Blue’s Clues: Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons

Law & Order

This is the twenty-third 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.

When the Resolution-palooza Olympics medal ceremony is held, this committee will win the gold. Why? Because, in their report, they have managed to come up with fifty — yes, FIFTY — resolutions for us to consider. I’m going to break this into installments. We’ll do 20-ish today, the rest in the next installment, and then I’ll say a bit about the topics they were asked to look at but on which they declined to put forward resolutions.

But I’ve put the cart before the horse. Let’s talk about the horse, the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution, and Canons. They’re one of only two Standing Commissions left, well, standing after the “structure reform” of the 2015 convention. Their mandate is found in the canons (I.1.2(n)(1)) and it boils down to a few things. They review proposed changes to our church’s constitution and canons, and they also make recommendations for edits to the current constitution & canons where they find inconsistencies or technical problems. They also have responsibility to look at the Episcopal Church bylaws and the annotated canons (White & Dykman, which is peak churchgeekery). They also study and make recommendations about church structure. Plus, of course, other duties as assigned.

This is as good a place as any to note (again) that our canons are a mess. We’d really be better off starting from scratch with a blank slate. They’ve been amended and re-amended so many times that there are ambiguities and inconsistencies everywhere, not to mention unintended consequences of various ideas over the years. But until we take the bold step to fix the whole mess, it does make sense to fix what we can.

Make sure you look at the (massive) report. While a lot of it is church arcana that probably won’t affect you, there are important bits scattered throughout. Without further delay, here are their resolutions.

A088: Proposed Guidelines for Amending Church Records. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This resolution urges “all dioceses to adopt a policy regarding amending names in church records.” The main section of the resolution contains the actual guidelines for how to amend official church records when people change their name. This could be after a marriage, or after an adoption, after a gender transition, or for any other reason. It makes good sense to provide a clear and carefully thought-out policy for these situations so they are handled consistently. I won’t try to summarize the policy. It seems well-written, and the expectation, I think, is that dioceses would take action to implement them. Meanwhile, the policies are available to congregations immediately. So if someone asks for a name change or a new baptismal certificate or whatever, there’s a procedure in place. This all seems to fall into the category of common sense.

A089: Amend Articles VI and VIII of the Constitution regarding Full Communion. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This resolution addresses a terminology issue.

After review and consultation, the Standing Commission concluded that, utilizing the definition set forth above, references to “in communion” in the Constitution and Canons are better understood to mean “in full communion.” Therefore, the Standing Commission recommends that, with a few exceptions, references be amended so that all references are to “in full communion.”

Here we make changes to a couple of places in the constitution. If this passes, it will need to be passed again in 2021 to take effect, since it is a constitutional change.

A090: Canonical Amendments regarding Full Communion. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This is the same thing, but in the canons. These will take effect immediately, since they’re canon changes, which do not require two “readings” to pass.

A091: Amend Canon III.9 Equity in Clergy Hiring and Appointment Practices. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This adds a canonical provision for priests and deacons, that no cleric “shall be discriminated against in the call or appointment process of this Church because of race, color, ethnic origin, nation of origin, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, disabilities or age, except as otherwise provided by these Canons.”

The report lists a series of disturbing statistics about the systemic sexism of our church in calling leaders. The report also points out that we don’t even collect data on race, so we can’t say how great a disparity exists there. I wrote about this, including the disturbing fact that we don’t even collect the data, in an earlier Blue’s Clues post.

So this canon would ban discrimination. Enforcement will be tricky, but it is essential to create the rule — the standard — and then work hard to ensure we meet it. Some of the other resolutions we’re considering this convention will lead to robust data collection that will allow us to see how we’re doing systemically.

I don’t know what this provision means for those congregations who do not acknowledge the ordained ministry of women. Does this end the “conscience clause”? The committee does not comment on this in the report. My hope is that the issue has been thought through and that it will be clarified in the legislative committee.

A092: Reception of Clergy from Churches in Apostolic Succession. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

I’ll let the report do the talking:

We are, therefore, proposing a resolution to amend Canon III.10.3 and III.10.4 to reflect making the requirements for discernment and formation of clergy being received in this Church from churches in full communion and churches not in historic succession and not in full communion, similar to the Title III Canon for Ordination of Lay People to the diaconate or priesthood in this Church. The understanding is that preparing clergy who wish to be received should be as close as possible to ordination so that all of the clergy in this church are held to the same standard and equipped with the same tools for ministry.

This adds consistency to process, which is almost always a good thing.

A093: Amend Canon III.8.7(f) pertaining to Deacons who subsequently seek ordination to the Priesthood. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

Sometimes a person who had discerned a call to the diaconate later discerns a call to the priesthood. “The proposed resolution provides more specific guidance and grants authority to the Bishop Diocesan and the Commission on Ministry to ensure that the Deacon receives the necessary and required training to carry out the ministry of an ordained priest.” Having served on a Commission on Ministry, I think this clarity, while also allowing flexibility, will be helpful.

A094: Amend Canon III.4.1(b) for Clarity regarding the Bishop of the Armed Forces. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This is a canon change to clarify the canonical title (and role?) of the Suffragan Bishop, mentioned in Article II of the constitution, who is “in charge of the work of those chaplains in the Armed Forces of the United States, Veterans’ Administration Medical Centers, and Federal Correctional Institutions who are ordained Ministers of this Church.” As the resolution says, “there have been several different ways to refer to this person. In addition, given the international nature of The Episcopal Church, there needs to be clarity in our Canons about the fact that this Bishop Suffragan only has authority over chaplains in the Military and Federal Ministries of the United States of America.” Sure, this makes sense.

This is also another demonstration of how our church isn’t really a church of 16 or 17 equal nations. We are instead a church of the “the United States and all the others.” If we were really going to live out a vocation as an international church, we wouldn’t have special provisions here and there for just the USA. But I won’t let that stop me from voting for a clarification that makes good sense.

A095: Correction of Canon IV.4.1(h). Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This fixes typos, specifically mixed-up “or” and “and”.

A096: Amend Canon I.9.1 pertaining to the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

For some time, we’ve been talking about the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe. Turns out there were a few straggler mentions of “American Churches in Europe,” so this resolution changes them all to “Episcopal” to be consistent.

A097: Amend Canons regarding Return of Clergy after Release & Removal. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

Look, I’m blogging 20+ resolutions this evening, so I hope you won’t mind if I quote the report again, since they did a bang-up job of explaining this one.

In 2012, the General Convention amended Title III to provide a clearer process for the removal and release of clergy and in 2015 the Convention added provisions for clergy who have been removed and released to return to ministry. The 2015 amendments provided for statements of support from at least two (2) clergy for Deacons and Priests seeking to return to ministry and statements of support from at least two (2) Bishops for Bishops seeking to return to ministry. The proposed amendments clarify that the clergy or Bishops providing the statements of support must be clergy or Bishops in good standing of this Church.


A098: Timelines and Pastoral Response in Mediation: Amending Canon III.12.10. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This adds a time limit for the process to play out when a diocese and its bishop are in mediation. Right. It shouldn’t take forever. Nine months sounds about right. This also ensures that pastoral care is provided for “all affected parties and individuals.”

A099: Calling Meetings of the House of Deputies. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This adds one sentence to the canons about the House of Deputies. “The President of the House of Deputies may, from time to time, assemble the House of Deputies of this Church to meet as a House of Deputies, and set the time, place, and manner of such meetings.”

Makes good sense. I’m not sure under what circumstances this would be invoked, but adaptable governance would suggest that we at least provide for the possibility. In practical terms, gathering more than 800 deputies for such a meeting would be so expensive that it would only happen in the event of a real, urgent need.

Some will object to this, I’m sure. “Bishops meet constantly, but Deputies are meant to be like Brigadoon popping up every few years from the mist. How dare they suggest meeting more often!” But I can’t think of a sensible reason for not supporting this. I’ll be voting for it, and I’ll be listening to the (perhaps comical) reasons some will oppose it.

A100: Clarify Secretary of Convention versus Secretary of House of Deputies. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

The current canons are not totally clear on the ways in which the roles of the Secretary of the House of Deputies and the Secretary of the General Convention overlap. By tradition it has been the same person holding both offices, but the canonical provision for this has been murky. This cleans things up a bit.

A101: Amend Canons I.4.1. (d) related to DFMS By-laws. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

As the explanation says, “If the President of the House of Deputies is unable to fulfill his/her role, the Vice President of the House of Deputies immediately fills that role. This change will allow for the Vice President of the House of Deputies to participate at Executive Council and thereby be prepared to take on the President’s role, if necessary.”

First, I should note that the resolution as it is printed in the PDF report is missing crucial italic to show added text, namely “Vice President of the House of Deputies” in the list of ex officio members of Executive Council. It is correct in the virtual binder. But both the virtual binder and the report make a style change to the resolution that differs from the current canon, and this is not marked up. The current canon, for example, says, “The Executive Council shall be composed (a) of 20 members elected by the General Convention.” The resolution language in the report has “The Executive Council shall be composed (a) of twenty (20) members elected by the General Convention.” See the extra “twenty” and the parentheses? No big deal, but it’s technically a modification of the canons, so it should be marked up as such. Or, more likely, the legislative committee needs to fix this in the resolution we vote on so that the form we pass has only the intended changes, not extra changes caused by the style of the Blue Book.

Back to the substance of the resolution. What is happening here is that we’re expanding the size of executive council by one seat to include the Vice President of the House of Deputies in the event that the VP needs to assume the duties of the President. I can sort of see the logic here. But here’s the thing: Executive Council is already too big by a long shot. I think, if I counted right, Executive Council, our board of directors, is 45 people. That’s about 30 people more than most texts will tell you is an effective size for committee work. So I just can’t vote to add another person to that number.

The House of Deputies has a travel budget, so the PHOD can arrange for the VPHOD to travel to executive council meetings as an observer, since they’re open meetings. That way, the VPHOD is cognizant of the issues and ready to step in if needed.

And let’s think about how to reduce the size of executive council to a reasonable size. That’s a topic for another post.

A102: Create a Task Force Budget Process. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

Our current budget process is a mess. It was more of a mess before 2015, when we at least updated some canons to make our rules match our process. But the process is a dysfunctional mess.

Here’s how a budget process should work in a healthy non-profit organization. The board of directors (or maybe, in our case the General Convention) sets priorities, strategy, and goals. The staff responds with operational plans and a budget. If everyone is on the same page, the board looks at the budget and approves it. Our process is pretty much the opposite of that. The staff are largely excluded from the budget process, and a too-large group of volunteers dives into the details of a $133 million budget based on more requests for funding than there are available funds. The funding requests come from staff and sundry committees. So a political scramble for money goes down every year, and then 1,000 people are expected to vote on a detailed budget they have just a day or two to study. I’m hoping to blog more about the budget as convention draws closer.

Anyway, I think the idea of a task force to look at the process is a great idea. I just hope they actually consider a brand new process instead of twiddling knobs on the current one. We can do better.

A103: Amend Joint Rules of Order of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, section VII. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This would add requirements for thorough background checks (details in the resolution) for persons nominated as officers of the General Convention and House of Deputies. It also adds the collection of self-disclosure checks for nominees to executive council, Church Pension Fund Trustees, and possibly other offices. My only question is whether self-disclosure is adequate, or if we should go ahead and conduct at least basic criminal and financial background checks for these important positions. In any case, this is a step in the right direction.

A104: Amend Title 1 Canon 1 Section 1(b). Full text. Likely vote: YES, but I’d like to see an amendment.

This adds to the canons requirements that persons who intend to be nominated for President or Vice President of the House of Deputies signal their intention three months before General Convention, so that there’s time for adequate background checks. So far, so good.

I’d like to see us change the nomination process as well. This “I think I’ll be a nominee” business seems…odd. Why not just have the nominating committee draft a set of nominees (knowing there’s a rule about “opposite orders” for PHOD/VPHOD)? Or at the very least, specify in the nomination rules that only persons who have successfully been screened can be nominated. Also, if we’re not changing the nomination schedule, does it make sense to require confidentiality for those who submit their names as potential nominees? The background check part as it is offered here seems fine. I think the legislative committee needs to do a bit of thinking about the nomination part of how we do things.

A105: Amend Canon I.8.2 Provide for Background Checks for Nominees for Church Pension Board of Trustees. Full text. Likely vote: YES, but I’d like to see an amendment.

Same as the last one, I appreciate the requirement for intended nominees to register three months before General Convention for background checks, but the nomination process seems wonky.

A106: Canonical Changes related to a Joint Session. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This creates the possibility of a Committee of the Whole for both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops to meet together. One can see the reasons why this is a good idea. There might be an issue over which the two houses bring different perspectives, and the opportunity to discuss something together could be valuable. The provisions here say that the joint session should take place in the House of Deputies, which makes sense, since the HOD is a much larger space. The proposed rule also says that the PHOD should preside at the session using the rules of the HOD. Now, I suppose this makes some sense, since the HOD has rules for speech and debate that accommodate a larger body. The HOB’s more informal rules simply won’t work for a group of more than a thousand. The part I’m not sure about is the chair. Maybe it makes sense to say either the PB or the PHOD presides? Or alternate? I have no issue with the PHOD presiding, and there is some practical wisdom given the PHOD’s experience managing a group this size, but I do wonder about this. Why prevent the PB from chairing a session like this? It just seems a bit funny.

There is a related issue, however.

Last General Convention, we passed a first reading of a constitutional amendment (2015-D008) that would explicitly permit a joint meeting of both houses. The constitution currently says that the houses “shall sit and deliberate separately.” A plain reading of that text would suggest that the houses may not meet together, despite whatever canons or rules of order are passed. However, I learned from a conversation with the PHOD that “sit and deliberate” is a term of art. What the constitution intends to say, based on this term of art, is that the houses can sit together, but they are not meant to debate together. The constitutional change we passed last time fixes this. The language would provide that “The Houses by majority vote of each House may call for the Houses to sit, debate, and vote, or any combination thereof, together.” This does not require the houses to meet together, and there’s no chance of one house forcing the other to meet together, since both have to agree to the meeting. It opens permissive possibility, nothing more. The amendment does not endanger our bicameral structure in any way, shape, or form.

What is puzzling to me is that there is no second reading of this constitutional amendment currently planned. This committee has created resolutions providing for second readings of all other first readings passed last time around. I believe this must be an oversight? Can this committee decide to ignore a first reading and squash it by simply not presenting the issue for a second reading?

So I hope the Standing Commission or the legislative committee or, if not, an enterprising deputy, will propose a resolution in the appropriate language to allow the General Convention to vote on the second reading.

My understanding was that once a first reading was passed, the convention would automatically take it up. Having looked at the canons, there does not seem to be a rule about this. So apparently this is another instance of traditional practice not quite matching our rules.

Back to the topic of this resolution. The resolution here (A106) makes sense. To ensure beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is constitutional, I hope the second reading of last Convention’s amendment will get its day. Once we amend our constitution to provide the possibility that the houses may “sit, debate, and vote, or any combination thereof, together” then we are 100% in the clear.

(Disclosure: my name is listed as the proposer on 2015-D008. It was one of several resolutions presented by the good folks I was working with to try to improve the structures of our church.)

A107: Amend Canon III.11.2 Regarding the Election of a Bishop. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

This resolution deals with the election of new bishops, clarifying “that an election could be called earlier than six (6) months before the resignation of a Diocesan Bishop but said election should not be held earlier than six (6) months before the effective date of the resignation.” It also fixes another typo.

A108: Amend Canon III.6.5(g) Addressing Harassment and Sexual Misconduct. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

Sexual harassment is a huge problem in secular culture, and it is perhaps worse inside the church. As the report notes, one survey of female Episcopal clergy under age 45 found that ALL of them had experienced harassment. There are other, similarly disturbing, statistics in the report. So clearly we have work to do.

This resolution does several things:

  • It clarifies that those preparing for ordination shall receive training in the prevention of sexual harassment of both children and adults.
  • It requires rectors and priests-in-charge to “ensure that a policy regarding harassment and sexual misconduct is promulgated and enforced in the local Parish, and that such a policy is publicly posted or made available within the congregation upon request.”
  • It requires that “The Bishop Diocesan shall ensure that a diocesan policy regarding harassment and sexual misconduct, and the process of reporting it, is promulgated by the appropriate body and enforced throughout the diocese, and that a written copy thereof is kept on file at the diocesan office, is posted on the diocesan website and is made available upon request.”

This all makes sense. Our church has an entrenched culture of harassment and tolerance of harassment. Fixing this will require policies and training, but it will even more require culture change and a willingness to hold leaders accountable.

A109: Creation of Task Force on Sexual Harassment. Full text. Likely vote: YES.

If passed, this resolution will “establish a Task Force on Sexual Harassment to be appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies to prepare a Model Policy for Sexual Harassment of Adults for Dioceses, including parishes, missions, schools, camps, conference centers and other diocesan institutions. It shall be the duty of the Task Force to study, educate, develop curriculum, and propose policy and standards of conduct on different forms of harassment, and to advise the Church as resource persons.”

Yes, we need this. I’m not usually a big fan of task forces, but this issue requires action. Note that this is somewhat related to the resolutions on the protection of children and vulnerable adults (A048 and A049) which I covered previously. They are related, but different, issues.


Stay tuned for the next batch of resolutions from this committee.

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2 Responses

  1. John Miller says:

    I have the same concerns about A104 and A105 that I do about A148. Who gets to see the background report? What are the conditions under which someone may be disqualified? and Is there a way to challenge such a determination?

    • Will J Abbott says:

      That’s the thing. Just getting a background check is nothing more than an expense. We need some clarification of standards. What would disqualify someone from being nominated?

      Now, as for what to do with them, and who sees then, you treat them the way you treat all other personnel matters. No one sees them who doesn’t need to.

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