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A Battle for the Soul of General Convention


By Kirk Petersen

“Battle for the Soul …” OK, that’s kind of a clickbait headline.

Here’s a more literal title: “Analysis of Proposed Changes to General Convention Legislative Processes.” If you’re already bored to tears, I respect that, and you have my blessing to stop reading now.

But for legislative-process geeks — and you know who you are — this is an auspicious time. Rule changes have been proposed. Strongly worded objections have been lodged. An online forum has been scheduled for Friday, September 8, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. Pre-registration is required.

The 81st General Convention is set for June 23-28, 2024, in Louisville, Kentucky. The church will be seeking to construct a new normal after the pandemic disrupted the usual pattern of gathering in a crucible for roughly 10 days every three years. The 80th General Convention was initially delayed by a year, then a COVID resurgence led to slashing the length of the convention in half a few scant months before the scheduled July 2022 gathering in Baltimore.

Frantic adjustments ensued. In place of the usual practice of debating resolutions in crowded committee rooms while breathing common air, most committee work was moved online and scheduled in advance of the opening gavel. This necessarily involved multiple technical violations of various canons that regulate the General Convention, which is the primary governing body of the church.

The current debate centers on where to draw lines in defining a new process. Worthy goals stand in tension with each other: inclusivity vs. efficiency. Frugality vs. camaraderie. Agility vs. respect for tradition.

In July, the House of Deputies released a set of proposed changes to the rules of order for the HoD, the most dramatic of which would move virtually all committee deliberation online, to be completed before the opening gavel. The deadline for submitting resolutions would move from the end of the second legislative day to 90 days before the first legislative day. “Committee meetings at the General Conventions would be limited to addressing changes to resolutions made on the floors of the respective houses,” the proposal states.

The five-person committee that drafted the proposal said this will open the legislative process “to the entire church — not just those who can afford the time off or the travel to the site of the General Convention” and, by enabling a shorter convention, “we also recognize substantial cost savings in room fees and rental expenses.” The early deadline for resolutions “also enables us to have more accurate translations to ensure deputies whose first language is not English can participate fully,” the proposal states. Other proposed changes include adjustments to speaking time limits, submitting amendments, and handing the so-called consent calendar, which is a mechanism for approving batches of uncontroversial amendments with a single vote.

The Consultation, a coalition of progressive Episcopal organizations, pushed back hard in mid-August. “The cumulative effect of these proposals would undercut the spirit of relationality that is the heartbeat of governance at the General Convention and would negatively affect historically marginalized communities, in particular,” the group wrote.

The group focused on the downsides of online legislative work, writing: “the proposed requirement for committees to complete all their work before Convention is onerous and will diminish the voice of lay deputies in our Church governance. In 2022, we rarely saw full committee attendance for any given hearing. The scheduling issue for many deputies, compounded by our Church’s huge range of time zones, is fundamentally rooted in the busyness of people’s lives outside of Convention.”

The group added: “For the General Convention, deputies have already arranged to be there; the General Convention Office also provides childcare, and most dioceses reimburse deputies for expenses. It is a significant commitment, but the parameters are clear and arranged ahead of time. Under the proposed changes … lay deputies, unless they are privileged to make their own schedules, will struggle to show up to participate meaningfully in committee deliberation.”

There seem to be meritorious arguments on both sides, which will provide plenty to discuss at the September 8 forum. Unfortunately, while The Consultation has raised many thoughtful points, the group also strayed into tendentiousness:

“At a time when the cries of the disenfranchised are ignored, migrants are told to go away, rights for women and transgender people are being removed by judicial fiat, and while members of our Church are raising voices in protest of voter suppression in our cities, how can we as people of faith and the Church assembled defend the elimination of the rights of our deputies and others in the in-person participation and debate of at least one hearing during the first two days of our convention in Louisville?”

This language frames the debate as a social-justice issue — which it is not. It’s a matter of logistical tradeoffs. Or, if one insists on focusing on social justice, it’s not the least bit clear which side that analysis supports. At every General Convention, some of the smaller, less-affluent dioceses have either partial representation or no representation at all, and online committee work could provide a way for such dioceses to have a more meaningful voice in the governance of the church.

So: Let’s have a vigorous discussion at the September 8 forum. Let’s remember that if a change doesn’t work as planned, another change can be made. And in the course of the debate, let’s keep in mind the admonition that the Wikipedia community uses to avoid flame wars in the editing process: “Assume good faith.”


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