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‘William White is Dead’

From the Rt. Rev. Lawrence C. Provenzano
Bishop of Long Island

This past year during the clergy conference of the Diocese of Long Island our second day was devoted to the examination of the structures for ministry within our diocese. The day was entitled “Eisenhower is Dead,” encapsulating the notion that it is no longer productive to engage ministry in a 1950s model. The phrase has helped us all to focus on the task at hand – an engagement in ministry development that is adaptive and relevant to the present culture and future times that we believe we are called to serve in the name of Jesus Christ.

We prepare now for General Convention this summer. To do so is to tackle the enormous task of retooling the Episcopal Church for mission and ministry in changing times and circumstances. I believe that when we consider the internal structure that supports ministry (and is not ministry in and of itself); that is, the canonical, constitutional and governmental structures that support mission, we might do well to adapt the phrase: “William White is Dead.”

William White was the second Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was the chief architect of the bicameral system of governance we today call General Convention. He modeled our system on the United States Congress with two houses meeting separately, one a large gathering of elected deputies of both clergy and lay people and the other all the bishops of the church.

For a very long time, our bicameral system was seen as the church in council. It was understood as a fair representation of the church and it created an atmosphere of shared ecclesial decision-making that honored the voices and opinions of all the baptized. As a structure for a uniquely American denomination it provided representative governance that worked well for a church ministering in a culture where conditions were similar from one triennium to the next.

To all involved in the mission and ministry of the church today, it is clear that this system is failing us, failing the mission of the church. The reasons why are many. It is too expensive. There are too many people involved and invested in the power that comes from deep and cumbersome organization that has become increasingly bureaucratic. Even among much larger denominations that gather in convention-style deliberation, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is the largest gathering by far and the most costly. General Convention can no longer claim to be the church in council in its ancient and ecclesial form when it looks and acts more like the national conventions of political parties. And for all of this expense, time, and seemingly necessary inclusion, we accomplish very little in the way of sustainable mission strategies and program.

As a bishop of the church I believe it is time to declare that William White is Dead. We minister in a very different environment from that of William White, in which the pace of change calls for a nimble church able to easily adapt. Bureaucracies are anything but nimble which is why they are only effective in fairly stable conditions. It is time to set ours aside. The bicameral system needs to be replaced with a unicameral General Convention that meets in sacred council to consider the mission of the church, its programs and budget.

It is time to gather in one place with laity, clergy and bishops meeting together, praying together, talking and listening together and working together for the mission of the church. The unicameral convention could meet for five solid days, once every two years, with debate and prayerful conversation being exchanged in a common space in which the concept of sacred council could prevail. We may discern that certain decisions require the majority of both deputies and bishops to provide balance and shared authority, but the votes would come following the open, fair and prayerful discernment of a body that met together as one in council. The core of the business of the convention, however, should be decisions about our mission. A simple majority in a single house enables an agile response to our principle concern.

I would propose that deputations be limited to two clergy and two laity from each diocese, and only bishops with jurisdiction — both diocesan & suffragan. This new form of General Convention would be chaired, as any diocesan convention would be, by the Presiding Bishop, with the aid of members of Executive Council.

Undergirding this call to change in structure is the reality, acceptable I believe to all, that our mission as church is more fundamental than the structures we devise to carry forward that mission. William White in his time, in good faith, created a structure intended for that purpose: to allow the church to carry out its mission in the midst of, and in service to, the world, in the name of Jesus Christ. Our responsibility is the same as was his. We are called together, in freedom and faith, to build, re-build, and renew structures that fit the tenor of our times and the hope we hold for the future of the church in mission. More fundamental than the structures of governance is the call to announce the Gospel of Christ in ways that effectively engage the tenor, the culture, and the reality of our day. Like William White, our common responsibility is to lead out of faith, leaving fear behind.

If our intention is to focus on mission and ministry and move away from the forms of governance that have now ceased to be helpful and threaten to steal away the needed resources for the ministry of the church, it is time to respectfully and graciously declare that “William White is Dead.”


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