Episco-upgrades: Rethink General Convention
I enjoyed the privilege and the pleasure of serving as a Deputy at General Convention in 2009, and I attended the previous General Convention to do communications work for my diocese. Mostly I had a great experience both times. It’s glorious to worship with thousands of Episcopalians and to see the diversity of our church in action. However, I have some concerns about how our church has chosen to structure its governing body.
One question that’s always worth applying to most anything is the classic “So what?” question. So what does General Convention do that might affect your average Episcopalian who sits in a pew on a random Sunday? Sure, we know that it’s great for church geeks like me and those who enjoy committee work, but what about the wider church? How does this help us serve God’s mission for the church?
While one could make connections between our mission and the work of General Convention, it’s also true that the work of most local parishes would be unaffected by the absence of our triennial gathering if it were canceled. Much of the work could be carried out by various and sundry committees and other bodies, such as setting budgets and establishing policy. The question then becomes: if we are going to hold a discretionary gathering, how shall we maximize our churchwide mission and connections to local congregations?
Here are some ideas to rethink General Convention. I’ve grouped them into three categories, representing the amount of change they require. We’ll call them small, medium, and large. (I thought about Tall, Grande, and Venti, but that seemed a bit too bourgeois).
Let’s start with elections. The median age of Deputies has increased to almost 60. While I have nothing against people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, we need to get more generations into the mix. Dioceses need to stop treating spots on a Deputation as a reward for good and faithful service over decades. We need to elect more people in their teens, 20s, and 30s. This is urgent.
We need some reframing of our bicameral system from our presiding officers. I heard too many disparaging remarks about Deputies by Bishops and about Bishops by Deputies. There’s work to do, and we can’t slow ourselves down with pointless rivalry. Also, it’s just not civil.
The communications staff at 815 made a good effort at getting started on thorough Internet coverage in 2009. We need to get every session of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies streamed live, along with major committee hearings and all worship services.
It’s time to permit Internet access during legislative sessions for Deputies. It makes no sense that someone sitting at home has better information about the state of legislation than a Deputy. The legislative tracking system reports the progress of resolutions through committee and through both houses. At home, I could get up-to-the-second information. When someone mentions a resolution in debate, I am not allowed to check it, having to rely on paper copies that are hours old (or even a day old).
We need to shorten Convention, but that’s already in the cards, thanks to budget shortfalls. This will allow more people to consider attending General Convention, since the previous schedule required nearly two weeks away from home; only a few privileged people could carve out that much time away, unless you are employed by the church or retired.
We need to go paperless. This would require some intense work by staff at 815 to get this done. Maybe we could borrow the software from our friends in the ELCA. They have been paperless for a while now. This would save trees (many forests worth of them) and allow Deputies and Bishops to work much more efficiently.
Legislative committees could do much of their work ahead of the physical gathering. Resolutions could be posted on the Interwebs, with online discussion of their merits. Language could be perfected and resolutions could be combined. Committee discussion would be open to all and archived. In addition to committee members doing their work, anyone else could post comments and respond to the discussion in progress. This would actually increase transparency. Then when General Convention gathered, the committees would merely need to wrap up loose ends and handle resolutions that get filed at the last minute. Protections could be put in place to ensure that resolutions are discussed in person when it’s thought to be necessary for whatever reason.
I don’t know about the House of Bishops, but in the House of Deputies, we need to update the rules of order. It took a couple of legislative days before we were able to approve many resolutions at once in the consent calendar. That should be ready on day one. There are more examples of ways in which our process could be tweaked for efficiency right out of the gate.
The subject matter of resolutions should be carefully considered. Only those resolutions which have churchwide impact (not just the US, but the whole Episcopal Church) should be taken up. I’m not sure why General Convention needs to take political positions on US domestic issues, when individual Episcopalians are free to lobby for whatever causes they like. It’s not clear to me what differences will be made by things like the “Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation”. Sure, I agree with its aims, but did General Convention need to say that, or might some individual Episcopalians have spread this through viral means? One could go on with other examples. The point is that we spend too much time and too many issues. Just because something is important to someone or to some group does not mean that General Convention should take it on.
This is the big one: I think we should reconsider our bicameral structure, as well as how the group is constituted. Sure, bicameral was all the rage in 1789, but maybe it’s time to operate differently. What if we followed the model of General Synod in England? The houses of bishops, clergy, and laity could sit together for debate, but then vote separately when needed. For old time’s sake, we could create a mechanism for separation if the houses wanted to divide for particular discussion (sort of the opposite of the joint session we enjoy now for budget consideration).
Ah, but that group would be too big, you say. I have a suggestion for that too. I wonder about sending only bishops with jurisdiction as voting members. At present, all bishops come. That means dioceses have varying amounts of representation in the House of Bishops. On the flip side, all dioceses are entitled to eight Deputies right now. We could change that. Very small dioceses might get two Deputies, most would get four, and a few dioceses would be entitled to six Deputies.
This would greatly reduce the size of the combined houses so that the legislative assembly would be more efficient. I might also favor changing this to a brief (five day?) annual meeting. Over time, relationships would be formed among bishops, clergy, and laity. The work could be of a better quality. As a result of this change, Executive Council could be halved in size and would not need to meet as much. Someone more clever than me could do the math, but I think this would reduce costs while improving the quality of debate and of the resulting resolutions.
Previous experience in the blogosphere has suggested that General Convention leaders circle the wagons at the mere hint of proposed change to even the tiniest detail. I hope that impulse ends soon. While I am quite sure that many of my suggestions here are lousy, some of them may be worth considering.
I could offer more ideas, and perhaps commenters will make some good suggestions. My point is that General Convention is ripe for improvement. The opportunity cost is too high for us to stick our head in the sand and continue the way it’s “always” been done.
As Fr. Neil Alan Willard said on Facebook, “General Convention = General Motors”. I think he has captured the essence of my post in four words. Maybe we need to get that printed on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and buttons before the next gathering in Indianapolis.