Churches are political institutions, and that's a good thing

In a speech to the Episcopal Communicators' annual convention last week in Salem, Mass. The Hon. Byron Rushing, who has been reelected to the Massachusetts State Legislature two or three dozen times, and to the Diocese of Massachusetts Deputation to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church at least as often said that churches, like towns and cities, states and nations, are inescapably political organizations, and that churches get into trouble when they pretend otherwise.

Coming near the end of a week in which the church that goes farthest in removing power from the hands of adherents and concentrating in the hands of a theological elite was once again reeling from the self-inflicted wounds of the child rape scandal and its ensuing cover-ups, it was hard to disagree with him.

I mention this because, if you are an Episcopalian with an interest in church politics you have undoubtedly heard and read complaints about the nature of our General Convention. It is too big. It is unwieldy. Its deliberations are insufficiently theological. In hearings of the Program Budget and Finance Committee, one member expressed the fear that the House of Deputies, 880 members strong, might become "a mob." More than one member of the House of Bishops expressed the opinion that the House of Deputies was unnecessary, and that controversial matters might best be handled via pastoral letters from the bishops. The criticisms of General Convention often come from people who have never seen another legislative body in action, and have no idea how other representative bodies elected to do the people's business function. In their innocence, these critics assume that the processes of convention are uniquely messy, and its outcomes distinctively imperfect. How such an impression would survive a regular appointment with a newspaper, let alone a visit to the local school board or one's state legislature, is hard to imagine, but there it is.

Political naivete, however, is not the problem. The problem, as Byron Rushing made clear, is assuming that churches are above politics: that their members are too fine to engage in self-governance and that therefore some less messy, contentious and sometimes divisive way of doing business must be found. But there is no contention-free means of weighing the deeply held convictions of one group against those of another, and certainly no conflict-free means of discerning the movements of the Holy Spirit. Any student of history knows that all efforts to spare people messiness lead quickly and directly to their disempowerment, and all attempts to transcend the messiness of representative democracy lead straight to governance by a council of elites. These lessons, however, refuse to stay learned. Which is why Byron Rushing's reminder was so timely.

Update: Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona reports that the "failures of the General Convention process" provoked some discussion last night at the bishops' retreat at Camp Allen.

Comments (6)

Byron has taught me a lot over the years- we should all be blessed by such as he.

Add to the list of complaints in the opening of the second paragraph: the same people tend to get reelected. True or false? If true, why? Good or bad?

And what about Indaba? Waste of time?

These are questions I have, although I agree with the message in this post.

All I can say about re-elections is that they aren't unique to TEC, as the whole term-limits movement made clear. The indaba question opens up another interesting area. I think groups like the house of bishops need to have time to build relationships, speak frankly to one another etc. I think some of that work proceeds best out of public view when people can speak freely and no one is playing to the grandstand. That said, this kind of organization building work is in real tension with an open process. (CCABs can face the same issue if the public or media takes an interest in their work.) A balance has to be struck, and striking it takes real skill. I have a pretty strong sense that bishops think the HoB is functioning better now than it has in the recent past, so perhaps progress is being made.

More than one member of the House of Bishops expressed the opinion that the House of Deputies was unnecessary, and that controversial matters might best be handled via pastoral letters from the bishops.

Ha! The top leaders in Rome and Canterbury at the present time demonstrate that a body which represents laity and priests, the hoi-polloi, in other words, is vital to the governance of the Episcopal Church. Three cheers for messy processes!

June Butler

"The criticisms of General Convention often come from people who have never seen another legislative body in action, . . ."

After watching the fracas in the House yesterday over the Healthcare bill, I have a point of comparison. As is often said, the making of sausage comes to mind!

Alan Simpson - former Wyoming senator - says he learned all his political skill as a Deputy to GC.

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