By John Bauerschmidt
The recently concluded General Convention of the Episcopal Church took up many matters of business, some of them widely reported and blogged upon before, during, and after the convention. Others have drawn less attention. From my perspective, as a member of the House of Bishops, it’s worth taking note of the work of the convention on the reform of the episcopate. Actions taken (and not taken) tell a story whose significance is not yet fully known. If you’re a General Convention aficionado you may want to skip down several paragraphs, but at the risk of too much inside baseball I offer this account from my vantage point as a participant in the daily legislative work of one house.
Through Resolution D004, the 2015 General Convention established a Task Force on the Episcopacy charged to address a number of concerns: studying the selection and responsibilities of bishops; racial and gender diversity in the House of Bishops; proposals for revising the process of “discernment, nomination, formation, search, election, and transition” for this ministry; and developing “best practices and educational materials” available to the wider church. During the intervening triennium the task force did its work, and in the months before the convention it presented this report. (I was not a member of the task force.)
It’s important to say that the task force’s report was wide-ranging, a considerable body of work. The task force acknowledged that it was not a very representative group according to its own criteria of diversity. It also acknowledged that there were differences among the members as to the proposals, and that not every proposal commanded universal assent. In spite of this there was no minority report. The task force also noted some proposals that were considered and not approved, choosing to leave primary responsibility for seeking a bishop in the hands of the diocese, and to continue the custom of election by the diocese as the standard way for choosing a bishop.
The work of the task force was received mostly by Committee 16 (Churchwide Leadership). I was not a member of this committee or able to attend any of its sessions. The task force’s proposals included resolutions for adoption by the convention, as well as proposed changes to the Constitution and Canons. Proposals for constitutional change require adoption at two successive conventions, while canonical changes become effective after a single convention. Resolutions are typically recommendatory, though in specific instances of constitutional or canonical matters they may have canonical force.
Convention does its work in committees that are charged with holding hearings and bringing proposals to the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops. The committees of each house meet together, and make separate recommendations to each house. Each legislative committee has a house of initial action.
In the case of Committee 16, the house of initial action was the House of Deputies, meaning that by the time the bishops encountered the proposals they had either been adopted as presented by the committee (which was free to reject or to amend the proposals of the task force), or adopted as amended by the House of Deputies. Either house can refer a proposal to an interim body (whether a standing committee, a task force, or another group) for further study. Any committee proposals rejected by the house of initial action are not considered by the other house.
For those who are keen on the whole subject, examining the task force’s report and comparing it with the record of the legislative action will tell a complete story. Most of the task force’s proposals were adopted. Committee 16 also dealt with the vexed subject of compensation for the president of the House of Deputies (a widely reported subject). I want to focus on a few proposals that were not adopted by the House of Bishops, and on one that was substantially amended either by Committee 16 or by the House of Deputies before arriving in the House of Bishops.
First, the amended proposal: as submitted by the task force, Resolution A167 called dioceses to elect assistant bishops. This kind of bishop is currently appointed by the diocesan bishop after the diocesan convention approves creating the position, and serves until the resignation of the diocesan bishop. For this reason, the task force’s proposal represented a significant change, from selection by the bishop to election by the diocesan convention, but the more significant change was not so readily apparent.
Assistant bishops are drawn from the pool of those already ordained as bishops. The proposed change would have made priests eligible for election as assistant bishops, in effect creating a whole new way of ordaining persons to the episcopate. An assistant bishop would differ from a suffragan bishop only in the requirement of resignation when the diocesan bishop changes. The task force said this about the proposal:
The process will allow dioceses to elect an Assistant Bishop from a more diverse pool of potential candidates rather than the current method of choosing someone who has already been elected as a bishop from a pool that is largely composed of white males. … In addition, when the Assistant Bishop’s tenure ends, he or she will have a track record that may be helpful in a subsequent episcopal election. (Report, pp. 48-49)
At the Province IV Synod a month before General Convention, the eligibility of priests for this position was criticized in plenary session as creating a second-class category of bishops. This was clearly not what the task force intended, but the law of unintended consequences is presumably still in force. Committee 16 no doubt discussed this, and the end result was that when A167 appeared before the House of Bishops it had already been amended to restore selection by the diocesan bishop, with candidates limited to those already ordained to the episcopate, and the House of Bishops concurred with the passage of this much-chastened resolution. That’s an example, I think, of good committee work.
Second, a small expansion of the canons drew a critical reaction in the House of Bishops early in the convention. Resolution A164 added to Canon III.12.2 a requirement that “each Bishop shall report all continuing education taken during the calendar year to the Secretary of the House of Bishops, who shall keep a record of the continuing education taken by Bishops.” For some reason this proposal of the task force was sent to Committee 15, on Ministry, making the House of Bishops the house of initial action, and the bishops voted quickly and overwhelmingly to reject it. I cannot remember what the Committee on Ministry recommended, and it was never sent on to the House of Deputies. Though I did not take a poll after the fact, I would guess there was little taste among the bishops to add to their reporting requirements. It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise what bishops said away from the microphones.
Third, there was also a significant change proposed in the canons that was not adopted after the House of Deputies had approved it. Resolution A156 as proposed by the task force extended the requirements for dioceses to hold an episcopal election. Dioceses that plan to elect a bishop coadjutor (a bishop with right of succession upon the death or resignation of the diocesan) or a bishop suffragan must secure permission from a majority of diocesan bishops and diocesan standing committees. The proposal would have extended this requirement of permission to the election of diocesan bishops as well.
The proposed changes also included a requirement for a “missional review” no more than 12 months before seeking permission to hold an election,
to ascertain and articulate the needs, hopes, aspirations, and resources of the diocese as it participates in God’s mission. The missional review shall include consultation with neighboring dioceses and should utilize extra-diocesan consultants when possible. (paragraph 4)
This review was to be communicated to the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council, and assessments from them communicated to each diocesan bishop and each diocesan standing committee before the consent process.
The changes had the virtue of retaining the consent process by which dioceses seek permission — from the other dioceses of the church rather than from a central authority — to hold an election for supernumerary bishops. This is a longstanding feature of the polity of the Episcopal Church that extends in the case of the election of a diocesan bishop to confirmation of a particular individual’s election. These permissions and consents are sought from the other dioceses, not from a central authority over and above them. The proposed changes, however, took a significant step toward centralization through a review and assessment process focused on the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council. In the new requirement of permission from the other dioceses to elect a diocesan bishop, the proposed changes also moved away from the competency of a diocese to take charge of its own life and organization through electing a bishop.
The proposals of the task force were lightly amended by Committee 16 and approved by the House of Deputies. When the resolution reached the House of Bishops for discussion, one bishop opined from the floor that perhaps the Executive Council would like the dioceses to prepare an assessment of Executive Council’s effectiveness, and urged that the House not concur with the House of Deputies. Another bishop who had served on the task force cited the divided nature of its conclusions, and supported rejection. Yet another bishop urged the strongest possible rejection, which soon followed in resounding fashion. It should be noted that a separate Resolution A144, recommending missional review to the dioceses of the church and not incorporating canonical changes, was adopted by convention in both houses.
What does this all add up to? The complete story will soon be fleshed out by the minutes of each house; but as I mentioned earlier, the significance of these things will only emerge over time. One is an example of good committee work, second-guessing the experts; another is a practically minded rejection of an unnecessary compliance requirement; the third is a forceful reaffirmation of the church’s polity and the centrality of diocesan life. From my perspective these are all good developments for the Episcopal Church, the continuation of nourishing themes from our past, and the seedbed (perhaps) of renewal in the future.
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