Is the Episcopal Church becoming too delicate for democracy?

In the run-up to General Convention I have heard several intelligent people, including Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the Rev. Susan Snook (who has done such helpful analysis of the budget) point out that voting on the pressing issues that face our church "creates winners and losers." The implication seems to be that this is a bad thing, and that somehow if we were better people or had a better system principled disputes over deeply held convictions would resolve themselves in some non-legislative sort of way.

Just for the sake of getting a conversation going, I want to say that while I respect the proponents of this argument, I think this is nuts, that if people can't stand to be on the losing side of a vote, they shouldn't stand for election to a legislative body, and that there hasn't, to my knowledge, been a better means of governing large organizations than representative democracy.

There are legitimate grounds on which to argue about General Convention: too long? too short? meets too often? doesn't meet often enough? bicameral? unicameral? proportional representation favoring larger dioceses? diminished representation for dioceses that don't tithe?

No doubt there are others. But the idea that the people of the church are too emotionally fragile to participate in legislative self-governance and must be saved from this ordeal by wiser heads is troublesome. And the notion that arguing and organizing on behalf of our principles is bad behavior that we need to unlearn is generally advanced by people who get to make the decisions when the arguing stops.

Politics, and church politics, are callings as worthy as most others. People who profess an incarnational faith can't afford to lose sight of that.

Comments (26)

This is excellent, Jim, especially:

But the idea that the people of the church are too emotionally fragile to participate in legislative self-governance and must be saved from this ordeal by wiser heads is troublesome. And the notion that arguing and organizing on behalf of our principles is bad behavior that we need to unlearn is generally advanced by people who get to make the decisions when the arguing stops.

Politics, and church politics, are callings as worthy as most others. People who profess an incarnational faith can't afford to lose sight of that.

Gary Paul Gilbert

I'd quibble with "here hasn't ... been a better means of governing large organizations than representative democracy." For instance, as a university professor I'd much rather the university be run by the president and the board than by the faculty senate. If you look around you'll see few higher ed institutions operate with the faculty senate in charge, let alone the students. There's a reason for that, and it's existential. It's not democracy, and one may say it's (possibly benevolent) dictatorship and doesn't that devolve into unbenevolent dictatorship. The reason that doesn't happen is you can vote with your feet. Now what you might say is you can't do that in The Episcopal Church because the whole point is you're an Episcopalian.

To argue against the other side, centralization also creates winners and losers. Any system will. And consider that if you're not voting then what will you see instead -- lobbying, spending time influencing the decisions of the center. Not ideal, either, but I'm not convinced it's better than how I perceive General Convention to be -- folks who get way too absorbed and tunnel visioned to see what's going on on the ground at the parish level.

I'd argue that it's time to go back to a model where the center, whether it's the PB or GC, has less sway. In a word, subsidiarity, where more decisions are made locally.

As I hit submit, my loins are girded.

John, I think the fact that faculty are paid by the university and students pay to go to the university and are there temporarily make this comparison difficult to apply.

I wouldn't mind if General Convention had less to do. I would mind if the things it did were done in a more authoritarian fashion.

Gary, thank you.

I think that the problem is not that we're "too delicate for democracy," but that EVERY issue, position, and argument is submitted to an up-and-down vote. When people are inundated with resolutions about everything under the sun, we end up with folks perpetually on the losing end of votes that don't need to be taken in the first place.

A prime example of this is the dozens of resolutions that are intended to express the opinion of the church on various national and international concerns. There are two problems with this:

1) There are nearly 300 resolutions currently before General Convention. Do we really think that in eight days deputies will be able to give each one enough thought and consideration to actually make an educated and rational, much less prayerful, decision on each one?

2) It's time to get over ourselves. The world cares little about what the Episcopal Church thinks on any given subject. Do we really think, for instance, that the Cuban embargo will be lifted because TEC passes a resolution against it? If not, then why bother?

With all of this, we run the very real risk of making General Convention this extremely elaborate and expensive game played by those "in the know" who have 8 days to spend doing nothing but jockeying for position in an endless series of win/lose votes. The vast majority of resolutions that will be considered have no real effect on the lives of the people-in-the-pews, much less those who are not yet in the pews. We may already be at this place of expensive irrelevance. If so, we have achieved parity with the US Congress. God help us.

John, I'm not convinced that Bishops and Deputies show up at General Convention and immediately lose sight of their local contexts and ministries. Most of the deputies I know are not all that "absorbed" in the overarching machinations of TEC that they have an occasional responsibility to. Actually, I think their local context is where their wisdom comes from and is the wisdom of the design of General Convention.

Now are there some who do get so absorbed? Yes, absolutely. But they are truly the exception and not the rule.

It is the multiplicity of contexts that also causes me to reject the winners and losers argument. Even though votes are yes or no, up or down, slates end up with elections, I don't think that a majority of the decisions made at General Convention leave people feeling that they end up on a winning or losing side. If there are deputies and bishops who only care about one issue and that's the only reason they show up at General Convention, then they are going to be either winners or losers, but the palette of slates and resolutions and issues considered at one General Convention, and the varied contexts that bring bishops and deputies together to discuss and to vote cannot ultimately reduce the members of GC into a simple dyadic collection of winners and losers.

Okay, I love the excuse to tell this story.

In 1996-97 I served on the Bishop Nominating Committee in the Diocese of Maine.

Early in the process we decided we needed to decide how we would decide the big decisions: ultimately who we would nominate for the slate of 3 to 5 folk to be our next bishop. A number of people on the committee (there were 19 of us) advocated for consensus. We talked for two hours about consensus. It was a long two hours. Finally someone said, "I guess we need to vote on whether we're going to make our big decisions by consensus."

We voted. 16-3 consensus. (I was one of the three.) Consensus being what it is meant we had to go around the table and say why we couldn't go with consensus. One guy - a management consultant guy said something cogent and compelling but I don't have any recollection what he said. I said something like,
"Duh. I don't rightly know."

Then. THEN, Steve Kozlovich, a retired paper mill worker from St. Andrew's, Millinocket, (God rest his dear soul) said something like this: "Listen. You give me the chance to advocate for what I think is right and I'll keep pushing for it till the end. You out vote me? I can live with that."

We sat with that for about two minutes and the Co-Chair, the Rev. David Holroyd, called for a vote on how we would make our big decisions. The vote went 18-1 for a 3/4 majority vote.

Is the Holy Spirit so small, she can't work though a democratic process? C'mon, people.

Months later we presented a unanimous slate of five to the Standing Committee, and ultimately Chilton Knudsen was elected the VIIIth Bishop of Maine.

And then she hired me. :)

Course that would be Heidi Shott


I'm confident that the Presiding Bishop (I've never met the Rev. Susan Snook, so I won't include her in this statement) never said, " . . . people of the church are too emotionally fragile to participate in legislative self-governance and must be saved from this ordeal by wiser heads . . ." If I'm wrong, forgive me. Rather, I believe that her concern and mine, is that we aren't always clear about what we are deciding at General Convention and what is the best way to make those decisions. Some issues need votes. Others need conversation and "consensus" or some other form or communal agreement about how to proceed. What's wrong with a system that allows conversation and give-and-take and growth toward mutual understanding which leads to decision-making that the entire community can affirm . . . without voting up or down on the issue? Granted, this is difficult with a large body such as GC which is divided into HOB and HOD. But what if we were to imagine a system that invited deep conversation and deep respect for individual contexts that allows for moving forward in the Spirit rather than decision-making by majority vote? I know we aren't in that place now but I'd like to see us open ourselves to imagine such a place and then work fervently toward making it a reality. Maybe, just maybe, we are so locked in to current structures and current processes that we can't always discern the Spirit's movement in our midst. Maybe.

Bishop Ousley, you can go ahead and include me in your statement. I think you express very well what I hope for: a place where we can exercise prayerful discernment of God's vision for us. There are some things that we need to vote on, like, say, Title IV or the Denominational Health Plan or the budget. Representative democracy is an excellent way to decide questions like these. There are others, which we could call "adaptive challenges" in Ron Haifetz' phrase, for which I think prayerful discernment of the Spirit's movement is more appropriate - such as the "restructuring" challenge, which is really code for finding new ways to address a new era. The intricacies of legislative process may not be the best way to allow the Spirit to move us into an uncertain future.

Susan Snook

I'll speak up for our church standing in the public square.

Yep, I mean those resolutions that are passed through National & International Concerns and Social and Urban legislative committees.

Tom asks who cares what TEC says. A voice crying in the wilderness, right? Perhaps even that is needed at times. But it's also not how our resolutions are used.

Take immigration reform, for which we have joined with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and groups of many other faiths to say that we are called to welcome the stranger amongst us. Immigration reform is daunting and difficult topic in this country, but even so our voices have been a countervailing force to demonization and scapegoating.

Look at transgender civil rights in Massachusetts -- a bill to counter discrimination in areas such as housing, employment, and education for a community that experiences enormous discrimination and violence. When this bill, which had previously failed, was re-introduced last year and carried by our own Deputy Byron Rushing, who is also MA state legislator, our General Convention 2009 resolution was held up in testimony. Those Episcopal clergy who testified were in favor of the bill were able to lean on our church as a whole for this one, against clergy from other churches who testified against the bill. The bill passed. Because of us only? Of course not. Did our church's voice help? Yes.

As for international resolutions. Quite often these are asked for by our companion churches in these countries. The Sudan resolutions (which draw support across the ideological spectrum, btw) flow directly from companion diocese relationships. The church in Cuba has supported our working to end the embargo. Because TEC is centered (though is not only in) the USA, a quite powerful nation, we are asked by our brothers and sisters to do what we can. How can we not?

Our work can be effective in hidden ways. Even a congressional letter that highlights a concern on human rights can make a difference in some circumstances. Our resolutions allow our Office of Government Relations (OGR) to endorse these kinds of actions and yes, our endorsements can help move specific officials to sign those letters.

I've seen comments on a few blogs asking if our OGR and the Episcopal Public Policy Network -- which engages thousands of Episcopalians in grassroots advocacy -- really need GC resolutions in order to act. The answer is yes, they do. They don't act on issues we haven't addressed.

Would it really better to have a small group deciding TEC advocacy policy, as I've seen suggested? The PB, perhaps, or a small appointed council? This way would be more nimble, certainly.

I'm all for figuring out more nimble, but not if we lose the broad and messy discussions we have at triennial convention. Despite all this talk about winners and losers, and I say this as one who's been on the "losing" side of many a resolution, we need to argue this stuff out. Nimble can be too easy. It's not such a bad thing that our process deliberative and careful, that our bicameral process and the ease of asking for vote by orders (aka super-majority) slow us down. Getting a controversial measure passed means talking with those who disagree to find some measure of common ground.

Tom's right that no one deputy or bishop can be an expert on every issue, but its also true that each resolution goes through public testimony and is argued in committee before arriving on the floor of both houses. By the time we reach a vote in both houses, there's already been a lot of expert testimony, vetting and discussion. All the more so for anything controversial.

Absolutely, let's look at the number and role of CCABs in generating legislation as part of a restructuring conversation. Let's also appreciate the work of our para-church organizations in raising and advocating for issues outside of official structures.

Still. It would be a terrible mistake to cut out these issues at convention itself. We are church in this world. We have a vocation to remember the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and to call for the Jubilee year.

Sarah Lawton

All very lovely - but who gets to decide what is voted on or just sent for interminable discussion?

The way GC votes it is not just up or down - there is discussion before people assemble - just check out discussion list or diocesan deputations. Then there are hearings where everyone gets their say or someone says it for them. When we vote we can go to a vote by orders if it is something controversial - which then needs a super majority to pass. Some changes have to be voted on for 2 sessions (Constitution changes)

I am sure there are things we could just talk about - we have speakers and panels and discussions for that. But voting is not a bad thing any more than any other method - but it is the fairest.

Tom, I don't know what to make of this bit: ) It's time to get over ourselves. The world cares little about what the Episcopal Church thinks on any given subject. Do we really think, for instance, that the Cuban embargo will be lifted because TEC passes a resolution against it? If not, then why bother?

I don't know about the world, but the people who work on political issues nationally and internationally care enough about what we have to say to urge us to say things. We don't have the ability to make things happen on our own, but very, very few organizations of any kind do. We work in coalitions. Our coalition partners are glad we are there. So are our partners in the Anglican Communion who are glad to have friends who can show them around official Washington.

I think one can argue that we take positions on too many issues, that we need to target our activities better. I'd like the church to have a conversation about what issues are worth speaking out on. But I really value the resolutions that allow us to work on issues in which the church feels a deep investment.

I'm not sure we are getting too delicate for self-rule, but the current process and its inability to come to closure on issues is painful.

Apropos Susan's point, we also saeem to have trouble working towards consensus. Just like American society as a whole, where we increasingly see people feeling that it must be my way or the highway, we have trouble with pluralism. Differences are good, and we can rejoice in the diversity of life and faith in this country. Or, I hope we still can.

Eric Bonetti

It's not the "winners and losers" thing that lies at the source of my own personal frustrations with General Convention. The frustration stems from the creeping realization that absolutely everything *might* be subject to a vote. There's no version of the Supreme Court that balances out the activity of the legislative bodies. And nearly no documents that describe official positions or theologies against which resolutions can be measured.

Bishop Ousley, Susan, thanks for responding.

As a member of the laity, that order of ministry that has the least representation proportionately at General Convention and Diocesan Convention, I think I am naturally skeptical of systems to decision making that are likely to even further dilute my ability and the ability of people like me to shape the policies of the church.

I can be pretty certain that it won't be a body dominated by lay people that decides what issues need to be decided quickly (say, for instance, whether lay employees should receive the same benefits as clergy), who will convene the conversation, who will choose the participants and who will determine whether these conversations receive funding from the church budget. We likely won't be the ones who determine when consensus has been reached either.

I'd like to believe that the Presiding Bishop is interested in long conversations aimed at consensus. But at the moment she and Bishop Sauls are attempting to persuade us that we need an emergency convention. Dozens of diocesan conventions have passed this resolution, seemingly without realizing that we couldn't actually vote on constitutional issues at such convention, and so, for the purposes of restructuring, it would be an expensive and mostly pointless exercise. Nothing about this suggests a long and respectful give and take with people who hold differing views.

If we are going to have the kind of conversations you both seem to envision, and which certainly sounds appealing, the power dynamics in our church would have to change significantly. I don't expect that to happen.

While this discussion has been unfolding, The Guardian has posted Giles Fraser's column about the Church of England's statement on Equal Civil Marriage:

He says, in part:

"The other shameful aspect about this statement is that it purports to represent the views of the whole Church of England. "How can a church that is so divided on this issue produce so one-sided a statement?" asks a contributor to the Thinking Anglicans web site. Quite. This statement has not gone before General Synod for any sort of discussion. It has not been discussed at diocesan level. It has been put together by small team in Church House, Westminster, who purport to speak in the name of many thousands of people who will think the whole thing is complete tosh. Those receiving this contribution in government need to appreciate that it has all the democratic authority of a President Putin election victory."

I think I'd like to stick with voting, please.

Having less to vote on at GC is a wonderful idea. Taking stands on issues is good, but church organizations, dioceses, churches and individuals actually doing something about issues is by far better. I'm for XYZ; so what? What am I going to do about it? With such a large body, I don't know how consensus could even work. I think the closest GC could get to the idea of consensus is to have a super majority requirement on all votes, and then allowing for more discussion and one last vote. Whether decisions are made via consensus or by a simple majority vote, all members of the church should be allowed to have their voices heard and represented at GC. That would require dioceses to implement a structure that would allow for communication from church members to their delegates. The fact that such a structure/system does not exist is a terrible oversight in my opinion. I guess when it gets down to it, that is far more important than how decisions are made at GC.

GC processes stuff so slowly, that when you add the basic voting imbalance toward "No" I am content with saying anything that gets a yes vote is quite equitably the mind of the church. Most of the BIG votes in the HoD last time were 70-30 votes.
It takes far fewer votes to stymie "yes" voters than it does to stymie "no" voters. It is not just, but it does ensure that we really mean what we say.
Is what we say important? It is to those who care deeply enough to bare their hearts and souls in hearings. To be heard in the councils of the church is a powerful medication. Go listen to those who present at the PB&F funding hearing if you want to see why Yes matters.
And it matters to people who walk through our doors and hear how we too engage the public square with our reasoned compassion.

Jim, you have a very good point about the proportional underrepresentation of the lay order at Convention. This is another good reason to be skeptical of legislative process, especially on issues where clergy and lay interests may be at odds with each other, such as the Denominational Health Plan. I certainly do not belong to the camp that thinks that a special convention on restructuring is a good idea. I think it would be a colossal waste of money that would inspire all interests to exercise their instinct for self-preservation, and would accomplish nothing. Instead, I am looking for a grassroots, churchwide process of prayer and discernment in which anyone could participate, which looks for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There would need to be a commission (which I hope would be composed mostly of "outsiders" to the current system) that designs, organizes, and guides such a process, but it would be designed to be open to new things the Spirit might be leading us toward. This seems to me to be a better way forward than continuing with the present system, which is perfectly designed to get us exactly the results we are getting.

Susan, I am in favor of having the Standing Commission on Structure do the work you describe. I don't want to give the PB and Bishop Sauls, who have such little regard for the House of Deputies, and seem to eager to diminish its influence, the opportunity to appoint half of the committee. I seem to be in a minority it thinking that it is best to have people who actually know how the current system works and have some legislative experience involved in figuring out what is wrong with that system and drafting the legislation to change it.

In terms of the results we are getting from that system, in 2009 the House of Deputies patiently and persistently passed the legislation required to roll back the great mistake that was B033. I was delighted with that result. I will be delighted this year if we vote to authorize the blessing of unions, and to include protections for transgender people in our ordination canons. Much of the legislation that General Convention has passed in recent years has put our church on the side of the angels. Most of that would not have passed had the House of Deputies not taken the lead. I am not eager to carelessly take apart such an important part of our governing structure, especially because we seem to be doing so in order to deal with problems--shrinking attendance, crumby evangelism--on which the actions of Convention have only an indirect bearing.

Finally, I find that people who want to change the church make a great deal of speaking of prayer and discernment as though this is not prevalent in our current system. This is not the case.

To think that General Convention is forced to vote yes or no on resolutions and not make room for long conversations or consensus is to forget that Convention can also make room for more time and more conversation by referring a resolution to a CCAB for the next triennium where further conversation and movement toward a consensus resolution can be made. With the push to shorten the days of Convention, focusing on a major issue for some time to work through the mind of the Church needs a more conducive environment than Convention. When a process of conversation and inclusion over time brings parties toward an agreeable conclusion, then a vote at Convention becomes a forgone conclusion. Maybe General Convention needs to take advantage of the option to refer an issue to an existing or specially created CCAB and spell out a process. Come to think of it, I think that is what happened with same sex blessings at the last convention. So General Convention has options besides yes and no, and if there is division, perhaps the Spirit is inviting the Church to choose a different process than an up or down vote.

The Rev. David Michaud

A few comments. 1) The Budgetary Funding Task Force (which has volunteered to “sunset” itself as a CCAB) addressed many of these things in its Blue Book report at page 717. One idea was that there might be a way for Convention to meet legislatively on a certain schedule, and to meet as a kind of “mission fair” (i.e., consultatively, non-legislatively), at other times. The underlying thought was that voting is essential for some things, but not for everything. The participation of all orders, however, is essential. 2) There was also discussion of streamlining actual legislation so that it can be worked on more intensively before Convention. 3) The specific proposal, which was a resolution from 2009 but never acted on, is that budgeting and mission be part of a strategic 9 year plan that corresponds to the term of the Presiding Bishop, which means that planning would need to start now in order to be prepared for an election and term beginning 3 years hence. This would be consistent with the canonical requirement that the PB “speak for the Church as to the policies, strategies and programs authorized by the General Convention.” Canon I.2.4 4) My distinct impression from our Province IV synod meeting last week was that the proponents of the popular resolution calling for a special convention were no longer saying that it necessarily should happen, but that it “might be able” to happen. This seemed to be a shift both in tone and approach, but not in urgency to address many issues. Perhaps all food for thought for our very busy legislative Committee on Structure??

David Quittmeyer

Is it really a question of emotional fragility, or the best way for God's people to make decisions? The Quakers have proven that decision-making by consensus can work. Their model is based on respect for the working of the Spirit in each individual, and emphasizes moving toward unity as the goal.

Regarding the story that includes the quote ""Listen. You give me the chance to advocate for what I think is right and I'll keep pushing for it till the end. You out vote me? I can live with that," those who regularly make decisions by consensus are trained to know when the Spirit is calling them to stand firm and when to stand aside and let a decision go forward recognizing that it is what the group has discerned is correct and their reasons for blocking it are not strong enough. And they do this. So to say, "I'll keep pushing for it till the end," only demonstrates that a person has not been educated in the working of consensus decision-making.

Our polity and theology are different, so I'm not saying we should adopt the Quaker model. I am saying that the claim, "this is nuts, that if people can't stand to be on the losing side of a vote, they shouldn't stand for election to a legislative body, and that there hasn't, to my knowledge, been a better means of governing large organizations than representative democracy" is narrow and suggests ignorance of other ways of doing business.

[Editor's note: thanks for the comment. Please leave your name next time.]

11 o-clock scholar, I am not, as you suggest, ignorant of other ways of doing business. I just think representative democracy is demonstrably superior to these ways. I decided not to make this a post about why I think consensus decision making in a churchwide assembly would be an extremely bad idea and focus instead on what I see as a campaign to lessen the authority of lay people in the church. I made this decision because I think there is some chance that the authority of the laity will be diminished in our restructuring events, and no chance whatsoever that we will abandon James Madison for George Fox. It doesn't mean that I've never been to a Quaker meeting.

Jim, points taken. I am under no illusion that any Anglicans will turn around and follow George Fox 350 years later. I simply disagree that representative democracy is demonstrably superior when it comes to decision-making in a religious context, and I offer the Quaker experience to support that, but I can agree to disagree. And sorry, I always seem to forget that my Twitter name is not my real identity.

Cathy Kerr

Fair enough, Cathy. Thank you.

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