By Timothy E. Kimbrough
Any reflection on the role and function of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church places one in the deep end of the pool. The discussion, at times conflicted and complicated, is already well developed. Someone will want to review the convention’s authority, another its mission. Another will want to identify the convention by its governance. Yet another will find the historical antecedents and evolution of the convention central to understanding it.
All might agree, however, that no discussion of General Convention can proceed without at least a cursory review of the documents it produces. Deputies, bishops, and members of standing committees may look to the Journal of Convention and the Constitution and Canons as constituting “the documents of General Convention.” The Journal typically records the acts of convention while each new edition of the Constitution and Canons contains amendments, changes, deletions, and additions made by the immediately preceding convention. But limiting the list to these documents would overlook the Book of Common Prayer (1979), other supplemental worship materials developed for use under the ecclesiastical authority of a diocese, and the ecumenical agreements and documents which describe the relationship between the Episcopal Church and sister traditions.
All of these documents together, when reviewed with respect to the ecclesial principles affirmed for Episcopalians, show the essential, foundational work of General Convention unfolding in four roles.
1. Custodian of Common Prayer
If the time required by the convention to address a topic is any indication of its significance to the church and thus to the function of the convention, then there may be no more important topic than that of common prayer and no more important work than that of prayer book maintenance and revision.
The common prayer inheritance of the Episcopal Church is maintained by General Convention, which requires the use of the prayer book in every diocese of the church, mandates procedures for the prayer book’s revision, lists the non-observance of prayer book rubrics as offenses for which a bishop, priest, or deacon may be presented and tried, and creates provisions for trial use liturgies.
A quick review of the canonical requirements for the adoption of a new or revised Book of Common Prayer, like changes to the church’s Constitution, indicates the required approval of two successive General Conventions. The process of reform that led to the Book of Common Prayer (1979), however, demanded much more than the attention of the 1976 and 1979 conventions. Prayer book study pamphlets, Green Books and Zebra Books preceded these conventions.
Likewise, the rejected resolution D061 (2006), “On the Topic of a Pastoral Plan to Revise the Book of Common Prayer,” makes clear that both houses of General Convention recognize that the practical and pastoral matter of prayer book revision requires more than the constitutionally mandated approval of two successive conventions.
2. Steward of Episcopé
General Convention further provides for episcopal oversight of the dioceses of the church in describing the ministry of bishops and in establishing canons, which direct the election and consecration of bishops. Again, the space given to this topic (inclusive of the place and organization of dioceses) in the Ordinal, the Constitution and Canons, and ecumenical agreements suggests the foundational character of this work for General Convention.
Episcopé, as provided for in the documents of General Convention, secures the historic episcopate for the Episcopal Church, directs the maintenance of the House of Bishops, and guarantees the determinative voice of the laity in the election of, gathering of consents for, and consecration of bishops. Moreover, General Convention expressly provides for the participation of the laity in the episcopal oversight of a diocese when, in the absence of a bishop exercising oversight, the standing committee functions as the ecclesiastical authority.
An Episcopal Church without bishops and without episcopé is an absurdity. General Convention deliberates and acts on the stewardship of episcopé (inclusive of the disciplinary canons for all clergy) as a matter of primary importance.
3. Source of Mission Structure
Additionally, General Convention reviews, reaffirms, and directs the mission of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society — approving a triennial budget expressive of mission priorities, providing for its board of directors, officers, and all program ministries and concerns of the Society. How the Constitution and Canons deal with the organization of General Convention, naming the standing committees of General Convention and describing the roles of the officers of the convention, shows that General Convention seeks to provide for the mission structure of the DFMS.
The development of the office of the Presiding Bishop may be followed in the evolution of the Constitution and Canons. Likewise, the current debate about parity between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops may be traced by studying canonical development and actions of General Convention regarding budget appropriations. The impending restructuring debate for the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is an excellent example of a matter that in the end will be decided by General Convention and no other.
4. Town Hall
That the General Convention must meet “not less than once in each three years” (Article I, Section 7) suggests that Episcopalians, as represented by their bishops and deputies, depend on this meeting. We learn how to speak here. We learn the vocabulary of the Episcopal Church. We worship together across diocesan boundaries, putting into practice the rule of faith (lex credendi), praying for the life of the world and our sister provinces around the world. We receive information to disseminate to the dioceses we represent. Our discussions and debates about church and society often result in resolutions that express the mind of General Convention for a moment in time, encouraging Episcopalians across the church and nurturing the ties that bind us together.
In this sense, the town hall character of General Convention suggests that we must meet together. General Convention must convene that we might know who we are as Episcopalians.
It is not uncommon to hear General Convention referred to as “the largest (democratic) legislative body in the world,” or “the primary governing body of the Episcopal Church,” or “the bicameral government of the Episcopal Church.” I wonder if what we say about General Convention is in fact at variance with what the convention is, how the work of the convention is received, and what the convention says about its work from the vantage point of its documents.
Would we prepare differently for General Convention, would we pray for our deputies and bishops differently, if General Convention were instead thought to be primarily the custodian of common prayer, the steward of episcopé, the source of mission structure, and the town hall where the identity of Episcopalians is explored and reinforced?
The Very Rev. Timothy E. Kimbrough, dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral in Nashville, is a seven-time deputy to General Convention. This year he will serve as vice chair of the convention’s Constitution Committee.