Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On the Impossibility of Enacting Trial Rites for Same-Sex Blessings without Violating the Constitution (III)

[Note: This post is Part III of a series on amending the BCP and adopting trial or experimental liturgies for use in the Church, as we head into General Convention LXXVII later this week. Part I is at this link, Part II is at this link, and Part IV will follow tomorrow.]

Having looked at the ways by which General Convention may amend, add to, or supplement the Book of Common Prayer, let us now evaluate the various proposals which the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has made to the 77th General Convention, meeting in Indianapolis this week. We begin with the text of Resolution A049, which I quoted at the outset of this series (my bold emphasis):

Resolved, the House of _______ concurring, That the 77th General Convention commend "Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing" for study and use in congregations and dioceses of The Episcopal Church; and be it further 
Resolved, That the 77th General Convention authorize for trial use "The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant" from "Liturgical Resources I: I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing" beginning the First Sunday of Advent 2012, under the direction of a bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority...

We may ignore the first paragraph; it simply "commend[s] ... for study and use" the background materials the Commission prepared for its same-sex blessings liturgy. The meat of the Resolution is in the second paragraph, where we see that (1) General Convention is asked to (2) authorize for trial use the rite in question (3) under the direction of a bishop with jurisdiction ("exercising ecclesiastical authority").

Is this a proper request? Well, yes, it is -- if General Convention proceeds under the "trial use" (second) paragraph of Article X (quoted and discussed here, in Part I of this series). But there is a problem. That provision requires that any trial rite be approved by a majority of "the whole number" of Bishops in the HoB, and as shown in Part I, that language means that all Bishops, including those not present and voting at General Convention, must be counted in determining the required majority.

According to the official House of Bishops page on the ECUSA Website, there are "nearly 300 active members" in the House of Bishops. Thus, in order to adopt any rite for trial use in the Church as a whole, it would require the affirmative vote of around 151 Bishops. The problem is that most of the Bishops in the HoB are retired ("resigned" from their jurisdictions), and do not come to its meetings, although many more attend sessions of General Convention.

The HoB is projected to have about 200  Bishops present for its sessions in Indianapolis this week, but in the current economic downturn, that estimate may prove too optimistic. Even if just 50 or so voted against of SSB's (and there are a number of Bishops who will do so), there might not be enough votes to pass A049. It will be retired Bishops who do attend who will determine the final outcome, and many of them tend to be more conservative. We shall have to wait and see how the numbers come out.

But the Resolution also uses the language "under the direction of a Bishop." Does that change anything?

It could be that the drafters intended by that language to invoke the language of the final paragraph of Article X, which we discussed in Part II of this series. As shown there, however, that paragraph (a) does not authorize Bishops to approve "trial" rites for Church-wide use, but only rites for "special occasions," and then only in their own diocese. In other words, it does not take a vote of General Convention to authorize a Bishop to approve a rite for use on a special occasion in his/her own diocese.

So the quoted language from Resolution A049 is, in a sense, superfluous. Even in the case of trial rites approved for Church-wide use, their use in any given diocese is still subject to the discretion of its Bishop, whether or not the authorizing resolution so provides.

That is why I wrote the headline to this series. It may well be impossible for the House of Bishops to gather enough of its members in favor of SSB's at Indianapolis to provide the required number for the approval of Resolution A049 adopting a rite for same-sex blessings in the Church.

On the day on which the measure comes up for a vote, the first job should be to determine how many Bishops are actually in attendance at that point. Unless there are more than 152 or so present, any attempt to hold a vote should be preceded by raising a point of order with the House's parliamentarian, and the language of Article X should be explicitly cited. The point should be to have the measure declared defeated, if there are not enough Bishops present to satisfy the number of votes required for approval. There would be no reason to hold the vote in such a case.

Indeed, the point of order could be that the House lacks a quorum of the number of Bishops necessary to entertain the motion under the Constitution. A quorum to do ordinary business requires, as we saw in Part I, a majority of the Bishops in the House with jurisdiction. But that is for transacting ordinary business of the House, which  can be approved by a simple majority of those present and voting. The Constitution's explicit language in Article X, however, makes the approval of trial rites a matter which is outside the scope of the HoB's ordinary business, because of the supermajority which it requires for any such approval.

If more than 152 or so Bishops are present when the Resolution comes up for a vote in the House of Bishops, then a roll call vote should be demanded by three or more Bishops present, and the number of aye votes thereby exactly determined. If less than the required supermajority, given the number of total Bishops who are qualified to vote in the HoB, then the measure cannot be declared to have passed, under the language of the Constitution.

Resolution A049 is not the only obstacle facing General Convention this week. In the next post in this series, we will look at the other proposals which the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music has laid before the Convention. Some of them suffer from the same disability to be enacted. In the process, we will see how General Convention has been able in previous years to slide past this problem -- but not now, and not for its foreseeable future.


  1. Since when has TEC worried about the proper way to count votes in the House of Bishops?

    After the way the depositions/purges of conservative bishops were handled, it seems that the wording of how many bishops are eligible to vote does not matter to the Presiding Bishop or her Parliamentarian. They just do what they damn well please.

  2. You are correct, Allen Lewis, that it made no difference in the case of the "abandonment of communion" proceedings against Bishops Cox, Schofield and Duncan, where the Canon uses (and still does, after the Title IV amendments!) the same language.

    However, in the case of Article X, as I explained in the first post in this Series, you cannot wiggle out of the language that way. Even the thickest parliamentarian can see that the language requires a greater number for just one vote than it does for two. And if he ignores that language to please his PB, then he is not entitled to the title "parliamentarian," and I hope some Bishops ridicule him and call him on his toadying. At least being able to shame someone is better than being left frustrated and isolated.

    In other words, forcing a ruling on the point will bring it out for all to see, in plain light of day -- instead of hiding behind a Chancellor's opinion, announced in advance of the meeting. If the Bishops then all want to submit to being bullied, it's on their souls.

  3. Mr. Haley,

    What are the odds that the Parliamentarian will not have been previously instructed to defer to a statement from the Chancellor, either quoted or live, that the interpretation of the words of the canon has lead to quite a different conclusion?

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  4. I appreciate your exposition on the constitutional issues raised by acting on the Same-Gender Blessings issue. It occurs to me that perhaps the Constitution and Canons could do with a thorough review and streamlining...perhaps you would offer to take up such a job, sir?

    In the meantime, if I have understood your argument, individual Bishops might choose to trial a new liturgy in their diocese at their own discretion...am I correct? If so, then would it not make sense for those bishops and dioceses who wish to proceed to do so without bringing the matter before the GC? In fact, would it not be sensible in most cases for bishops to trial liturgy or other innovations in several dioceses and then, on the basis of results, report their findings back to the GC at the next GC for further action, if any were warranted?

    Your thoughts (and please forgive my inability to grasp matters as clearly as you)....

  5. The Parliamentarian of the House of Bishops who in 2009 during the Duncan affair was John C. Buchanan.

    Bishop Buchanan, I believe, remains parliamentarian of the House of Bishops -- but this may have changed in recent meetings.

    He is, however, the provisional Bishop of Quincy for the national Episcopal Church.

  6. SFitC, I have offered to help the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons, and have frequently critiqued their work, but somehow they have never wanted me to contribute to their efforts.

    Bishops can pretty much do what they want within their dioceses without interference from the rest of the Church. (Bishop Tom Shaw of Massachusetts, for instance, has conducted a same-sex marriage ceremony in his own Diocese, in outright violation of the Canons and the Rubrics of the BCP. But no one else seems to care.)

    My posts have tried to show that Bishops really have discretion in their Dioceses only to use rites "set forth by authority within this Church," even for "special occasions." The "authority within this Church" should mean the General Convention, not the individual bishops.

    But as I say, no other Bishops in the Church seem to care.