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Resolution for unicameral General Convention combines clergy, lay orders

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


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Victor Sarrazin

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:

tobias haller

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.

Jim Naughton

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.

tobias haller

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.

Elizabeth Anderson

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.)

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