By Zachary Guiliano
In her opening address on Thursday, the President of the House of Deputies noted that the 77th General Convention voted unanimously to create the Task Force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church. Then she added: “I think we have probably had our last unanimous structure vote for a while.”
Those words rang true during Thursday night’s meeting of the Committee on Governance and Structure, as speaker after speaker rose to address a variety of resolutions aimed at drastically changing church structures.
Members of the task force and their supporters were out in force, as were skeptical deputies. Many of the most vocal Episcopalians on issues of structure, such as the Rev. Scott Gunn of the Forward Movement and the Very Rev. Tom Ferguson of Bexley Seabury Seminary, found themselves sometimes allied and sometimes at odds on particular resolutions.
The meeting began with an announcement that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would arrive shortly to address the committee. All stood as she entered. The presiding bishop quickly motioned for everyone to sit down. She had come especially to address resolutions related to redefining the roles of the presiding bishop and the Executive Council.
“The core of the problem in this conversation is about dual reporting. In any kind of accountable structure, it’s impossible for any person to report to more than one boss, if you will,” she said. “I think that there is an issue of continuity; there is an issue of clarity of vision. And, at least as I understand it today, the presiding bishop is expected to lead in this church. And the [Episcopal Church Center] staff report to the presiding bishop for that reason.”
Bishop Jefferts Schori said she is accountable to a variety of groups within this structure: the wider church, the House of Bishops, and, to some extent, the Executive Council. “And if there are serious concerns, we have a Title IV office for that.”
After she left, testimony resumed quickly. The two issues on which deputes gave the most effective speeches concerned the role of provinces (C021, C027, C029, C034, C043) and the possibility of making General Convention a unicameral body (A002, A007, A005).
Deputy Lee Spence of Dallas favored retaining provinces. “Dissolution narrows the capacity of the dioceses to work together between General Conventions,” Spence said. “The diocese is the fundamental unit of the church, but provinces allow more representation on Executive Council.”
A number of later speakers, such as the Rev. Megan Castellan, alternate deputy from the Diocese of West Missouri, said that provinces “are great when they work,” but not all provinces are effective.
Scott Gunn spoke in his capacity as a deputy for Southern Ohio. “Provinces do a lot great work, but we don’t need a layer of structure to do that great work. If we eliminate provinces, dioceses can still cooperate.”
Alluding to a comment by Sarah Palin, he said, “I can see Province 4 from my house … in Province 5.” He noted, though, that he cannot easily cooperate with other provinces in the current system, and he thinks provinces bring too much administrative redundancy.
“We have nine courts of review, when we only need one.”
Deputies who spoke to the issue of a unicameral house for General Convention were evenly divided, with four in favor, four against, and one undecided.
In an interesting turn, two deputies, Sally Sedgwick of the Diocese of Southern Ohio and John Johnson of the Diocese of Washington, had working experience with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s unicameral house. One spoke in favor, the other against.
Those who spoke against the proposal worried about a chilling effect on how deputies and bishops speak to each other and vote.
Tom Ferguson spoke in favour. “[Convention] should reflect the polity that we have on every level of the church except the General Convention,” he said. “We speak so much. We continue to hear about going lightly. Are we willing to ask how we will travel light in our own structure and governance?”
“I love my bishop colleagues a lot but I would enjoy General Convention so much more if I could spend it with the clergy and laity of this great work,” said Bishop Mariane Budde of Washington. “I think it would have a catalytic and transformative effect in our church.”