Restricting General Convention’s ability to consider social justice resolutions is unwise

The recent paper from the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church is troubling in some ways and encouraging in others. As it is a long paper, I will probably return to it a few more times. As the part that troubles me comes at the beginning of the paper in the discussion of General Convention, I will start there.


The authors of the paper are pursuing some worthy goals such as streamlining the legislative process, diminishing the unwieldy number of resolutions that convention is sometimes asked to consider and making the triennial gathering more efficient and cost effective. But one of its principal proposals for achieving its goals is to limit by subject matter the types of resolutions that the convention can consider. Resolutions on social justice issues are singled out as a particular problem, and, if the Task Force has its way, these will be “screened” (they don’t say by whom) to determine whether they are worthy of the convention’s time.

If you are someone who regards advancing the church’s social justice agenda as something of a vocation (as I do) then what TREC is telling you is that you are involved in a ministry that is requiring more attention that it deserves, and is so potentially destructive to our common life that it must be singled out for special monitoring.

Several advocates of this proposal have told me that the social justice work of the church will continue but that either it will arise from the grassroots, or that the issues on which we will focus our energy will be designated by the Presiding Bishop in consultation with the Executive Council. There are at least four problems with this response.

1. Legislation brought to General Convention often does come from the grassroots, and activists at the grassroots know what supporters of this proposal do not: that it is enormously helpful to have the support of national organizations with moral credibility behind you when you speak in public, write op-eds or letters to the editor, list your supporters on your website, or call on members of Congress or your state legislature.

2. Currently, the Office of Government Relations requires General Convention resolutions to authorize its participation in any advocacy effort. Outfits like OGR are essential to grassroots advocates because, as any grassroots advocate will tell you, when building the kind of coalitions required to sustain effective movements to change the status quo, it is almost impossible to make significant progress without the help of trained and experienced legislative advocates.

3. One cannot intelligently argue for both of these ways of doing business. Either our advocacy comes from the grassroots or a single individual sets it in motion. It can’t be both.

4. I f, as a church, we are going to disenfranchise the General Convention and enfranchise the Office of the Presiding Bishop (in consultation with a body of which he or she is president) then we are shifting authority in this area of our common life away from the elected representatives of the people of the church for three-year terms to an individual who is more or less unaccountable to the church once elected to a nine-year term by one house of the convention. The breadth and effectiveness of our advocacy would depend heavily on the appetite, abilities and political leanings of a single individual. I can’t be the only person who thinks that would be a terrible idea.

There are numerous other ways to reduce the number of resolutions that come before the convention—some of which the task force explores elsewhere in the paper. That it nonetheless recommended screening one—and only one—category of resolution, prompts a question: Is the task force only trying to streamline the legislative process, or is it using the need to streamline the process as cover for an attempt to diminish the advocacy efforts of the church? If it is the former, it should explain why it singled out social justice legislation for special scrutiny. If it is the latter, it should be honest about its intentions and let the church debate that issue on the merits.

I should add that I think restricting General Convention legislation by subject matter—regardless of the subject matter—is a bad idea, and one that we would almost immediately regret and need to reverse if only because we cannot predict the subject matter that future conventions might have to deal with. But more on this and the rest of the TREC governance paper another day.

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28 Comments
  1. John D. Andrews

    I agree that restricting legislation by subject matter is wrong. Not only would legislation be restricted, the leading of the Holy Spirit would be restricted, as the Holy Spirit is not only available to the Presiding Bishop and the Executive Committee, but is also available to those who sit in the pews. This may not be the goal, but it seems to be a move toward greater clericalism, which is not the direction TEC should be going. If this is the direction TEC is moving, you can be sure those sitting in the pews will become even more sparse than it is now.

  2. Chris H.

    If GC is to streamline then I think a line must be drawn between resolutions and/or votes necessary for the church to function(canons, bishop elections, etc.) and ones that are not absolutely necessary–and be willing to set aside those things not necessary. Also, how much diversity does TEC really want? Social justice and other issues can be useful, but sometimes are just tools for advertising and can cause divisions in the church.

    Coming from flyover (and red state land), several people have left the church when GC passed this or that resolution that goes against their lifestyle/beliefs; hunters, soldiers, police officers, teachers, and crisis pregnancy workers have all quit the local parish when various resolutions came out. I’ve heard people say resolutions are not rules to force people out, but since they do come from TEC’s governing body, to the commoners they sound like laws and announce what an acceptable Episcopalian believes. Is TEC going to be a church where people of different beliefs can come together, or is it a case of “The Episcopal Church welcomes you”*?

    *if you’re a liberal activist, others need not apply.

    Chris Harwood

  3. Elizabeth Kaeton

    To be honest, I’m not certain what to think of the two reports thus far from TREC, especially since they seem to contradict each other.

    The first one had an entire section on “Sin” that I honestly didn’t – couldn’t – make the connection to the relevance of the rest of the subject matter in that first report. It also made a very clear point that there was a “growing distrust of the center” in both secular and church cultures. This latest report seems – intentionally or unintentionally and quite ironically – to reduce participation of the laity and clergy as well as the HOD in General Convention and move the power to the center.

    I wonder: are the members of the various subcommittees talking to one another? Or, has TREC constituted itself in the same way TEC structure has: individual silos that do not communicate or work well with each other or their base?

    I’m not certain what this means in terms of this being a reflection of a valid shift in our church’s theology / ecclesiology or if this is simply reflective of the present members of TREC. As I initially looked over the constituency of TREC, I had a momentary concern that there might be a reaction from the Gen-Xers to the Boomers (There always seems to be.). With this suggestion to eliminate resolutions on social justice, I find that my concerns are rekindled.

    I’m also not certain what this portends in terms of the kinds of proposed resolutions we might expect to come from TREC, or if they are simply just as conflicted about a way forward as the rest of the church seems to be.

    Whatever changes we make – and I agree that we need to change the way we think of ourselves and function as a church – let’s proceed thoughtfully and carefully, not in reaction to what we haven’t liked about the past, and in a way that reflects our broadest understanding of who we say we are as a church – “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.

  4. tgflux

    “if you’re a liberal activist, others need not apply.”

    FWIW ChrisH, you say “liberal”, I say “Gospel”.

    JC Fisher

  5. Gary Paul Gilbert

    I agree with Jim Naughton that restricting General Convention resolutions by subject matter would be a bad precedent.

    Gary Paul Gilbert

  6. Chris H.

    JCF, your definition of “liberal” sometimes seems very narrow and if only “liberals” need apply, then were those police officers who left because of the a couple of resolutions correct that TEC rejects them and doesn’t think they can be Christians? Since the Middle Eastern Christians being killed are not pro-gay, are they really not Christians? The list could go on, but I take it the asterisk is applicable to your definition of the slogan. Episcopalians like to say they aren’t a creedal church, but it sounds like there is a creed and it steers hard to the political left. Then by all means TEC should continue the dozens of political resolutions so that everyone knows what’s expected of them and others can find a different church.

    Chris Harwood

  7. Geoffrey McLarney

    Chris’s comment is one I’ve heard in various permutations and sundry contexts recently. Over at the Anglican Journal, there are inevitably one or two commenters who can be counted on every time there is a “social justice” story to come along complaining that the Church should get back to talking about the Bible (or at least a Reader’s Digest version without all those inconvenient “social justicey” bits!) and that the Journal is not representative, speaking “only” for “left-wing” Anglicans.

    This strikes me as a curious turn of phrase. Christians believe in a God who becomes incarnate in the most vulnerable of human circumstances, who throws “enlightened, competitive self-interest” out the window by judging us instead on how well we take care of the vulnerable, and whose followers we are told “held everything in common.” Nobody is forced to be a practicing Christian, but if you do make the choice, it stands to reason that doing so will put you on what, in the context of American civil society, is considered the “left” of the political spectrum.

    To be sure, the Gospel confounds our human wisdom and blows all our various “isms” out of the water – attempts to make Jesus the guru of this or that movement are always tone-deaf – but it is nevertheless fundamentally communitarian, and for better or worse communitarianism is in North American politics considered a virtue (or vice!) of “the left.” So in that limited sense “left-wing Christian” should be as redundant as “Trinitarian Christian,” and complaining of the exclusion of “non-left wing Christians” as much an oxymoron as alleged non-Triniarian christianities.

    These are not new woes. Conservative southern churchmen left TEC in the 1960s, alarmed that its involvement with the WCC and black groups was elevating racial equality to a matter of doctrine. Segregationists were offended at the implication that one could not be a segregationist and a good Christian – just stick to the Bible and Creeds, they told 815, and leave “political” matters to the individual conscience. But the conflict was real: you really cannot be a faithful Christian “qua” segregationist, and the church would not have made that contradiction go away by not talking about it. But there are still some – as we saw when the CoE debated clergy membership in the BNP, and I see every time someone takes to the Journal comments to slag off the Millenium Development Goals – there are still those who would have us cling to an unhealthy “two kingdoms” theology, in which it’s ok to check your conscience at the voting booth. Chris bemoans those who tie Christianity too narrowly to particular “Liberal” organisations. I am at least as troubled by those whose vision of Christianity is so broad that they see no problem with reading the Sermon on the Mount on Sunday and voting for the Libertarian Party on Monday.

    I can imagine that it must be troubling to be a cop without theological education in a parish far from 815 hearing language that seems to exclude you. But I would also have to wonder how seriously that cop desired inclusion in the Christian community, and how superficially they would have to have engaged with the Scripture and Tradition not to see a problem between its tenets and their lifestyle, with profiting from enforcing the state’s power of violence on the poor and oppressed while paying lip service to the need to lay aside force and turn to Christ in the new life. All things are lawful, St Paul acknowledges, and our freedom in Christ is real. But not all things are beneficial, and the police officer who is moved by the Christian message has to consider how their “right” to earn a living in a destructive way contributes to the building up of the body.

  8. James Yazell

    Orthodox Christianity is neither liberal nor conservative. It absolutely has political consequences, including issues of justice. But to try to fit the gospel into America’s two party political system is a mistaken enterprise.

  9. Jan Nunley+

    Well, good. This will keep us from splitting over slavery again. Oh, wait… /snark

  10. Rod Gillis

    I don’t know enough about the Governance of TEC to comment on details and implications,but this line, which seems central caught my eye,

    “advocates of this proposal have told me that the social justice work of the church will continue but that either it will arise from the grassroots, or that the issues on which we will focus our energy will be designated by the Presiding Bishop in consultation with the Executive Council.”

    Comparative experience with the Anglican Church of Canada and its General Synod (counter part to General Convention) may provide a cautionary tale in the following regards. Increasingly the GS has become a well “managed” gathering in which national office officials “hold court”. Increasingly the small order of Bishops ( less than fifty members) exercise influence on the GS not just during its deliberations but by comments issued from “meetings after the meeting” which in some cases have undermined GS decisions.

    This raises further questions for any system of governance i.e. who gets to set the agenda prior to a gathering, and even more importantly, who gets to advance or block the agenda going forward after the meeting as adjourned?

    The latter question is especially important for decisions expressed by way of resolution. High minded resolutions don’t have to face defeat on the floor. Vested interests can simply die the death of indifference or the death of dysfunction at the hands of a well entrenched bureaucracy.

  11. Rod Gillis

    Ooops! meant to conclude with, Resolutions can simply die the death of indifference or the death of dysfunction at the hands of a well entrenched bureaucracy.

  12. Geoffrey McLarney

    “But to try to fit the gospel into America’s two party political system is a mistaken enterprise.”

    You could take out everything in this sentence up to ‘into’ and it would still work! The “two-party system” (really a single-party system with two factions) makes voting an unenviable task for an American Christian. A pen friend in the US was just quoting their parish priest, an expat compatriot of mine, as saying “We have a saying in Canada: your Republican Party is like our Conservative Party, and your Democratic Party is like our Conservative Party!”

  13. Specific to “social justice issues:” I find myself wondering how to define functionally a “social justice issue” more specifically than a blank screen on which each of us can project our opinions about how God is or isn’t engaged in the world, and thus how we as individuals and as a body should or shouldn’t be engaged in the world. Even if we paraphrase a time-worn comment, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it,” trying to identify what is or isn’t a “social justice issue,” and so to include or exclude in the considerations of General Convention, seems unhelpful.

    Regarding allowing resolutions to die in committee: I think that would have merit, but should reflect a joint meeting of a legislative committee; for, after all, that is what they are. There are two committees, one for each House, that for business purposes meet together. From experience, I can envision occasional moments when a resolution that seems pointless in one House might seem meaningful in the other; in which case (barring canonical requirements) the House with interest ought to be House where it’s introduced. If majorities from both Houses in the joint committee agree it pointless, it makes sense the resolution die there. Alternately, I have considered a change to the Rules of Order in each house that when there is more than one resolution on a topic, and one is used as the template, once the matter is resolved all related resolutions be discharged in one vote. So, once resolution Bx1 on topic A has stood or fallen, the reporting COmmittee Chair would move that “Resolutions Bx5, Cx3, Cx7, and Dx42 be discharged.” Alternately, the Committee Chairs might add those to be discharged to a Consent Agenda, with the reason noted. I know that seems straightforward, but it doesn’t happen quite that way.

  14. Jim Naughton

    Marshall, I think you make a good point about requiring legislation to die in two committees, so to speak. This also gets at one of the reasons that I am skeptical about a unicameral legislature. I think there should be two doors to the floor, so to speak.

  15. tobias haller

    I have mixed feelings on this proposal, but I do think its heart may be in the right place.

    My firm belief is that the main work of General Convention is to manage the affairs of the Church itself, and in so doing, lead by example rather than by pronouncement on what is right or wrong with the world. To fail to live by the values we insist on others living by is risible and morally perilous.

    To give one example, General Convention 2009 adopted a well-thought out and strongly worded resolution on non-discrimination on the grounds of gender identity. But the same Convention defeated a resolution applying that same standard to its own ministry, although it did adopt a non-discrimination resolution in terms of lay employment. It wasn’t until 2012 that the non-discrimination language on gender issues became part of the ministry canon.

    So while I think we need to tread carefully in abridging the rights of an assembly to take up any matter it chooses to address, I would very much like to see some restraint and self-application of the desired principles prior to telling the world what it ought to do.

  16. Jim Naughton

    Tobias, I am sympathetic to the principle of self-application. As a general rule we should not tell others to do what the church is not doing itself. I think that this is an excellent point to raise in debating resolutions.

    But, as someone who worked very hard to get the anti-discrimination language added to our canons in 2012, I can’t see how the cause would have been helped by a failure to speak on this issue in 2009. You push legislative bodies as far as you can make them go, and then you regroup and try again the next time. Progress isn’t linear, and you take it where you can.

  17. Jim Naughton

    Derek, if I am reading you right, you are arguing that the General Convention shouldn’t speak on social justice issues unless it can compel every parish in the church to abide by the resolutions it passes. Achieving this would require an incredible extension of the authority of convention, at which the church would no doubt rightly rebel.

  18. tobias haller

    Jim, I take that point, and also having worked on the issue know that the 2009 defeat was partly due to good intentions going awry…

    But that being said, the principle I’m advancing is that the efforts at justice or social issues should be applied first to making the changes over which the church actually has authority first; and I think that makes pressing for changes elsewhere much more persuasive. Derek has flagged one area of concern, and I think there may well be others.

    I think it safe to say the church doesn’t torture or use nuclear weapons; but surely there are social issues that touch us at the core, and some careful self-reflection might be beneficial.

  19. tobias haller

    I can also add that in the debate in the HoD I raised the point that in 2009 we’d done for the world what we hadn’t done for ourselves, and I think it possibly helped tip a few votes.

  20. H. Lee

    Can someone direct me to a site which holds TEC leadership’s resolutions pertaining to hunters, police, soldiers, teachers, and crisis pregnancy workers, as Mr. Harwood mentioned? I’d like to read them. Thanks,

    Heather Angus

  21. Actually, I wasn’t taking it that far, Jim–I was leaving it as a question on the table.

  22. Chris H.

    Heather, the police and soldiers was D003– gun free zone–making soldiers and police in uniform unwelcome in church. There have been other resolutions calling for the end of all nuclear weapons,etc. Since this is a city that relies on a Nuclear Air Force Base for survival, TEC has just told the thousands of people they must lose their careers to be Christians, though none will ever fire a weapon. I’m not sure why Geoffrey above thinks all police are evil. My uncle was a policeman and never shot anyone, but did help save a few people’s lives but was required to be in uniform wearing a weapon much of the time, including times he went to church. He also hunted, and owns many weapons that TEC’s resolutions are against.

    I don’t know the teacher personally. The crisis pregnancy worker, I’m not sure if it was a specific resolution or an argument with members of the EWC who didn’t believe that the resolution regarding Hannah’s tears and past resolutions backed up TEC’s support and joint efforts with lobbying groups that support abortion. Dr. Ragsdale, Dean of Episcopal Divinity School calling abortion a “blessing” and her willingness to take a minor across state lines to get an abortion probably had something to do with it.

    Chris Harwood

  23. Geoffrey McLarney

    “I’m not sure why Geoffrey above thinks all police are evil.”

    If you really can’t figure it out, then we can pretty reliably infer some basic demographic information about your race, gender identity, and approximate income level. “Policing isn’t systemically racist because I have an uncle who never fired a shot” is on the same level of nuanced argumentation as “Global warming is a hoax because it’s snowing.”

  24. tobias haller

    Let me also add that, in light of the most recent post on the proposals, this is also an example of non-subsidiarity at work. Not all issues require national position resolutions. Local circumstances often require local responses rather than the broad brush that of necessity lacks some specific application.

  25. Chris H.

    Tobias, that is very true and it would probably be more welcome in this diocese if local or perhaps provincial resolutions were used instead.

    Chris Harwood

  26. Keromaru5

    “If you really can’t figure it out, then we can pretty reliably infer some basic demographic information about your race, gender identity, and approximate income level. ‘Policing isn’t systemically racist because I have an uncle who never fired a shot’ is on the same level of nuanced argumentation as ‘Global warming is a hoax because it’s snowing.'”

    Because if anyone disagrees with you, it can’t be because they might have a logical reason to do so, or might have a different interpretation of the facts. It must be because of who they are, which you can then imply makes them less of a True Christian than you are.

    This is pretty much exactly the attitude I joined the Episcopal Church to avoid. I didn’t want to be part of a doctrinaire conservative church–but that doesn’t mean that I want to be part of a doctrinaire liberal church, either. There’s a lot that the Left can get wrong, some areas that make me uncomfortable as a Christian, and even some areas where the Left can turn downright hostile to Christianity, if not religion itself. I don’t want to shut out individuals for their own theolegoumena, no matter how wrong I think they might be.

    -Alex Scott

  27. Jonatwabash

    I haven’t had time to dig into this paper, so I can’t comment in detail on its proposals yet. However, the clear difficulty with “social justice” resolutions is that in passing or refusing to pass them we end up picking sides in the US culture wars, sometimes even at the expense of effective ministry. So I could see cutting out those resolutions, but only if we empower the various CCABs to speak for the church in their specific area of expertise, preferably with more detailed explanation than is currently possible in GC resolutions.

    Jonathan Galliher

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