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Our political captivity

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Correction: “The Political Captivity of General Convention” misstated a figure for average Sunday attendance. The Diocese of Fond du Lac’s average Sunday attendance in 2009, as reported in the 2011 Church Annual, was 2,266. The average Sunday attendance for Eau Claire in that year was 872.

By Victoria Heard and Jordan Hylden

Whatever General Convention will look like in 2015 and beyond, it will be a shadow of its formerly huge self. There is no money. The Rt. Rev. Stacy F. Sauls, chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church, is right: this church spends too much money on administration and governance and too little on mission. The money is gone, and endowments are depleted; Episcopalians are far older and roughly a third of the tribe has vanished since the high-water mark of 1965.

A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Major structural proposals for change are circulating, including one that Sauls first presented to the House of Bishops. But rather than spend much time on details, we want instead to step back and ask more basic questions about how we make decisions as a church, as the people of God.

We believe the past General Convention structure has slavishly copied in ecclesial ink the politics and legislative processes of American culture. Episcopalians are fond of saying that the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution also created the church’s Constitution and Canons. It is an exaggeration but a telling one: General Convention looks and acts too much like Congress and not enough like a council of the Church.

Joseph D. Small, longtime director of theology, worship and education ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), wrote in the March issue of First Things about what he called his church’s “democratic captivity” — its reliance on secular democratic procedure rather than proper theological discernment to order its common life. This, he argues, has been a key factor in aggravating his church’s divisions. To such observations, we can only concur. In this spirit, we wish to provide four central suggestions for the General Convention of the future.

1. Discernment, Not Procedure

During the 2006 General Convention the Most Rev. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, signed up to speak at a joint committee hearing. Before long it became clear that his turn would never arrive, as he was speaker No. 542. Someone agreed to change places so that the emissary of the Archbishop of Canterbury could speak. The archbishop was as green as any first-time deputy about how General Convention works.

Any experienced deputy can attest that those who know how to work the system are far more effective than those who are not. But skill with Robert’s Rules of Order has no correlation with Christian wisdom and spiritual insight. Ours is a system that rewards skilled and bold parliamentarians, who know how to modify an issue to meaninglessness or bury it in an unfunded study. Quiet voices shaped by Christian action, prayer, and Scripture often go unheard.

2. People, Not Politicians

The House of Deputies is comically immense: representing barely two million people, it is a hundred deputies larger than the Parliament of India, which represents 712 million. A first glimpse of the senior house is like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. A sense of absurdity comes with the realization that every diocese has eight votes in the House of Deputies. The Diocese of Texas, with its 27,042 in church on an average Sunday, has the same eight votes as the Diocese of Fond du Lac with its 872. A different way to see it: a communicant of Los Angeles has only 11.8 percent of the vote of a communicant of Vermont. Even the smaller House of Bishops is more than twice the size of the U.S. Senate.

Given the huge numbers, 7:30 a.m. committee meetings are where the work gets done and where the real power lies. Sitting on a critical committee takes years, location, and connections. A six-time veteran of the convention once said that fewer than 100 people make its crucial decisions.

Inevitably, the people who run General Convention are the ones who have been there the longest, those who know how the system works. Small dioceses have immense clout, along with deputies who can take time off to learn how, decade after decade, to game the system or push a specific agenda. As Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori courageously noted, General Convention tends to represent interest groups better than the church at large. How we pick our deputations and whether a diocese can pay its costs are crucial questions. We believe there should be a sustained discussion about the size of dioceses and the size of their deputations.

3. Association, Not Centralization

As the Episcopal Church has shrunk by a third since 1965, it has changed few of its structures; indeed, it has added structure at the national offices and lobbying offices in Washington. Through the middle of the 20th century, the Episcopal Church saw itself as the church of the American establishment, and prided itself on the number of members in political power across the country. Though that sense inspired the beauty of the Washington National Cathedral and the service of Episcopal Relief and Development, it has also given rise to a structural over-centralization that by now has become a serious burden: 65 percent of the proposed triennium budget is for administration.

­­It is not clear that we need a national office for everything, or a position on every secular issue of the day. Dynamic, grassroots voluntary associations such as the Church Missionary Society, the Daughters of the King, Cursillo, and Anglo-Catholic congresses accomplished much of the good work in Anglican history. As the Very Rev. Thomas Ferguson rightly has pointed out, this does not mean that everything central should be abolished, but there should be a fierce conversation about the number of nationally funded structures that we need.

4. Authority, Not Democracy

In her recent address to provincial synods, the Presiding Bishop observed the damage Episcopalians have done by assuming that the right way to deal with every issue is to put it to a vote, thereby creating “winners and losers about several hundred issues at every General Convention.” In the same vein, she observed that we have too often fallen into the trap of interest-group politics instead of having the patience to seek consensus through unhurried, inclusive conversation.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia has documented the over-politicization of nearly everything in American life, the tendency to think that every social norm and institution is the result of a political contest of wills, imposed by the winners upon the losers. The Church, he argues, ought to transcend that dynamic — and thus help provide a shared moral language for us all.

We have not done a good job at this in recent years. We have too often forgotten that the decisions we make in council are not authoritative simply when passed by a majority vote, but instead when they arise naturally over time out of the whole Church listening together, formed by Scripture and a common life of prayer, worship, and discipleship.

A church council like General Convention should not just be a democratic venue to ram through whatever proposals we favor, no matter what side we are on. We must find a way to keep from demonizing and litmus-testing those with deeply held theological convictions. When issues are framed in terms of justice or identity or the plain words of Scripture, it is almost impossible to listen to other views and wait for what God may be saying: is this the Spirit or the spirit of the age? If our convention is worthy of the name council, it must be a place where common counsel is taken as we seek to listen together over time for the Word of God — a place of prayer, proclamation, and praise. Our lack of attention to this is part of our polarization and decline. We need to start thinking about church councils not just politically, legally, and pragmatically but also theologically.

The Rev. Canon Victoria Heard is canon for church planting and congregational development in the Diocese of Dallas. Jordan Hylden is a doctoral candidate in theology and ethics at Duke Divinity School and a candidate for holy orders in the Diocese of North Dakota.

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Political Captivity

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