Does One Body = One Mind?

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

It’s all about the bishops — at least when the question is whether General Convention should retain its bicameral legislative structure or switch to a unicameral format.

Speakers at a hearing on the issue this week focused on what would happen to the quality of floor debates if deputies were to find themselves side-by-side with bishops. Some felt a door to greater equality of voices would swing open like a breath of fresh air.

“If we change, it would have a catalytic and transformative impact throughout the church,” said Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. “The efficiencies that we would create would be staggering.”

But others worried deputies would be less-than-forthcoming with their true opinions for fear of adverse repercussions if their own bishops were listening nearby.

“If your boss is sitting there and you don’t agree with them, very often you will not say anything,” said Sally Sedgwick, an alternate deputy from the Diocese of Southern Ohio.

Sedgwick added that some would likely stay quiet because they’re intimidated, or simply shy to speak publicly in front of a crowd that includes dozens of bishops. She urged the committee to retain its bicameral structure, which consists of a House of Deputies and a separate House of Bishops.

The topic came before the Governance and Structure Committee as it dug into the challenge of sifting through resolutions derived from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). TREC has recommended a unicameral structure as one of several steps to make church governance more streamlined and efficient.

None of the speakers at this week’s hearing disputed the notion that a unicameral system would involve less complexity and less duplication than the current from. As speakers observed, today’s structure requires two bodies to each consider and debate the same proposal before it can be adopted. A secretariat must then manage the voluminous administration required by the process.

Support for unicameralism also came from individuals who’ve observed close-up the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a full communion partner of the Episcopal Church. The ELCA relies on a unicameral system.

“It’s a partnership that we have with our Lutheran brothers and sisters,” said John Johnson, a layman from the Diocese of Washington and an ELCA staffer. “As much as we have to teach them, I think they have a little bit to teach us.”

The Committee continued conducting public hearings on a variety of proposals Friday, including one on the prospect of reducing the length of General Convention, now a 10-day affair. The Committee is scheduled to reconvene Saturday night to continue its work.

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