Resolution for unicameral General Convention combines clergy, lay orders

We don’t have text we can post yet, but several of us here at the Café have read a resolution that has been submitted to General Convention calling for the establishment of a unicameral governing system. The new house would consist of diocesan bishops, bishops co-adjutor and suffragan bishops; two clergy deputies and two lay deputies from each diocese. The presiding officer would be a bishop chosen by the bishops eligible to vote at the convention and approved by the deputies.


Under the new system, clergy and lay deputies would not be counted as separate orders, but as a single order of “deputies.” Hence, while a majority of bishops could still effectively kill any piece of legislation, on a vote by orders, majorities of clergy or lay people could not.

The explanation of the legislation, which is sponsored by Bishop Lawrence Provenzano of Long Island and several other bishops reads:

For a very long time, our bicameral system was seen as the church in council. It was understood as a fair representation of the church and it created an atmosphere of shared ecclesial decision-making that honored the voices and opinions of all the baptized. As a structure for a uniquely American denomination it provided representative governance that worked well for a church ministering in a culture where conditions were similar from one triennium to the next. To all involved in the mission and ministry of the church today, it is clear that this system is failing us, failing the mission of the church. The reasons why are many. It is too expensive. There are too many people involved and invested in the power that comes from a deep and cumbersome organization that has become increasingly bureaucratic. Even among much larger denominations that gather in convention-style deliberation, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church is the largest gathering by far and the most costly. General Convention can no longer claim to be the church in council in its ancient and ecclesial form when it looks and acts more like the national conventions of political parties. And for all of this expense and time we accomplish very little in the way of sustainable mission strategies and program. We minister in a very different environment from that of our founders, in which the pace of change calls for a nimble church able to easily adapt. Bureaucracies are anything but nimble which is why they are only effective in fairly stable conditions. It is time to set ours aside. The bicameral system needs to be replaced with a unicameral General Convention that meets in sacred council to consider the mission of the church, its programs and budget. It is time to gather in one place with laity, clergy and bishops meeting together, praying together, talking and listening together and working together for the mission of the church. The unicameral convention could meet with debate and prayerful conversation being exchanged in a common space in which the concept of sacred council could prevail. We may discern that certain decisions require the majority of both deputies and bishops to provide balance and shared authority, but the votes would come following the open, fair and prayerful discernment of a body that met together as one in council. The core of the business of the convention, however, should be decisions about our mission. A simple majority in a single house enables an agile response to our principle concern.

Bishop Provenzano has previously written an article, "William White is dead", in which he made the case for a unicameral house. @BpWhiteLives was not amused

Comments (20)

I believe the time has come for a unicameral General Convention.

I've not come down on one side or the other. But I wondered -- why not just the diocesans, otherwise this is bishop heavy. But a positive is that including the suffragans adds diversity. Not sure about the coadjutors!

I dunno. At a minimum I'd need lay people and clergy considered as separate orders. Also, I am a little bit skeptical of moving toward a polity closer to that of the Church of England's. Look where we are on women's issues and LGBT issues. Look where they are. These issues matter to me, and I am wary of moving toward a polity that could conceivably make them for difficult to advance.

I generally like the idea of a unicameral house at convention. BUT, I also think that priests and laypeople should be counted as separate orders....And I really think that we should add in deacons as their own order also. So, perhaps 2 priests, 2 laypeople, and 1 deacon per diocese. (I would say 2 deacons also, but some dioceses just don't have very many of them, so I'm not sure if that would be practical...) Right now deacons are wildly underrepresented in our polity, for all that we like to talk a lot about the distinct ministries of different orders. Judging by the deacons I know, I think they would also help keep us honest and keep the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed in view as we deliberate about things....

I'm also inclined to think that all decisions should still have to pass among both bishops and deputies, not just in votes by order. But simply as far as sitting together and deliberating together on issues goes, I think that makes a lot of sense, and would be both more efficient as well as hopefully breaking down some of the barriers and distrust that we now see....

Elizabeth Anderson

We just have to remember that reducing the number of Deputies will reduce diversity of all types. In proposing no votes by orders the unicameral body would be clergy dominated.
I vote no on this.

Or maybe we should come up with an alternative proposal? I do know that having a unicameral convention is something that a lot of lay and clergy deputies have suggested, and while many of us probably don't like certain aspects of this particular proposal, maybe we would come up with our own?

Elizabeth Anderson

Mike Russell makes a good point. Another issue I have with the proposed makeup is this: In every diocese there are far more unordained people than ordained, yet the proposal gives clerics (including bishops) far more voice. Perhaps the number of lay deputies could be proportional to the size of the diocese.

Or we could set up our own version of the Vatican populated with clerics, which could tell us all what to do (just kidding).

Not only is William White dead, but so is Samuel Seabury and the old "Father knows best" school of thought.

Deacon Charlie - please sign your name next time. Thanks ~ed.

In my recent blog post on creating strategic process and not strategic plans I offered a two tier suggestion for restructuring:

"At General Convention I submit that Strategic Planners will be sitting in the HoD and HoB, but the strategic process folks will be on the Exhibition Floor.* If we want to restructure perhaps we ought to have a dual track General Convention structure. On one track will be the governance wonks who will make sure that our Canons and other governance structures are coherent and consistent. That track will have elected deputies and bishops perhaps even meeting unicamerally. The parallel General Convention will be one that gathers anyone who wants to come to be inspired by what others are actually doing to "represent" Christ our world. It will be a place where cross pollination happens, spirits are stimulated, where successes are shared and failures mulled over and doable low-funding needed plans exchanged."

I believe a who lot more energy, program and funding would result from this sort of reorganization over one that simply truncates the number of deputies.

My initial reaction to the idea that fewer deputies will reduce diversity is to figure that if a diocese can't elect two clergy and two laity that reflect the diversity within the diocese, I'd say that is a problem with the diocese! If you need eight slots to make sure that underrepresented groups are now represented, that would seem to make them more like tokens then spokespeople. And aren't deputies specifically NOT representatives of their dioceses?

I've written before about the virtues and possible problems with a unicameral synod, which in general I approve of.

I'll wait to see the actual legislation, but I think it will be important to preserve separate voting, on all but basic procedural motions, as requiring the assent of all "houses" of bishops, clergy (including deacons) and laity. This can be done electronically and preserves the ability of any of the houses to "stop" any given action. I think parity of the houses in this is important.

I do not agree with the assertion that a smaller house of clergy and laity will necessarily reduce diversity. I think the church is diverse enough as a whole to ensure that all views will be supported in a smaller assembly. No one expects a deputation to reflect the full diversity of any one diocese -- what is important is the diversity of the whole assembly.

That being said, I prefer deputations to consist of 3 and 3 rather than 2 and 2. Not for diversity, but to avoid split votes on a vote by orders and diocese (which I think will need to be preserved in the new structure for certain constitutional matters, along with the regular voting by orders on everything of importance.

As a layperson of color from a diocese that is predominantly White, this proposal makes me shudder.

I like the "idea" of a unicameral Convention, but I'm already feeling beleaguered as a layperson in my experience of participation in the church.

I totally recognize the need, the urgent need, to address structure issues in The Episcopal Church, in General Convention, and in all GC's committees, commissions, agencies, and boards.

If we reduce opportunities for laypersons to serve as deputies and alternates by reducing the number of deputies, then I think we have to introduce term limits, too... Except then we run into the issue of bishops serving for life and deputies being term limited... So, maybe only diocesans serve in a Unicameral Convention, and other bishops have the opportunity to sit on the sidelines like the laity and the clergy not elected....

We need a whole lot of conversation around these issues with a wide swath of the church that goes beyond the voting members of both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops at GC77.

Lelanda Lee
Lay 3, Colorado
Member, Executive Council

Coming from a starting point that affirms that NOBODY doesn't think we need to rethink a whole number of historic "givens" in how our church structure works, my questions for the proposers of this resolution start with help me understand how the benefits of these proposed changes outweigh the downside of diminishing the capacity to send broadly diverse representative voices to participate in mobilizing the church for mission by reducing the numbers of lay and clergy deputies?

At first read, this appears to me to be an incredibly ill-advised attempt at restructure that throws the benefits of our historic polity out with the bath water of anxiety driven problem solving.

I would strongly oppose it as written.

Susan Russell
Diocese of Los Angeles

No. It simply gives greater power to bishops, takes power away from all others, and pretends to be progress.

It is a Trojan horse, and we need to set fire to it outside the gates.

- Mark Brunson

I do not understand the basis for two primary assertions here: first, that a reduction in numbers necessitates a reduction in diversity, and second that this gives more power to bishops. As it stands now the HoB can veto any act approved by the HoD. And vice versa. Sitting in the same room does not change that in the slightest. Although I do not favor Bp P's proposal to retain a single vote by "deputies" -- that is what we have now! My proposal is for a more conservative independent vote in all three "orders."

When the subject came up on the HoBD list, Bonnie Anderson had the matter of diversity looked into. The fact that emerged is that with a reduction to 3 and 3 deputies there was no inordinate loss in diversity, at least in the areas on which the church keeps official lists. I don't know if that would be true of 2 / 2 but again see no reason to think it would reduce the over all diversity of the assembly. I look at my own deputation and see among the first four clergy and laity three persons of color, two women, and one GLBT person. It is true that three of them are from the Bronx, so I cannot affirm geographical diversity.

No one loses any "power" in this proposal. What we might gain is greater understanding of how all orders of ministry function together -- and I think this would be especially good for the bishops to learn.

Tobias, I hear what you are saying. Still, sitting in such an assembly as a lay deputy, I would look at my deputation and see: my bishop, 2 clergy over whose careers my bishop may have great authority; me and somebody else.

I think having us gathered in this way would increase the influence of the bishops over the gathering. That may be what is intended here (not by you) or it may not, but it seems to me the likely outcome. I could be wrong. But the deputies have carried the ball on any number of issues that are central to the church, and I am reluctant to see their influence diminished.

I think the best that can be said for the unicameral notion is that it envisions a single house with a culture different than the culture of the current House of Bishops (in which some feel relations among the bishops are given a priority over any other concern) and the current House of Deputies (which is a legislative body in which those who have legislative expertise have an advantage over those who do not.) But I don't have a firm enough sense of what that culture would look like or how we would create it to get excited about this yet.

I don't think that a unicameral body necessarily limits the power of deputies, but it seems to me that this particular proposal risks doing so, since it envisions voting together on most issues with a simple majority of the whole being enough to pass a resolution. I think that sitting together in the same house and discussing issues together would ultimately be a positive thing, but I do think voting should remain separate and that each issue should still need to be passed by both bishops and deputies...(In a vote by orders, of course, passing in each order.)

Jim, I've heard the "chilling effect" concern raised in the past, and I do think it the only demonstrable "beef" -- and my response is two-fold:

First, I've not witnessed this exercise of episcopal power, or at least when I have witnessed the power plays there have always been a few laity or clergy who stand up to oppose it.

Second, I think this is something that will have to be grown into, and I think the more the bishops are exposed to the thinking of their clergy and laity -- which hardly happens at all in any other context! -- the more we will move towards a more mature synodical basis.

And let me note that I do find the same real problem with Bp P's proposal that Elixabeth Anderson raises. The vote in each "order" of bishops, clergy, and laity, is the surest safeguard against power-plays, particularly when the voting is electronic and thus virtually anonymous.

Let me also observe that we've been modelling this a bit in minature in the legislative committees for some time now, and I have not noticed any particular "power" moves on any of the legislative committees on wich I've served. The bisohps tend to be grateful for the insights of the lay and clergy members.

That part about the legislative committees is helpful Tobias. As for power plays, what I worry about primarily is the sort of thing that happened after the September House of Bishops meeting. Bishop Sauls floated his restructuring proposal and gave the bishops a finished resolution to take home to their dioceses. 40+ dioceses passed it, and I'd wager that almost none of them studied it in any detail. In fact, I know that in at least one dioceses it was on the consent calendar, in that in at least one other the resolution was shown to the convention for the first time on the day convention met.

At some point, the church realized that the special convention that Bishop Sauls envisioned was prohibited by constitution from voting on constitutional changes, thereby rendering it more or less useless--but still extremely expensive. Now we can hope that the legislative committee on structure saves us from ourselves by leaving the special convention out of whatever legislation goes to the floor, but when you see something like this happen, it does give you pause. Or it gives me pause, anyway.

I think this legislation is well-intentioned, responds to a pressing concern, but was fast-tracked through the church and into its current position of prominence before due diligence was done. I don't believe that would have happened had the ends of this resolution been pursued in a different way but when you think you have your hands on the proper levers, it is tempting to pull quickly.

I don't want a polity in which one order has the opportunity to pull too quickly at the expense of the others. I know you don't either. But maybe I see this as more of a threat than you do.

Thanks, Jim. And my point is that the Sauls' effort happened in part because of the separation of the House of Bishops from the body of the church. I think since the 90s we have seen that separation grow, in a serious undermining of the polity of our church. A unicameral synod would in its own way help recover both our intended polity of balance, but have the practical effects of efficiency and economy. I see a unicameral synod as a preventative to the further development of the concerns you express.

I have been thinking about this since the 28th and have several concerns: Voting on major issues should be by orders (all three); the numerical presence of those with Voice & Vote should represent the church as a whole.

I've posted more details on my blog:

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