Last week, Bonnie Anderson, President of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies wrote a column for Episcopal News Service that was also released by the Church's Office of Public Affairs. Her essay developed ideas she had expressed in her closing remarks to the Church's Executive Council in mid-February. These feel like important contributions made at an important moment, and if the pace of news permits, I'd like to slow things down a bit today on The Lead and give them their due consideration.
Anderson clearly believes that the governance of the Episcopal Church is ripe for reform. But she's also clearly concerned that in our desire to make our governance more nimble and efficient, we will make it less representative, less diverse, and that we will diminish the influence of clergy and laity.
We all want to move into the future with structures that allow us to respond to the world around us, to work more efficiently and to devote our resources to mission and ministry at home and abroad. As we begin to consider this needed reform, which Executive Council has asked the Standing Commission on the Structure of the Church to coordinate, I want us to do our work with respect for the water that is central to our identity: the water of our baptism.
Our governance is grounded in our theology of baptism, which is essential to our identity as Episcopalians. I am privileged to serve with many people whose work within our current governance structures is a faithful response to the Holy Spirit and to their baptismal promises. While our governance needs to be reformed, it is not broken, and it brings forth holy work from holy people. We must approach reform with respect for their ministry among us.
Our church's representative structure, where all of the baptized work together to make decisions and set policy, is also a great attraction for people seeking a community of faith where their voices can be heard and those in flight from more authoritarian denominations. In our haste to reform, let us not sacrifice evangelism.
Our governance also enables our mission as the people of God. As I go around the church I see living testimony of this fact in extraordinary people who embrace their baptismal promises, gain strength and affirmation from General Convention resolutions and put those words into action in significant and selfless ways. Across the church, local governance structures like vestries, bishop's committees and diocesan conventions are amplifying General Convention resolutions by making collective contributions to mission work like rebuilding in Haiti, supporting the NetsforLife Inspiration Fund to carry out General Convention's commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, among other efforts. I am eager to discern ways of reforming our governance that can make ministry like this more possible and even more productive.
Anderson warns against making a false choice between governance and mission, arguing that the former often enables the latter, and suggests that those who want to save the church money by decreasing spending less on General Convention will find that General Convention accounts for a smaller part of the church's budget than they might suppose.
I believe that there are two governance reform related conversations going on in the church at the same time, and that a fixation on one distracts us from the other. During this triennium, numerous Standing Commissions, some of whose mandate has nothing at all to do with church governance, decided that they needed to reform or reshape General Convention. Look, it's really about mission. Look, it's really about evangelism. Look, it's really a great big origami sand crane made out of recycled paper. Please. It is a legislature. It exists to govern. It might govern more wisely, or more quickly, or more cheaply, but the people of our dioceses elect representatives to this convention in order to govern the church, not to do service projects or attend outstanding adult education programs--as worthy as these events may be. If we can't accept that basic fact, we can't have a mature conversation about General Convention.
On the other hand, if we respond to every suggestion to reform General Convention as though it were part of a power grab, we also forestall intelligent conversation. I hope that in commenting on this piece, readers might offer what they think are useful reforms. I feel somewhat stymied in this regard because so many of the changes that have been suggested are mutually contradictory. People want the convention to make more time to engage in substantive debate. And they want it to be over faster. They want the House of Deputies to be more demographically diverse, but they want to reduce its size--thereby making it more difficult for newcomers to get elected. They want term limits on deputies, so the number of experienced legislative hands in the House of Deputies will plunge. But they want more legislative committees to be more efficiently run.
About the only concrete suggestion I've got at the moment is that the Standing Commissions that feed legislation into General Convention need to function a little more like legislative committees, and a little less like study groups or advisory bodies. Convention would be more efficient if the handoff from legislative committee to Standing Commission and then back to legislative committee were more seamless. I am also in favor of a somewhat bloody-minded review of the Standing Commissions to determine which ones serve a vital function, and which ones can be dispensed with.
General Convention is just one element in church governance. It is the easiest target. Hence it gets shot at the most. But if the Church is going to have a serious conversation about governance, and not simply focus its attention on the one body in which clergy and laity are represented, it needs to examine a wide range of issues including:
The function of the "home office" now at 815 Second Avenue in New York City. Does it do too much? Too little? Is it accountable to the Presiding Bishop? To the General Convention? Both? How?
The provincial structure. Too few? Too many? Is geography the best organizing principle?
The number of dioceses. Do we have too many? Who decides when a diocese is too small?
The House of Bishops. If General Convention meets less often, will it continue to meet twice a year? If so, will power flow to the body that meets most often?
These are just for starters. If we are going to embrace the principles of subsidiarity, we can't just whittle away at the budget--and perhaps the authority--of General Convention and pretend that we have accomplished something.