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Crunch Time on Structure

Episcopalians have heard for three years that their church has an urgent need for restructuring, and they’ve waited for a specific proposal to accept or reject.

That proposal finally arrived Tuesday in the House of Deputies, where the Committee on Governance and Structure presented a plan. It calls for eliminating all but two standing commissions, streamlining processes for combining dioceses, penalizing dioceses that do not pay their full assessments, and empowering the Executive Council with new authority to fire three of the church’s top administrators.

Debate on three related resolutions was postponed Tuesday evening because Spanish translations were not yet finished. But deputies did have a chance to ask a few questions before adjourning for the night.

They wanted to know why the committee killed certain recommendations of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC), which produced a 73-page report. For instance, the committee nixed the idea that a church general manager position be established to reduce some of the presiding bishop’s managerial responsibilities.

“We did take very seriously and wrestle for many hours with the issues that were raised by the TREC report,” said Canon Thomas O’Brien, vice chair of the committee. However, he added, “it would not have been acceptable in any sense to the House of Bishops to have restricted the role of the presiding bishop.”

What’s more, the size of the Executive Council, which carries out programs and policies adopted by General Convention, would not be cut in half as recommended by TREC. Instead it would stay the same size (42). The logic: because the council does much of its detail work in committees, it’s apt to need all the members it currently has in order to get it all done.

Deputies also wondered why it’s necessary to bestow new power on the council such that, with a supermajority, it could bypass the presiding bishop in “extraordinary situations” and terminate the chief operating officer, the chief finance officer, and the chief legal officer, which would be a new position akin to a general counsel.

“The Executive Council has significant and important fiduciary duties to the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society as its board of directors,” said committee co-chair Sally Johnson, “and has the duty, but not the power or the authority currently, to act as a last alternative if there are issues that cannot or have not been addressed.”

In terms of collecting monies, the proposal reflects a new push to punish dioceses that do not pay their full assessments, which would be phased down from 19 percent this year to 15 percent in 2018. Dioceses in arrears would not be eligible for grants or loans from the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Those facing financial hardship could apply for exemptions.

“It would create a strong incentive for a diocese to pay its full assessment if it possibly could,” O’Brien said. He said the committee considered making a rule that would prevent people from dioceses in arrears from serving in all churchwide positions, whether elected or appointed, but decided such a policy would have been too draconian.

This punitive approach of withholding loans and grants until a diocese is paid up marks a departure from more collaborative plans being floated this week. Some of these would engage every diocese that finds itself in arrears, which is more than 70 of the Episcopal Church’s 111 dioceses, and work out a custom solution.

“There are proposals before General Convention for a review-board committee at Executive Council to work with dioceses who are either unable or unwilling to pay their full asking, and to work with them to try to work through that,” said Maine Bishop Stephen Lane, vice chair of the Program, Budget, and Finance Committee.


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