Monday, December 1, 2008

"Know the Enemy": Is This the General Convention We Started With?

Readers of my lengthy previous post will be thoroughly informed about the convening of the Church's first General Convention, in the fall of 1789 in New York. After the New England contingent, led by the Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury of Connecticut, signed on to the Constitution, the Convention had delegates from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. The Constitution as adopted in that Convention specified that the various diocesan Churches making up the members of the national Church would thereafter meet in general convention every three years. Each diocese was allowed to elect and to seat up to four clergy deputies and four lay deputies in the "House of Clerical and Lay Deputies," as it then styled itself. Each ordained Bishop would be, ex officio, a member of the separate House of Bishops. Either House could propose Canons for the governance of the Church, which required passage in both Houses to take effect, and revisions to the Constitution, which latter would require passage by both Houses at two successive General Conventions in order to take effect. In order to do business, the House of Deputies required that there be present at least one Deputy from each order (clerical and lay) for a majority of the dioceses with Deputies present; the House of Bishops required a simple majority of its members for a quorum.

In the House of Deputies, any deputy could request that a vote be tallied by orders (under current rules, the request must come from at least three deputations). This meant that the lay and clergy Deputies for each diocese would be polled separately, and a majority of each order of deputations present for a majority of the dioceses represented would be required for any measure to pass that House. Since there were a potential four members of each order who could represent each diocese, this meant that if the vote by the clergy representing a particular diocese was split 2-2, for example, that diocese reported its clergy as "divided" on the question, meaning that the clergy order from that diocese failed to pass that measure. Thus if fifty dioceses were present with deputations in each order, there would be required a minimum of 26 votes of 3-1 or better in each of the lay and clergy orders for a measure to pass the House of Deputies.

The House of Bishops, meanwhile, passed each measure by a simple majority of the bishops present and voting. At first this meant just three dioceses were represented, since there were just three consecrated bishops in America in 1789. Later, it meant that each diocese had one vote, since each diocese had just a single bishop. (For many years, as I explained in this post, the presiding bishop did not resign his diocesan seat on succeeding to the position of the chair.) However, as there came to be suffragan, and then assistant, bishops, a diocese could have more than one person representing it in the House, and the emphasis gradually shifted away from an equal representation by dioceses.

This was the polity created by the Constitution of 1789, and despite numerous attempts to change it over the intervening years, it has remained with us ever since. In the House of Deputies, the emphasis is placed upon the single diocese, regardless of the number of parishioners it has in regular attendance. Thus it is that a mere 12% of deputies in the present-day Episcopal Church could hypothetically, through their votes at General Convention, block any measure from passing, as Mark McCall details in his article at pp. 14-15. (By the same token, as Mark McCall points out in the link just given, a mere 38% of Deputies could, if the votes happened to fall out right, enact any measure despite the opposition of the other 62%.) The enactment of this system in 1789 was intended to equalize the relationships among sovereign, independent dioceses, regardless of the number of their parishioners regularly attending services, and that same fact undoubtedly accounts for why the Church has since been unable to change it.

By the same token, representation in the House of Bishops has over the years become skewed in favor of the most populous and wealthy dioceses, who have the financial wherewithal to sustain the greatest number of diocesan, suffragan and assisting bishops. This fact plays a decisive role in any vote which the Constitution entrusts solely to the House of Bishops, such as the deposition of a colleague on charges of alleged "abandonment of communion". It is rendered even more decisive under the outlandish interpretation of Canon IV.9 entertained by the current Presiding Bishop, who reads it to require consent to deposition by only a majority of those bishops actually present and voting at a meeting of the House, instead of, as the language has required ever since its enactment and until the leadership decided to ignore what it says, by a "majority of the whole number of bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops". The words thus emphasized require the counting of retired bishops, whether or not they show up at the meeting to vote, because under the Constitution's Art. I, section 2, retired ("resigned") bishops have "a seat and a vote" in the House. The contrary interpretation by the current Presiding Bishop---as uncanonical as it was undemocratic---allowed just 53% of the dioceses represented to "approve" the deposition of the Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan from the Diocese of Pittsburgh last September, when those same dioceses were responsible for contributing 72% of the Church's national budget.

So the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is anything but democratic. Many of the current problems in The Episcopal Church, ironically, stem from this one fact. It is ironic because a system enacted to prevent the large dioceses from railroading the small ones has instead become, in the hands of TEC's recent leaders, a vehicle for the activist dioceses to railroad the less political ones. In the story of how this happened will be found the story of the decline of The Episcopal Church.

As noted earlier, the General Convention has met triennially from the outset, for a period of approximately two weeks each time. Those who would say that the General Convention is the Episcopal Church, therefore, have some explaining to do: how is it that a body which meets in just two out of every 156 weeks can in any sense of the word be described as a continuous body? For the fact is, it cannot. Each General Convention is a new gathering, whose Deputies (other than bishops) are elected and authorized to act for just that Convention. This observation underscores yet again the lesson derived from my earlier posts in this series that it is the dioceses who form the ongoing body that we call the Episcopal Church. Those dioceses, in turn, elect every three years the lay and clerical Deputies who assemble in General Convention.

It is true that, over the years, General Convention has authorized standing committees, charged with various responsibilities, to meet in the intervening years, and to submit reports to it for action. (And later there was created the Executive Council, which will be the subject of a post on its own.) Those standing committees, however, cease to exist and function while a General Convention is in session; their place is taken by the various legislative committees of the General Convention itself.

The chief function of General Convention is to legislate on behalf of the Church. Revisions to the Constitution and to the Book of Common Prayer require that the legislation pass in two successive Conventions; revisions to the Church Canons can be enacted in just one session. From the original 17 canons enacted in 1789, occupying six pages, the number has grown to hundreds, requiring more than 250 pages of close print for their collation. It is not that the Church is simply larger and more numerous today than it was in 1789; rather, as is true of government at every level, the process by which legislation compounds itself is more akin to the accretion of barnacles on the hull of a ship: each new gathering of the legislative assembly manages to find the need to tinker, to revise, to clarify, to proscribe that which was formerly optional, or discretionary---to add, in short, and only rarely to subtract. The revisions to the Canons to be proposed at General Convention 2009 are some of farthest-reaching that have ever been put forward to date.

As I noted in my earlier post, the Journals of the Church Conventions for its first fifty years are available for downloading online. (Volume I is here; Volume II is here.) A perusal of those volumes shows that other than revising and adding new canons, and authorizing union with newly formed dioceses, the chief business of General Convention was receiving reports on the status of the Church in each of its dioceses and in the several seminaries. There are various resolutions enacted, but they have to do almost entirely with ecclesiastical matters. In sum, the deputies over those years came together, discussed and reviewed the state of the Church, enacted a few canons, and went home to await the next meeting in three years.

Contrast that description with the preparations necessary for a General Convention today. From a simple meeting at which deputies largely bore their own expenses, General Convention has mushroomed to the point that over four million dollars is budgeted for the coming gathering at Anaheim in 2009. And as its Executive Officer points out, General Convention today is about more than mere legislating:
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.

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.
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.

The Rev. William H. Swatos, Jr. did an in-depth study of The Episcopal Church in 2003-04, from which I have quoted before: "A Primacy of Systems," published in Roozen & Nieman, Eds., Church. Identity and Change (Eerdmans 2005). His study involved some fifty-five extended interviews with church leadership and staff, both current and retired. He notes:
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. . . .
Precisely: "people with excess leisure time, or people with a cause." From being a body concerned almost exclusively with ecclesiastical matters, General Convention has changed into a body more concerned with social justice issues. A review of the summary of actions taken at GC 2006 shows topic headings such as "Children", "Civil Rights", "Diversity", "Economic Development", "Education", "Environment", "Equality", "HIV/AIDS", "Human Rights", "Immigration", "Justice", "Labor", "Peace", "Poverty", "Reconciliation", "Warfare", "Women", and "Youth".

Although General Convention is empowered to set Church policy in these and other areas, its limited duration makes any kind of ongoing policy supervision or follow-through impossible. Such responsibility must be delegated, either to the interim standing committees, to the Executive Council, to the permanent staff at 815, or to the Presiding Bishop. These bodies in turn impose their own impress on the policy in question, and largely determine how (and even whether) it will be carried into effect. The result is that after they are published in the Journal, the resolutions enacted by any given General Convention assume mostly a historical significance---and not a very great significance, at that. William Swatos reports:

. . . 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.
One does not have to look far, I would submit, for the reason for the disconnect that the Rev. Swatos describes. Listen once more to the Executive Officer of General Convention as he describes the role which the deputies see themselves as fulfilling in the Church:

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. . . .
(I have added the emphasis). Is it any wonder, then, that since the deputies refuse to see themselves as representing the dioceses which elect them and send them, the dioceses in turn feel free to ignore what those deputies decide to enact?

What we have today in General Convention is an unmoored monstrosity. Millions and millions of dollars and man- (and woman-) hours are expended on an "exciting" experience that in the end accomplishes little except self-gratification and the further isolation of those at the top from those in the pews. The problem is, however, that some of General Convention's actions---such as the adoption of Canons, revisions to the Prayer Book, and approvals of appointments---do have a long-term effect on the institution. But without any ownership for their actions, deputies are free to say that they are "following the Holy Spirit", and thus are accountable only to their conscience and their God. As the President of the House, Bonnie Anderson, put it in an April 2008 letter to deputies:

“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.

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.

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 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.

This prayer was part of the divine services that opened the Church's first Convention in 1789, and continued to be a part of those services until the changes made to the Prayer Book in 1979 relegated it to an entirely optional role. There is all the difference in the world between praying for the Holy Spirit's guidance for the Church, and in claiming such guidance for yourself and those who faithfully follow you---perchance, it may be, over the cliff. May our present leadership see their error in time.

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