of General Convention, including $3.1 million just for the site and facilities (that's $300,000 per day!). Averaged over the ten days of the session, the full cost of keeping General Convention in business comes to over $1,300,000 for each day it is actually in existence.
Recently, the blogs were full of reports about how the 2008 Lambeth Conference wasted £ 288,000 (about $410,000). Well, there are three General Conventions to every one Lambeth Conference. If just 10% of the $13 million spent on General Convention were wasted (and that is the amount of a single, unspecified line item [page 3, line 114, titled "Other Costs"] in GC 2009's budget for facilities), then the Episcopal Church (USA) routinely wastes ten times what a single Lambeth Conference managed to waste; the percentage of just 10% is probably too conservative, given that there is zero accountability for spending too much. (As the 1,560% increase in the line item (#57) for "Title IV & Legal Assistance to Dioceses" shows, ECUSA's solution to overspending is simply to increase the budget.)

Don't forget---we are talking about the fourth largest legislative body in the world,* with a potential membership of 880 lay and clergy deputies (4 of each order per diocese), plus around 300 bishops (both active and retired members currently have seat and vote in the House of Bishops). Since, however, most retired bishops do not bother to attend, and not all dioceses field eight deputies, General Convention 2009 will number just around 1,000 attendees---which means that the Church will be spending approximately $13,000 for each person having a voice at General Convention. Take into account the fact that dioceses pay the costs of travel, meals and lodging for each of those attending, and the figure spent per attendee rises to around $18,000. All this, for the privilege of voting on more than 250 resolutions within the space of ten days (an average of just ten to twelve minutes of debate and discussion per resolution).

And then what happens? Resolutions of General Convention, as we shall have occasion to note more than once in this series of posts, are not binding on anyone---not the individual dioceses, and not the individual bishops. Some of them are supposed to be binding on the staff of General Convention which  is charged with carrying them out---but not all, or even very many, resolutions constitute instructions to its staff. Moreover, no sooner are they passed than General Convention packs up and goes home, not to assemble again for three more years. So who "enforces" those resolutions which the staff are supposed to carry out? There is practically no accountability---again, as we shall have ample occasion to observe in this series of posts.

I have sitting on my library shelf a series of big, thick, paper-bound volumes representing the total output of the past ten or so General Conventions. They serve mainly to gather dust. The only times I remember consulting them is on points of historical interest, such as: how did Haiti come to be an official Diocese of the Episcopal Church (USA)? (It's a nice problem for the skilled researcher. The answer, let me assure you, is not by adopting any Constitution or canons which acceded to the ECUSA Constitution and canons, and which were then ratified by General Convention. So much for the argument that such steps are mandatory for a diocese to join the Church.)

At a cost to produce of roughly $13 million per volume in today's dollars, one would think that these would be by far the most valuable books in my library. Unfortunately, no---you can go to a used book website, like, type "Journal General Convention Episcopal Church" into the title field, and you will get (currently) 91 results, starting out at just $12 per volume (for the 1961 Journal), and going to a maximum of $125 for the oldest volume (going back to 1785). Was there ever a more monumental disconnect between the money spent on generating ideas and their value after being reduced to paper?

When it comes to such a disconnect, I submit that of all the legislative assemblies in the world, General Convention takes the prize. That is not, of course, what you will see in the official media write-ups about the coming gathering, or in the vast bulk of electronic bytes devoted to the topic.  (Remember, however, that the proposed triennial budget for 2010-2012 includes only slightly more for Church "Communications"---$13.5 million---than it does for General Convention itself [scroll to page 10 of 24]. EpiscopalLife Online is not about to bite the hand that feeds it.)

So just what does General Convention do for all the money that is expended on it? Well, there used to be a time when its principal business consisted of drafting national canons to govern the clergy, and approving modifications to the Book of Common Prayer. But over time, as I have detailed in this post, the business of General Convention has grown less and less religious and administrative in character, and more and more purely political in nature.

In short, it will be my contention---which I propose to demonstrate in this series of posts which I am calling "the 2009 Church Follies"---that General Convention has been hijacked by social activists for mostly secular causes. I shall take up a small fraction of the resolutions that are proposed for adoption at GC 2009, and consider them in their particulars, which will be (as a test of your devotion to "the faith once delivered to the saints") painful to contemplate. My purpose is to engender some pain and surprise at what is going on in your name, and at your expense, while you show up faithfully each Sunday for your place in the pews, completely oblivious to the sheer magnitude of such organized folly mounted in the name of Christ's church catholic. I am, needless to say, in total sympathy with the resolution that was proposed but defeated at the recent diocesan convention in South Carolina: to give General Convention a rest for 2009, and to wait until 2012 before calling it together. I would have modified that resolution in just one slight respect: instead of proposing that the savings "be given to a ministry focused on meeting the needs of the poor" and thus support yet another national bureaucracy, I would have proposed that all of the money thus saved, both at the national as well as the diocesan level, be returned to the respective parishes from which it came, in proportion to the contributions made by each of them over the past three years to and through their respective dioceses. God knows that, in these difficult economic times, they would make far better use of it.

So, over the next few weeks, watch for regular installments in this series---"The 2009 Church Follies". The first is almost ready, and will be up tomorrow.

*I am not sure if ECUSA should be proud of this fact, which it asserts in its official literature. As best I can tell, the largest legislative body in the world is the Town Meeting of Londonderry, New Hampshire, with 17,050 qualified members. There may be other town meetings whose membership also counts well into the thousands; I have not tried to look for them. Of national legislative bodies, the National People's Congress of China, which meets annually in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, has 2,987 members, and is the largest. Next is the British Parliament, which has about 750 in the House of Lords, and about 650 in the House of Commons, for a total of approximately 1,400 members.  Thus, barring other large town meetings, General Convention, with a potential for about 1,180 members, would come fourth. As such it is larger than all other major national legislative bodies, including the People's Consultative Assembly of Indonesia, with 1,000 seats; and Italy's Parliament, with about 945 seats. 

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