The General Convention: a slavish copy of the politics and legislative process of American culture?

That's what the Living Church seems to think. Victoria Heard and Jordan Hylden have written an important essay Our Political Captivity which tries to address the problems of General Convention, how it is organized, what it does and what needs to change in its discharge of duties related to church-wide needs. It is worth the read. The Living Church is doing a better and better job looking at substantive issues in The Episcopal Church and this essay is a contribution to that end.

It is an important essay both in what it has to say that is to the point and what it has to say that is just more of the same foolishness of pressing the right buttons to placate the right readers.

First to the button pushing: The authors write,
"We believe the past General Convention structure has slavishly copied in ecclesial ink the politics and legislative processes of American culture. Episcopalians are fond of saying that the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution also created the church’s Constitution and Canons. It is an exaggeration but a telling one: General Convention looks and acts too much like Congress and not enough like a council of the Church."

It may be that the General Convention has copied something of the political processes of the national legislature and views itself as a legislature of two houses, etc. But the introduction of "American culture" as the offending agent is a simple appeal to those who want to say that what is wrong with The Episcopal Church is that it has become captive to the culture.

Now just for the record: The legislative philosophy and procedures of the US Congress is not at its heart a product of American culture. They may be formative of particular aspects of American political behavior, but it is much harder to claim that US legislative processes in the US Constitution is a matter of culture.

Our good friends over at The Living Church want to invoke the "culture wars" as part of the finger pointing about what is wrong with The Episcopal Church. They propose that "General Convention looks and acts too much like Congress and not enough like a council of the Church." Dear God, where have they been? Good luck trying to idealize the councils of the Church (in whatever period) and their decision making processes.

A further indication of TLC's inflection in this article is in the highlighting box in the print version. The box has the following comment,

"General Convention should not just be a democratic venue to ram through whatever proposals we favor." 

Indeed.  That is true.  The Presiding Bishops is paraphrased by TLC as having" observed the damage Episcopalians have done by assuming that the right way to deal with every issue is to put it to a vote, thereby creating “winners and losers about several hundred issues at every General Convention.”

There are two problems with this criticism. 

(i) On many issues it is precisely the matter of bringing things to the floor, voting on them and moving on that is important and useful. Yes indeed there are winners and losers on votes. Yes, hundreds of them. Being a legislator (even an ecclesiastical one) is not for the faint of heart. But being a loser on a vote is not the same as either experiencing shame, blame or loss. It is the experience of being in the minority on a specific issue. So be it. Meanwhile the will of the majority is accomplished. Without this simple procedure we would never get a whole variety of matters settled.  For many matters we have decided that voting is a useful way to go.  One assumes that the Presiding Bishop is not opposed to such voting processes related to the election of a Presiding Bishop. 

There is as always wreckage in the fast lane, and the legislative race track is no exception. 

But the General Convention actions mostly don't "ram through whatever proposals we favor." Rather they reflect considerable listening and conversation both in legislative committees and in various deputations.  A majority is not per se a "ramming through" of anything.

What TLC doesn't like is that sometimes a majority or a super-majority does indeed pass legislation that a sizable minority doesn't agree with, doesn't like or doesn't want to live with.  Then it feels like "ramming through."

The conclusion of the TLC article is this:

" We must find a way to keep from demonizing and litmus-testing those with deeply held theological convictions. When issues are framed in terms of justice or identity or the plain words of Scripture, it is almost impossible to listen to other views and wait for what God may be saying: is this the Spirit or the spirit of the age? If our convention is worthy of the name council, it must be a place where common counsel is taken as we seek to listen together over time for the Word of God — a place of prayer, proclamation, and praise. Our lack of attention to this is part of our polarization and decline. We need to start thinking about church councils not just politically, legally, and pragmatically but also theologically."

Indeed. TLC is right. General Convention has made considerable effort to place its legislative work in the context of common prayer, Eucharist, bible study, and reflection.  But TLC is wrong. We have paid attention to this matter of seeking "to listen together over time for the Word of God." There is considerable attention to thinking about General Convention's work theologically.

Time to listen, time to pray. So, as a political, legal, pragmatic, and theological matter, what say we take the time... more time than this General Convention and simply back off from quick action on rites for same sex blessings and on the Anglican Covenant. 

Suppose we were to say, the Rite for Blessings will not be presented for first reading as a liturgy to be officially part of the BCP or part of Occasional Services, the Anglican Covenant will not be presented for a yes or no vote, and we will listen and consult and pray over time seeking the Word of God in these matters. Would this satisfy?  Well, next time, in 2015 these matters would arise again and sometime they would need to be voted on, putting the matter before the council of the Church also known as General Convention. 

Would matters be different in 2015?  Who knows. As regards blessings, Dioceses will already be acting on a pastoral level with some sort of response to the legal and moral issues present in their state and situation. By 2015 practice may have outrun the process of liturgical revision anyway.  As regards the Anglican Covenant, if we were to say something less than yes and something more than no, with the Anglican Covenant out there for future consideration by TEC, matters by 2015 might have evaporated the issue into a wisp of its former self. By 2015 the Global South will be stomping off to post-Canterbury land and the rest of us will be going about our work in the vineyards were we are called. Maybe no one would care.

So putting off these votes may be an invitation to irrelevancy, even with the best intention of listening for the Word of God regarding both the votes and how to move beyond losers and winners to some other scheme (never before seen in Church councils). Apparently God sometimes values a "yes" or "no."

The TLC article does no one a service by calling up the matter of the Archbishop of York giving testimony at a hearing in the 2006. 

And, the title to number 4 in the series of points, "Authority, Not Democracy" is a bit off putting, to say the least.  Democracy is a form of Authority in action, and while it assumes nothing about listening to the Word or Will of God it also does not assume a lack of such listening. Just for fun, does TLC really want to suggest that Authority and Democracy are opposed to one another?

Now, to TLC's credit  the authors believe that change is in the wind and that it is needed, that General Convention needs to be reevaluated re its size, philosophy of deputation vs. delegation, that administration costs need to come down and mission funding go up, that church-wide offices need to be reassessed and the size of church-wide efforts cut. These will not address TLC's concerns about "culture," indeed such cuts, revisoning and regrouping in networks and associations, are all highly approved current cultural phenomena.  Still, such hopes expressed in TLC are an indication that they too think some risk taking is in order.

Such new directions may indeed lead to a new way of doing the Church's work in council. But it will not relieve the whole church (meaning here The Episcopal Church) from having to make real decisions that are not consensus decisions or even overwhelming majority decisions. Budget, church wide sanctioned prayers and liturgies, canons regarding common life and work, and others matters will get decided, and decisions will always be political, culturally influenced, and because we bring Christ with us (and it must bother him at times to be there) theological.


  1. The Diocese of Dallas perhaps serves as an exemplar of what they have in mind?

  2. The neuralgic point in TEC polity is imbedded in its name: Episcopal. The latterly devised role of PB as non-diocesan 'CEO'; now joined by a self-arrogating role of PHoD; a GC which has the actual latitude, practically speaking, of passing canons that are questionable constitutionally; even the Executive Council -- all of these vye for a central authority and ebb and flow in their capacity to exercise this in ad hoc ways.

    But over against this is the reality of Bishop/Diocese. This is the reality on the ground. If all the above were to collapse, many dioceses would be unaffected and many would be better off.

    If the PB returned to a diocesan role and some funds set aside for travel, that would be a move in the right direction. A smaller GC which does not conceive of itself as necessary to the degree it does things -- that too would help. If the PHoD understood the actual remit of the office -- that would help.

    Healthy dicoeses would never claim they are such because of anything GC, PB or PHoD, or EC does. They are healthy insofar as they have growing parishes, good preaching and teaching, a fresh generation of new clergy, good programs for spiritual growth for all God's people. And a Bishop who values and sees to these things.

    Can one expect the GC or any of the other officials to recognise these matters and cut themselves back? That is the same challenge with secular governments, and it goes back to Hamilton v Jackson. But the analogy ends there. States are not dioceses with Bishops. TEC is an Episcopal Church.


  3. Deacon Charlie Perrin1/6/12 11:44 AM

    As I recall from Church History there were, in the councils of the Church, losers with theological positions they thought valid as well: Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, etc. There were also physical fights and the "hurling" of anethemas back and forth.

    This is the model that TLC wants us to follow. This is better how?

  4. I could not disagree with the TLC article's focus on discernment and its observation that the size of the GC seems odd. However, I find the denigrating of politics suspicious, perhaps because so often in the past I have seen it coming from people who do not want change, for whom the status quo and the privileges they enjoy because if it are just fine. Their comment about decisions arising naturally over time, while not one with which I could argue, seems to ignore that some of the decisions with which they might be assumed to find troubling, and here I may be quite wrong, did arise out years of conversation in the whole Church. Finally, I wonder if either of the authors has served as a Deputy, as some of their comments seem so ill-informed.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.