Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How General Convention Really Works

General Convention 2009 starts tomorrow. With all of the claptrap about it filling the Web, I thought I would let you in on the secret of what is really going on.

First, the basics: there are currently just 105 legitimate Dioceses in the Episcopal Church (USA), plus the Navajoland Area Mission, plus one convocation --- the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, under the jurisdiction of the Presiding Bishop. No valid replacements have been erected under the civil laws of the respective States for the four Dioceses which pulled out of ECUSA: San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, and Quincy. Instead, the leadership at 815 has by sheer force of will maintained that only people left the Church, and that --- despite the reality that they are separate entities under their respective States' laws --- the legal structures of the respective Dioceses remain intact as inseparable units of the national body.

This question will ultimately be settled (and perhaps differently) in the various State courts, but in the interim the Credentials Committee of General Convention will have its marching orders: they must at all costs recognize the deputies selected (some at illegally noticed "conventions", at which the requisite quorums of clergy and/or laity were not present) by the four reorganized groups of Episcopalians who are presuming that minorities have the right to take over an unincorporated association whenever they disagree with what they majority has voted to do. (After all, isn't that the American way? Democracy --- in religion, anyway --- means that the majority always wins, unless the majority forms what 815 considers as the "recently departed", in which case the minority that 815 "recognizes" as "the majority" wins.)

Were the Credentials Committee to act otherwise, you see, that would create instant and huge problems for ECUSA in its scorched-earth litigation policy: if General Convention does not admit the delegations from the Potemkin dioceses, then the courts might be convinced to throw out the lawsuits they have each brought as well (except for Quincy, which is a special case). Never mind that none of the four Potemkin dioceses has bothered to apply to this General Convention for admission as a newly organized diocese --- that would not do, either, because to have done so would be to admit that they are brand new legal organizations, and not the old ones in which they were the minority.

Each Diocese, both regular and Potemkin, and the CACE will be represented at General Convention in two ways: in the House of Deputies, by up to eight elected deputies, consisting of no more than four laity and four clergy apiece; and in the House of Bishops, by the bishop(s) --- including co-adjutor, suffragan, assistant and (for perhaps the last time this Convention) resigned (that is, retired) --- from that Diocese. (There is a proposal, which is up for its second and final reading at this Convention, to amend the Constitution so as to deprive resigned bishops of any right to vote in the House of Bishops.) With 311 members currently in the House of Bishops, and a maximum of 111 x 8 = 888 deputies, there could theoretically be almost 1,200 voting participants (and each Diocese could theoretically send up to eight alternate deputies, as well). In reality, since many retired bishops do not attend, and since not all dioceses can afford to send eight deputies (plus at least one alternate), the actual number attending will (to use the 75th Convention as a guide) be on the order of 950 to 980.

This is still a very unwieldy number to consider all of the proposed legislation that is taken up during General Convention. So the work of both Houses is broken up into Committees, organized by subject area. The Committees consider and act on each Resolution proposed to the Convention, and make recommendations to the House of which they are a part. The recommendation for each Resolution is in the form of a "report" to that House, which receives a number for the computerized tracking system.

Depending on the nature and the source of the Resolution ("A" Resolutions come from official ECUSA committees, agencies and standing commissions working during the years since the previous Convention, "B" Resolutions are proposed by Bishops, "C" Resolutions are proposed by Dioceses or Provinces, and "D" Resolutions by Deputies), one of the two Houses is assigned to take it up initially. Only if that House passes it does the Resolution then go the other House --- for concurrence, amendment, or rejection. Theoretically, the House of initiation takes the legislative time to consider and vote separately on each Resolution, but the reality is otherwise.

As of this morning, the day before the General Convention begins, there are listed on its official Website 192 "A" Resolutions, 21 "B" Resolutions, 86 "C" Resolutions and 44 "D" Resolutions, making 343 Resolutions in all. (Additional Resolutions may still be introduced up until 5:00 p.m. on the second day of Convention.) The initial draft schedule for GC 2009 shows a total of only about twenty-four hours reserved for legislative sessions in each House. That works out to just about four minutes in which to debate and vote on each Resolution --- an obvious impossibility, given that in the House of Deputies, each of 888 potential Deputies normally may speak for three minutes on each item alone. So the powers that be have developed what is called a "Consent Calendar". The leadership of the House decides which Resolutions shall be assigned to debate on the floor; all the rest are placed on the Consent Calendar, which is acted on by a single vote.

And now we come to the truly amazing part. With all of this process being observed, one would think that General Convention must truly be a representative body, in which each Diocese participates through the votes of its elected bishops and deputies. But that is true only on the surface. For in reality, each deputy is repeatedly instructed in advance not to vote what their own Diocese "wants" them to do, but instead to vote their own conscience, guided by the Holy Spirit:
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.

(Note to self: that is why, at bottom, when one really gets down to it, ECUSA can by no stretch of the imagination be called "hierarchical". General Convention is not the "highest legislative body" in the Church, because its deputies and bishops in attending it do not represent their dioceses. General Convention is simply the supreme loose cannon on the deck of a ship that is careening towards disaster.)

All voting in the House of Deputies is electronic, tallied by delegation. In many instances, therefore, unless a deputy discloses how he or she voted, not even a diocese's own delegation knows how its members individually voted, unless the lay or clergy vote in that delegation happens to be unanimous. In the House of Bishops most votes are "voice votes", and so are also generally anonymous, unless at least six bishops request a roll call vote.

The remarkable thing about all this is that, for all the time, energy and money devoted to bringing together so many people from all of its separate dioceses and areas, General Convention is a complete sham. It consists of some 950 people, chosen to be sure by their individual dioceses, but coming together for ten working days with no accountability whatsoever, and no duty to act on behalf of the diocese that sent them. The product of such a process is entirely predictable: the people who are the most actively involved on a given subject, and who have the most time and energy to devote to it, will end up carrying the day.

But the end result --- a thick book consisting of the Journals of each House, plus reports and appendices --- does not represent ECUSA by any means, since the members of General Convention are expressly instructed not to represent their dioceses. So dioceses feel free to disregard any measures enacted by General Convention, and no wonder.

What drama will take place at General Convention, if any, has been aptly described by David Virtue as follows:

GENERAL CONVENTION is a week away. 8,000 to 10,000 Episcopalians of all stripes will descend on Anaheim, California, to debate some 500 resolutions most of which will not affect the thousands of small hamlet Episcopal parishes that can barely muster enough money to pay a full time rector.

There will be lofty resolutions on the environment, liturgical creation cycles, etc., but the real elephant in the sacristy will be resolutions over same-sex blessings. Should homosexuals and lesbians (including bi-sexuals and trannies) have their relationships blessed in TEC or not? There are at least 15 such resolutions that will be whittled down to one or two. But a tug of war is brewing between Bonnie Anderson, House of Deputies president, and Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop over Resolution B033. Anderson wants it on the table to kick around; Jefferts Schori does NOT want it revisited.

B033 calls for restraint in ordaining bishops "whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church," mainly noncelibate homosexuals. It was passed amid calls by Anglican bishops overseas who were outraged after The Episcopal Church - the U.S. arm of Anglicanism - consecrated its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in 2003.

Anderson is apparently taking no chances. The House of Deputies will be asked to discuss B033 in two unusual sessions early in the 76th meeting of the General Convention. . . . [I have previously written about the utter pointlessness of this move.]

The irony should not be missed. Anderson wants a discussion and revisit of the issue while the Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori is on record as calling it unhelpful to revisit the issue at all.

It is "far more productive, I think, to have the hard conversations involved in claiming our current position and identity," Jefferts Schori said. So who will win this ecclesiastical tug of war? My money is on Jefferts Schori.

My money is, too. As you can see from my description of the process, whatever inanity the House of Deputies adopts with regard to B 033, it will go nowhere unless the House of Bishops concurs. And controlling the calendar of the House of Bishops is --- well, you guessed it.

A pre-Convention report from the Church Treasurer has it that budgeted revenues will be short by some nine million dollars this year. That happens to be the approximate amount being spent on the 76th General Convention. Too bad the dioceses did not see fit to take up the proposal made at the convention in South Carolina to skip this year's General Convention and save a lot of that money. But the activists running the show would never entertain such an idea. ECUSA is, as I say, a large ship that is running aground. Those who run it will be the last to leave, as they continue to wonder to the end what brought about the shipwreck.

[UPDATE 07/07/2009: Father Daniel Weir's gentle making of some good points in his comment below has caused me to reflect that the tone of this post may perhaps be too curmudgeonly --- even for a curmudgeon, and so I append this note. All of the people whom I know who are attending General Convention are good and well-intentioned Episcopalians, and I am sure that the same is true of the deputies as a whole. In scorning what General Convention can actually accomplish with all of the time, money and energy being devoted to it, I do not mean to be disrespectful of the deputies themselves. The problem is that a herd mentality takes over when there are so many people going through the same experiences in the limited time frame that a General Convention allows. So many people want to accomplish something they can feel good about, and there is so little time within which to do it, that there is precious little on which all 950 or so bishops and deputies can actually spend the time required to be of one mind. There is a tendency to coalesce around measures which are far from perfect, and whose ramifications are not fully understood, in the effort to "get something done". Or there is an illusion that sets in, which comes from the feeling that if there are this many people in one place who really care about peace and justice for all, then this gathering must be really important in the grand scheme of things --- especially since it will not happen again for three whole years. Meanwhile, the real problems facing the Church --- such as its lack of any real central structure or authority, and the resultant ability of just a few to set costly priorities for it (like ruinous lawsuits, with no possibility of compromise), are glossed over and left unaddressed. It is enough to make one on the whole rather grumpy, and if that rains on anyone's Ubuntu, then that's the way it is.]

[CORRECTED UPDATE 07/07/2009: Scratch previous update; scratch mild approach (sorry, Father Weir --- your people are drawing the lines here): There is no such thing as an "inclusive" Episcopal Church; it is all more liberal lies and claptrap. My first curmudgeonly instincts were on target, and I should have trusted them. The so-called "Media Operations Office" at General Convention 2009 --- not to be confused with the "Credentials Committee", who are granting credentials to the "bishops" and "deputies" from the non-dioceses of San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and Quincy --- have denied press credentials to the Rev. Matt Kennedy of StandFirm. ECUSA has thereby exposed, for any Episcopalian acquainted with the facts, its mind-boggling, benumbing, vindictive and thoroughly un-Christian pettiness. The "inclusive" Church --- the Church that stands for "peace and justice", and for "equal access to all the sacraments for all the baptized" --- cannot stand the idea of allowing one of its former clergy, who of all people is as well qualified to cover what is happening as any other member of the press, equal access to the floor to report its shenanigans. You shall reap what you sow. All gloves are off. No more trying to bridge the gap, because ECUSA every time will burn any bridge that one tries to build. Indeed, this single act of flinging down the gauntlet calls for some Shakespeare. Having just seen the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Macbeth, I recall this most vividly:

Lay on, Macduff,
And damn'd be him that first cries, 'Hold, enough!'

Alea iacta est.


  1. I want to a couple of points that havce been made about the GC.

    1. GC has deputies - and not as political conventions do delegates who come with clear instructions about how to vote in the nominating process. I have been a deputy and I have listened to the voices of others in the diocese as I have prepared for GC. Instructions from those who elected me were, however, not given, as all of us were aware that the final form of any resolution may be very different from the form in which it was distributed before GC. Keeping in mind what I heard from others before GC and listening to the debates at GC, I had to vote in accordance with my best judgment, aware that it was that judgment that those who elected me trusted.

    2. I understand that the civil courts have not finished dealing with the legal standing of certain dioceses. It is, however, appropriate for the remaining members of ECUSA in those regions to be represented at GC. The seating of deputies when there is some doubt about their election can, I believe, be challenged.

  2. Those are valid points, Father Weir --- thank you for making them. However, there remains a difference between someone conscientious, like yourself, who tries to ascertain what the people who elected him expect him to do, and making the flat-out statement that deputies "cannot be instructed to vote one way or another". The latter is a complete reversal of how General Convention began, as I demonstrated in this earlier post. (See also this one as well.)

    As far as the seating of deputies from the four disputed dioceses is concerned, I stress that while in principle they may need representation, there are procedures which they could have followed to obtain representation the correct way, but they (or rather, their attorneys)have chosen not to follow those procedures because of the difficulties that would be created for the position which those attorneys are currently taking in the various lawsuits. So in order to maintain one position in court, the attorneys are having the groups they represent run the risk of being found to have been illegal participants at General Convention. It is all part of what I call a "murder of crows" approach to ECUSA's problems, and I think that in the end it will do far more harm than good.

  3. Another snide remark from the pews:

    I disagree with the underlying premise of this post. That is, the premise that General Convention "works" at all.

  4. True enough, Underground Pewster. General Convention "works" only in the sense that Titanic's engines "worked" on the night of April 15, 1912. It is only in that sense that the title is meant.

  5. Talk about a legislative quagmire. Rev'd Steve Wood, deputy from SC wrote about some of the things in front of the World Missions committee:
    "Silly me, I thought that a committee entitled “world missions” might actually talk about the proclamation of the Gospel message to the ends of the earth. And, maybe they will. But not just yet. Instead, here is a sampling of the resolutions set to appear before this committee: equal access to discernment process for transgendered persons; several resolutions seeking to overturn or supersede resolution B033 (a moratorium on same-sex blessings/ordinations passed in 2006); affirmation of full participation in the Anglican Communion for all Lesbian/Gay/Bi-sexual and Transgendered persons. ... The only connection I can make between these topics and world missions is that passage will effectively END any credible efforts at world mission."

    You should read the rest here: