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Challengers Make Their Cases Against Ayala Harris

News Analysis

The two people trying to unseat President of the House of Deputies Julia Ayala Harris made their final pitches June 21, on the eve of General Convention. The result of the June 25 election will hinge on whether a sense of grievance against Ayala Harris is widespread enough to overcome the natural advantages of incumbency.

The challengers are the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, currently the vice president, who declared for the top job after a serious falling out with Ayala Harris, and Zena Link, an educator, union leader, and theological scholar with a long history of governance roles in the church. The president of the House of Deputies is the second-ranking officer of the church.

The three candidates faced off in front of an audience of hundreds in the Grand Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel, across the street from the Kentucky International Convention Center. Two hours later, the five nominees for presiding bishop would be introduced in the same room.

The PHoD candidates gave opening statements in alphabetical order, and Ayala Harris leaned hard on the fact that she’s been doing the job for two years. “Last year, when our Presiding Bishop took time to focus on his health, I worked hand in hand with churchwide staff; the executive leadership team, which are the senior staff of the DFMS; Executive Council chairs, which are like our board of directors; and the House of Bishops leadership to ensure that both our programs and our governance continued.”

Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry has been hospitalized six times in the past year, but has recovered sufficiently to participate in the final General Convention of his primacy.

Link and Taber-Hamilton opened by emphasizing their credentials, rather than by taking aim at Ayala Harris.

“I do believe that I’m uniquely qualified for this position and to be your next president of the House of Deputies, through a combination of academic and theological education, union experience, and racial injustice facilitation and curriculum development,” Link said. She mentioned her graduate degrees from Episcopal Divinity School, Harvard Divinity School, Boston College, and a certificate from Princeton Theological Seminary.

“I bring to you, and want very much to offer, 30 years’ worth of experience in community development, organizational development, leadership development, and cross-cultural communication,” Taber-Hamilton said, which started with her undergraduate and graduate study in cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

The candidates then responded to a series of questions from selected deputies on the stage. As the forum progressed, the challengers drew murmurs from the crowd by launching increasingly sharp criticisms at Ayala Harris, without ever naming her.

“Now that this is actually a compensated position, the church has a fiduciary responsibility to use its resources effectively,” Link said. “We shouldn’t be compensating anyone to be learning on the job, and I have a proven record of results.” Ayala Harris will be paid $236,757 in 2024, for a job that was uncompensated before the 2018 General Convention.

And later, after Ayala Harris said “the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops are in really good communication with each other,” Link said, “I’m not quite sure where to start,” because she sees “a strained relationship between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, not that it can’t be repaired.” Neither candidate provided any specifics about the perceived strain or good communication.

Taber-Hamilton offered the most passionate criticism of Ayala Harris, again without mentioning her by name. “I have been one of those people extraordinarily frustrated, extraordinarily frustrated, at seeing things happen, things go down, people feeling alienated, people excluded, quite intentionally — people harmed by that in an organization that should be loving them into being the body of Christ,” she said, her volume and cadence increasing as she referred to her conflict with Ayala Harris, while not describing the nature of the conflict.

“And that is something, where you will see, I will not tolerate. I’ve made enormous risks, and would do so again and again and again to say to this church where the problems are, where people are hurting, where I’m hurting, because it has to be fixed.”

At another point she said, “I will tell you that in the midst of the language of collaboration and inclusivity, as vice president of the House of Deputies, I was included in exactly one meeting for planning and arrangements” for the 2024 General Convention.

Throughout the 80-minute forum, Ayala Harris returned to the topic of her experience in the job. She noted that in addition to a new presiding bishop being elected June 26, Michael Barlowe is about to retire as Secretary of the General Convention, the third-ranking officer of the church. “We have a lot of leadership transitions happening at the churchwide level, and it would be really important to have someone in my role who knows the codes to the bathroom at the church center, so I could show those who are coming in.”

Ayala Harris clearly has alienated some people in the House of Deputies, as evidenced by the applause that greeted some of the criticisms. There have been whispers of cronyism, of inexperience, of a perceived failure to involve a diversity of people in important roles.

“I would seek input on who my counsel of advice should be,” Link said. “I would not create a council of advice of an inner circle of friends, because what that does is, it insulates power to a small group of people. It’s problematic, and we’re seeing some of that play out.”

But of the 800 registered deputies, many of whom are attending their first General Convention, how many know anything about the president’s council of advice, or who serves on it? How many have formed enough of an opinion about Ayala Harris’s performance to decide that she should be turned out of office — and which challenger would they prefer? The answer will become apparent on June 25.

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