Blue’s Clues: No or yes

Magic 8 Ball No

This is the fourth post in Blue’s Clues, a series on the resolutions and reports of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention. The index of posts is here, and my index of resolutions and likely votes is here.

As I continue to prepare for General Convention this summer, to say nothing of writing the Blue’s Clues series of blog posts, I have been reading through some of the Blue Book reports. I have found myself leaning toward “no” on quite a few resolutions, some of which appear to do noble things. So I thought I might take a step out of the Blue’s Clues series to say a bit more about how I decide whether I will vote for a General Convention resolution or not. If the idea of reading this sounds boring, I won’t judge you; just move right along.

Here’s why I’m writing all this. Partly it’s to explain my own thinking. Also, I must confess, I hope that bishops and deputies will sometimes be more discerning as we vote. It might feel good to vote yes on a resolution that addresses a topic of importance to us, but does that make passing a resolution the best course of action? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

My hope is that we, as a General Convention, will be able to say no. We need to say no when resolutions are merely attempts to make us feel good, because that distracts us from the work we need to do. We need to say no to hundreds of resolutions that are not necessary, because they dilute our focus. Voting no on resolutions that merely commend things may result in fewer commendy resolutions, and that will free up precious time for vital work. This is why, sometimes, I end up being the party of no.

Just be glad you don’t sit next to me at General Convention. The poor person to my right or left has to listen to no, no, no, no, no, no. At times I feel like Jim from the Vicar of Dibley.

Here’s why I cast some of those no, and yes, votes.

In my introduction post for the Blue’s Clues series, I wrote a few bullet points:

I favor resolutions that are

  • likely to encourage discipleship, whether among individuals, congregations, dioceses, or our whole church.
  • effective at supporting evangelism.
  • appropriate to the scope of General Convention’s authority.
  • potentially efficacious (that is, they actually might do something).

I tend not to favor resolutions that are

  • feel-good efforts to address a problem, especially when that feel-good “solution” comes at no cost to us.
  • merely commending things, causes, or people.
  • outside the scope of what General Convention should be doing, in my view.
  • poorly thought out, or likely to have unfortunate and unintended consequences.

These are fairly clear, I hope, though of course they will be open to varied interpretation. One person’s effective is another person’s time-sink. You get the idea.

In that introduction post, I didn’t say too much about authority and resolutions. The picture of whether anyone has to follow a General Convention resolution is a bit murky. Fortunately, the Chancellor to the President of the House of Deputies has written a paper on this. The question of whether a resolution is binding depends on language and context, among other things. If you are any kind of serious church geek, you will go read the paper right now (and if you are this far into a post on General Convention resolutions, you’re guilty of geekery, friend). Perhaps the best answer to whether General Convention resolutions are binding is “maybe.”

Regardless of perceived or actual authority, it’s clear that dioceses don’t may that much attention to General Convention mandates. In the Executive Council Blue Book report, there’s a table which reports how dioceses responded to requests for information about the resolutions General Convention sent their way. Out of 109 dioceses (and two non-diocesan quasi-diocesan areas), only 44 dioceses responded. Using the best possible math, that’s 40% responding to what are, presumably, mandatory reporting requests.

When we dig into the reports, there are three options for the status of resolutions sent to dioceses. The dioceses were able to say they had completed the work, that the work is ongoing, or that they took no action. There are also two categories of resolutions/referrals. Either dioceses were referred the resolutions for “action or consideration” or for “consideration or information.” It’s more confusing to read about than to look at the grid. If you’re the slightest bit curious (and if you made it this far into this post, you are), then head over to the report and skip to the last couple of pages.

Anyway, here is the important bit. Of resolutions referred for action, the one that got the most traction was completed by 15 dioceses. That’s 15 out of (most optimistic here) 109, so 14%. If we assume that the 65 dioceses who didn’t bother to respond acted in the same percentage as the ones who did, the most rosy picture is that 34% of dioceses did what they were told to do by General Convention.

Over in the consideration section, it gets a little better. There, the most acted-on resolution was completed by 22 dioceses. So that’s either 20% or 50%, depending on whether you think the non-reporting dioceses acted just like reporting dioceses.

What does this tell us? General Convention seems to have little power over dioceses, or at least dioceses are scofflaws when it comes to acting on mandates. Best possible, most rosy scenario is that half the time, dioceses do what they’re told.

This is a very long setup to say that when someone proposes a resolution that hinges on General Convention telling dioceses what to do, I am unlikely to find that persuasive when it comes to evaluating efficacy.

We could probably paint a similar picture when it comes to telling Episcopal Church staff what to do. In 2012, General Convention basically told staff to move out of the current office building. Staff said, “Yeah, no.” And nothing happened. That’s just the first example that came to mind. There are others.

So what is General Convention good at, in terms of efficacy? Several things, I imagine. Please help me add to the list!

  • Changing our Constitution & Canons
  • Approving and changing our liturgies
  • Electing people to office
  • Directing our Office of Government Relations to advocate on specific issues
  • Setting priorities of staff & committees
  • Creating or dissolving committees
  • Approving our budget. This is the place where stuff gets real, perhaps the most effective way to decide what gets done and what does not.
  • Other important stuff I’m not thinking of right now, but you’ll help me with. And then I’ll add to the list.

When resolutions use these proven solutions to get stuff done, I am more likely to consider them efficacious.

This means that I will likely vote against resolutions which appear to achieve things, but which are not likely, in my estimation, to get much done. I love good coffee, and ethically sourced coffee is even better. But if General Convention considered a resolution to require all coffee hours to serve good/ethical coffee, I’d vote no. Even though I love coffee!

What would change that? If we approved a budget line to give barista block grants to congregations or if we changed the canons to make serving bad coffee an offense under the clergy discipline canons, for example. You get the idea.

We will look at zillions of resolutions on important political issues. My views on politics and General Convention resolutions are well established. I won’t rehash the whole thing here, so go read my stuff from 2015 (or 2012) to get the full picture. Here’s the TL;dr:

Let us tell the world what we are going to do about political problems, rather than telling the world what they should do about political problems.

So a resolution saying everyone should receive a living wage gets a no. A resolution which says the church will pay a living wage (assuming the plan is efficacious) gets a yes.

In addition, I am more sympathetic to political resolutions which take into account the international character of our church. Resolutions which are confined to US politics are more likely to get a no vote.

My reason for saying all this is that, very soon, one of the six or seven people who read the Blue’s Clues series will ask me how I can possibly be against this or that. And I will point to this post.

I should add two more caveats to all this.

First, I sometimes change my mind. Whether through conversation, or new information, or further reflection, or prayer, I come to a different conclusion. If that happens before General Convention, I’ll try to get the relevant blog posts updated. (I already have an update to make because of a very helpful conversation I had not long ago with none other than the President of the House of Deputies.) I hope all deputies and bishops are open to changing their minds based on new insight or inspiration.

Second, I am not without bias. Shocker! Sometimes I find myself more sympathetic to a resolution because of the person or group who wrote it. Now and then, a particular subject inspires warm, fuzzy feelings. Or in rare cases I decide that voting for or against something, despite my concerns about scope or efficacy, sends a necessary message to the church or the wider culture, and that this necessary message is more important than the actual content of the resolution in question. I suppose there are times when I just feel like voting no or yes, apart from whatever “objective” criteria I have set out.

So you’ve been warned, dear reader. You may well have different criteria for voting yes or no. You may well disagree with my reasoning or even my basic take on the facts at hand. That’s fine. I’d love to be in conversation. Perhaps we’ll learn things from one another.

And I emphasize, despite my occasional waxing persuasive, my overall  intention is to share MY thinking on votes. You must make your own decisions. It is the essential work of a deputy or a bishop.

All this — sometimes messy conversation and often careful deliberation — is the beauty of our legislative, deliberative process. Let us savor the journey together.

NOTE: I am grateful for an assist from the President of the House of Deputies’ communications team. I was having trouble finding the paper on General Convention authority, and they pointed me right to it. Thank you!


Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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6 Responses

  1. Frank Edmands says:

    I read the whole blog today! Good stuff. Yes, yes,yes. I look forward to more. Also I appreciate the links to references/sourses. I have a seminarian in my congregation doing “context learning” (a new phrase for me) and will encourage the neophyte to read your blog past and present especially referring to GC. Spring blessings.

  2. Joe Ourth says:

    Scott, very well stated. I haven’t seen you in 25 years but stumbled onto your article from reading your birthday wishes to my sister. I can only hope that PCUSA representatives would follow you advice. There is usually more respect for what is said when less is said.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Holy cow! How wonderful you found your way to this little corner of the internet. Last time I saw you was when I crashed at your house when I was looking at grad schools in Chicago? And you fed me thick pizza over a dense conversation. I’ll send you a note. Hope you’re well.

      And I think, as you say, that the Episcopal Church is not alone in having a problem with legislative bloat. Maybe we can all learn from one another.

  3. Katrina Soto says:

    Very practical reasoning. I like that! We need to stop and think : What will this really accomplish? How will it be implemented? Who’s going to pay for it? I worked in special ed for a quarter of a century. The Fed Govt passed all sorts of mandates on serving the spec ed population, and promised to help states pay to implement these great ideas, but in reality never sent more than about 10% of the promised funds. And, yet, we still had to follow the mandates. It brings to mind Pharaoh demanding that the slaves build more bricks, while not providing the straw.

  4. Lee Ann Walling says:

    Uh oh, I made it to the end of this post (I am catching up), so that makes me a geek I guess. I agree with your philosophy and tried it at my first GC in 2015, but my early no votes were quickly overwhelmed and felt pointless. I will try again. A bigger concern is feel-good yes votes on really important stuff. Last week at Province III Synod, I tried unsuccessfully to encourage a no vote on a resolution to restore the Standing Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations because, well, it’s an important standing committee. I thought the vote to eliminate most Standing Committees was probably the most significant TREC resolution that passed in 2015 and I can see them creeping back in one by one with little regard for the directive of GC 78. My fervent plea received some serious pushback and resulted in only two no votes (including mine). The 815 resolution of 2012 was invoked as reason to disregard the TREC vote of 2015.

    We are on Evangelism and Church Planting committee together. Very excited. See you there.

    Lee Ann Walling, Delaware

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I hope we’re seated together on the floor of the HOD. If so, we can have a Party of No.

      Anyway, looking forward to serving with you on Evangelism and Church Planting. See you there! And thanks for your comment. Please do leave more, if you’re so inclined.

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