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Bishop Sauls’ proposal, IV: the balance of power

Bishop Sauls’ proposal, IV: the balance of power

Accepting Bishop Stacy Sauls’ proposal for a special committee that would review the governing structures of the Episcopal Church and present its work to a special meeting of the General Convention would not, in and of itself, diminish the authority of clergy and lay people in the governance of the church. Yet Bishop Saul’s supporting presentation, and the context in which he made it, have raised concerns about whether the way in which power in our church is balanced among all orders of ministry might well be disturbed, and whether decision-making power and fiduciary responsibility might be concentrated in far fewer hands.


This is not the necessary result of church reform, but it is a potential by-product—especially if the focus or our conversation remains fixed on reducing the number of bodies on which clergy and lay people serve and diminishing the frequency with which they meeting. (I am not arguing for or against such reductions, simply trying to think through the potential consequences.)

A few suggestions then, aimed at making sure that every alternative is explored as we attempt to develop a leaner bureaucracy while insuring that the orders continue to share authority in governing the church.

1. The chief operating officer of the church should be accountable in some way to the Executive Council. It isn’t helpful if the top two executives in an organization, upon taking office, are beyond the influence of the elected leadership of the organization. But that is pretty much where we stand.

2. The church should have a chief legal officer—a general council. The chancellor to the Presiding Bishop should not function in this capacity (as is now at least occasionally the case, although in an ad hoc sort of way.) Nor should the chancellor to the President of the House of Deputies. The best interests of the church do not always coincide with the best interests of its presiding officers, and the church needs its own representation in those instances. Naming a chief legal officer might also bring transparency to the ways in which the church handles certain sensitive legal issues, such as sexual misconduct by its bishops.

3. The treasurer of the Domestic and Foreign Mission Society and the treasurer of the General Convention should not be the same person. If a person serves two clients whose interests are in conflict, one can reasonably predict that he or she will resolve such conflicts in favor of the client with the greatest immediate influence over his or her life. (It also means you would be a fool to blame them for doing so.) The upshot of this in our church is that when the treasurer of the DFMS and the treasurer of the General Convention are the same person (as is now the case) and conflicts arise between the DFMS—which is to say, the presiding bishop’s office—and Executive Council or General Convention, the conflicts are likely to be resolved in favor of the presiding bishop’s office. The General Convention needs its own advocate, and its own watchdog.

4. The next General Convention should pass some carefully crafted version of legislation currently in the works allowing a diocese to terminate its relationships with its bishop if that relationship is irreparably broken. The legislation would need to protect bishops from capricious challenges to their authority while making it possible to resolve situations like the one still festering in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

None of these ideas is original with me, and I think some are more important than others. What are your thoughts?

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