July 10, 2013

Who Can Be President of the Pittsburgh Standing Committee?

The Nature of the Problem


In a discussion of diocesan affairs a couple of months ago, someone brought up the fact that, in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, the president of the Standing Committee is always a member of the clergy, even though the Standing Committee is composed of four laypeople and four clergy. This is of some concern, as clergy have had what many consider undue influence in the diocese in the past and, arguably, in the present.

The presidency of the Standing Committee is of symbolic importance even if, in most circumstances, it does not confer great power on the office holder. The president does have influence, however, and is privy to information that is either unavailable to others or not readily so.

There is, I think, no compelling reason for the Standing Committee president to be a priest or deacon. Many dioceses agree. A check of the governing documents of other dioceses revealed some diversity in how the president of the Standing Committee is chosen. Of 45 dioceses I checked, 32 allow either a clergy of lay committee member to be president. In 4 cases, the order of the president is either unspecified or, if it is, I couldn’t find where it is. In 9 dioceses, the president must be of the clergy order. None of the dioceses required that the president must always be a layperson.

In the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, the composition of the Standing Committee is specified by Article IX of the diocesan constitution:
Article IX
Standing Committee

Section 1. The Convention shall at the Convention of 1952 elect a Standing Committee, to consist of four members of the Clergy and four Lay persons as follows:
One member of the Clergy and one Lay person shall be elected for a period of four years; one member of the Clergy and one Lay person shall be elected for a period of three years; one member of the Clergy and one Lay person shall be elected for a period of two years; one member of the Clergy and one Lay person shall be elected for a period of one year. At each Annual Convention thereafter one member of the Clergy and one Lay person shall be elected for a period of four years. No member of the Standing Committee shall be eligible to succeed himself or herself until the next Convention following the expiration of term of office.
The Standing Committee, when there is no Bishop, Bishop-Coadjutor, or Suffragan Bishop, or no one of them is capable of acting, shall be the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese.

Section 2. The Clerical members of the Standing Committee must be of those entitled to Seats in the Convention of the Diocese.

Section 3. The Lay members of the Committee must be communicants in some Parish of the Diocese in union with the Convention.

Section 4. The Committee, at their first meeting, shall choose a President from among the Clerical members, and a Secretary, either Clerical or Lay. The Secretary shall keep a record of the proceedings of the Committee, and all books and papers in their hands relative to the Church shall be subject to the examination of the Bishop and of the Convention.

Section 5. The Standing Committee shall fill all vacancies that may occur during the recess of the Convention, in their own body, or in any Committee appointed to sit during the recess of the Convention, and also in such offices as are held by annual election.

Section 6. The Standing Committee shall also be the council of advice to the Bishop.

Section 7. The Standing Committee shall have such additional rights and duties and powers as may be conferred by the Canons of the General Convention or of this Diocese duly enacted.
Although it is out-of-date in certain respects, the document “Policies and Procedures of the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh,” dated January 1997, specifies how the selection of officers for the Standing Committee is made in practice:
It has been the tradition that the member of the clergy with seniority on the committee (beginning his/her fourth year) is elected President and the Lay member with committee seniority is elected Secretary. This election takes place at the January meeting.
Several observations need to be made here:
  1. It is assumed that the Standing Committee president must be clergy.
  2. In the normal course of events, every clergy member of the Standing Committee will serve as president for a year; every lay member of the Standing Committee will serve as secretary for a year.
  3. Because of the “tradition” of our Standing Committee, the annual election of officers is no election at all, assuming that one’s notion of election necessarily involves a democratic choice by the electorate.
 Objections can be made to the system (and tradition) currently in place:
  1.  Although it is probably wise to elect a president and secretary who have one or more years of experience on the Standing Committee, it would be surprising to the point of miraculous were the most senior clergy member always the best choice for president and the senior lay member always the best choice for secretary.
  2. It likewise would be miraculous if the senior members of the Standing Committee always wanted to hold the offices to which tradition now assigns them.
  3. In particular, some people, of whatever order, do not perform well in executive positions, and many people perform badly as secretary. It would be wiser to choose officers on the basis of inclination, availability, and competence.

Addressing the Problem


Since the tradition operates under the assumption that the president of the Standing Committee must be a member of the clergy, we must first ask if that assumption is indeed valid. I argued to our chancellor that it is not. At issue is Section 4 of Article IX and the phrase “at their first meeting.” I suggested that this means (or logically could be construed as meaning) “at the first meeting of the Standing Committee following the convention of 1952.” In this interpretation, the committee for 1953 necessarily had a clergy person for its president, but subsequent committees were no so constrained. Alas, I was unable to convince Chancellor Andy Roman that my interpretation was a credible one. He said that the phrase “at their first meeting” referred to the first meeting of each new committee, where the Standing Committee is new every time its constituent members change. The distinction is important, as it determines whether a canonical or constitutional change is required to allow for a layperson to be Standing Committee president. A canonical change can be effected by a single annual convention—but see below—whereas a constitutional change requires action by two successive annual conventions.

I have not seen the 1953 and prior convention journals, which might clarify what was intended by Section 4, but I have to concede that the original intention likely was to forever require a clerical Standing Committee president. In any case, it would be virtually impossible to enact a canon that allowed for a lay Standing Committee president under the theory that the constitution did not require a clergy president in the face of a contrary view on the part of the chancellor.

Resigning myself to not being able to change the requirement of a clerical presidency in 2013, I proposed that Section 4 be replaced with the following, with subsequent sections renumbered as necessary:
Section 4. The Committee, at its first meeting of each calendar year, shall elect a President and a Secretary from among its members, without regard to whether those elected are members of the Clergy or Lay persons. Persons so elected shall serve until the next such election.

Section 5. No member of the Standing Committee shall be eligible for election as President or Secretary who has held that office during the member’s current term on the Standing Committee.

Section 6. The Secretary shall keep a record of the proceedings of the Committee, and all books and papers kept by the Secretary relative to the Church shall be subject to the examination of the Bishop and of the Convention.
This change would have removed all constraints on who could be elected officers of the Standing Committee, but would allow committee members to hold either office for only one year during the member’s four-year term.

Apparently, the Committee on Constitution and Canons was disinclined to act on my proposal. Well, I thought, I could offer my amendment as a resolution to the 2013 convention. It was then that I discovered Canon XXXII:
Canon XXXII
Of Amendments

The Canons may be amended in the following manner only: Amendments must be proposed in writing to the Annual Convention and be referred to, and reported upon by, the Committee on Constitution and Canons.
At this point, I panicked. I thought that the Committee on Constitution and Canons was a gatekeeper for all changes to our governing documents. In particular, if the diocese wanted to make changes to rules governing the Committee on Constitution and Canons, it would seem that that committee could, if it disliked the changes, simply bury them. I brought Canon XXXII to the attention of the committee. Both the chancellor and the bishop objected to making changes to Canon XXXII.

The alert reader will have recognized that I was actually confused. Initially, I thought that allowing the Standing Committee president to be a layperson could be effected through canon, for which Canon XXXII is a relevant constraint. Because the chancellor would not buy my argument that Article IX, Section 4 only applied the the Standing Committee elected at the 1952 convention, the change I sought could only be made through a change to the constitution, for which Canon XXXII is irrelevant. I will have more to say about Canon XXXII below.

Changes to the constitution are governed by Article XV:
Article XV
Alteration of the Constitution

This Constitution, or any part thereof, may be altered in the following manner only: The proposed alteration or amendment shall be submitted in writing to the Annual Convention, and if approved by a majority of each Order, shall lie over to the next Annual Convention, and if again approved, by a majority of each Order, the Constitution shall then stand altered or amended as proposed.
Article XV is quite clear; a constitutional change requires approval by majority vote by both clergy and lay deputies at two successive annual conventions. The provision does not restrict how the “proposed alteration or amendment” is brought to the convention, merely that it has to be submitted in writing. In particular, there is no requirement that the Committee on Constitution and Canons be involved in the process, although the opinion of the committee or that of the chancellor would surely affect a proposal’s prospects.

Presumably, a proposed constitutional amendment could be submitted like any other convention resolution, though I don’t recall any recent constitutional change that did not come from the Committee on Constitution and Canons or it predecessor. The current form for submission of convention resolutions requires two sponsors, described as “any parish or individuals.” (If submitted by a parish, sponsorship by another parish is probably unnecessary, but this understanding is not made explicit on the form.) The form does not even constrain who can be a sponsor. Although resolutions are passed through Diocesan Council, the longstanding understanding is that that body does not concern itself with resolution content, but is only charged with assuring that resolutions are in the proper form.

Tweaking the Solution


A discussion among board members of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh of an appropriate amendment to the constitution to allow for a lay president led to a disagreement. Some people argued that merely saying that there were no constraints on who could be elected president and secretary would result in the “tradition” being respected, and therefore a continuation of the long succession of clerical presidents. The fix someone suggested to address this problem was an amendment that would require the most senior clergy and lay member to be officers, with the senior lay member being president every other year. It was argued that this provision would guarantee that laypeople would become Standing Committee president, whereas my original proposal did not. I had several objections to this scheme:
  1. The proposal makes the de facto restriction of officers to senior members of the Standing Committee a de jure requirement.
  2. My objection that senior members may not be best qualified for office or might be disinclined or otherwise constrained from holding office is not addressed by the proposal.
  3. One’s ability to become president is dependent on the year of one’s election. Elected one year, you may become president; elected the next year, you may only become secretary. This seems unfair.
I considered these objections fatal, although I could appreciate the argument that modifying current procedures as little as possible would increase the likelihood that an amendment to the constitution could be passed. It was difficult to find a compromise position. I eventually suggested that a coin toss determine whether a clergy or lay person would be president in a given year. This would assure that a layperson would sometimes be elected president, though without specifying definitively when that would happen. (It should happen approximately half the time, of course.) My compromise proposal therefore becomes that Section 4 should be replaced with the following, with subsequent sections renumbered as necessary:
Section 4. The Committee, at its first meeting of each calendar year, shall toss a coin to determine whether the President is to be elected from among the Clergy or Lay members of the Committee. A President shall then be elected from those members of the selected Order, and a Secretary shall be elected from those members of the other Order. Persons so elected shall serve until the next such election.

Section 5. No member of the Standing Committee shall be eligible for election as President or Secretary who has held that office during the member’s current term on the Standing Committee.

Section 6. The Secretary shall keep a record of the proceedings of the Committee, and all books and papers kept by the Secretary relative to the Church shall be subject to the examination of the Bishop and of the Convention.
I hope to put this proposal (or one very much like it) before the 2013 annual convention.

Amending the Canons


Because it appears that a constitutional change will be necessary to to allow for a lay president of the Standing Committee, Canon XXXII, On Amendments, is irrelevant to solving the original problem. Having had my attention drawn to Canon XXXII, however, I could not avoid the realization that it is seriously defective. Moreover, the defense of the canon my the chancellor and bishop is distressing.

In practice, a canonical change is usually proposed by the Committee on Constitution and Canons. (Consideration of a change may have been suggested by someone not on the committee.) The proposal is presented to and voted on by a single annual convention and is passed by a simple majority vote. This procedure is not clearly what is specified by Canon XXXII. A straightforward reading of that canon has the canonical change “proposed in writing to the Annual Convention” and then “referred to, and reported upon by, the Committee on Constitution and Canons.” The canon raises several questions:
  1. When is the referral made to the committee?
  2. When does the committee report?
  3. Is there ever a vote? (The canon does not mention voting.)
  4. If there is a vote, when does it take place?
  5. If there is a vote, what constitutes a vote of approval?
In other words, Canon XXXII is a total mess. The most literal reading of the canon suggests that the proper procedure might be:
  1. Submit the proposed change to the convention.
  2. The convention refers the proposal to the Committee on Constitution and Canons.
  3. The Committee on Constitution and Canons reports on the proposal at the next annual convention.
  4. One might infer that that convention then votes on the proposal, but the canon does not actually say that.
Even if one assumes that the referral and reporting can take place at the same annual convention at which the canonical change is introduced, the nature of the committee’s report is not clarified, and, again, nothing is said about voting. In any case, what Canon XXXII seems to say is not what the diocese has been doing.

Clearly, Canon XXXII needs to be changed. Personally, I believe that the Committee on Constitution and Canons should not be able to block a proposed change. A revised canon, therefore, might be the following:
Canon XXXII
Of Amendments

Section 1. To amend these Canons, a proposal must be submitted in writing to the Annual Convention. The proposal is accepted if approved by a majority vote.

Section 2. A proposed amendment may be brought to the Annual Convention by the Committee on Constitution and Canons, either at the initiative of said Committee or after consideration by the Committee of a suggested change recommended by one or more persons resident in the Diocese.

Section 3. A proposed amendment may be offered in writing to the Annual Convention in the same manner and under the same conditions that apply to other resolutions to be considered by the Convention. Immediately after the proposal is introduced for debate by the Convention and has been explained by its sponsor or sponsors, but before general discussion thereof, both the Chancellor and a representative of the Committee on Constitution and Canons may, if desired, address the Convention as to the appropriateness of the proposal.
This suggested revision of Canon XXXII removes any ambiguity as to how long it takes to effect a canonical change, specifies how a change is approved, and removes the Committee on Constitution and Canons as a gatekeeper, while allowing it or the chancellor to weigh in on the proposed change. Canon XXXII should be changed at the 2013 annual convention. We will have to ignore the fact that, in doing so, we may be violating the present canon. But we have been doing that for years!

Update, 7/11/2013. I asked our diocesan archivist, Joan Gundersen to check out the history behind Article IX. She responded, as follows (I have made minor edits for clarity):
I went looking in the archives for the information about the Standing Committee article in the constitution. From 1865 on, the article has consistently required that the president of Standing Committee be one of the clergy members. The secretary was to be elected from either the clergy or the laity.

What was changed in 1950-51 was the requirement that the whole Standing Committee be elected each year but with no term limits. The discussion focused on the idea of rotation in office. Thus, they lengthened the terms of office to 4 years from 1 year, but required a rotation off the committee after a maximum of 4 years.

The tradition that the president be the clergy person with the most seniority on the Standing Committee is purely tradition (as is the choice of secretary). The tradition began sometime after the change in the constitution. Throughout the 1940s, the president of the Standing Committee was held multiple times by the same person, and a priest served as secretary, but seniority on the committee doesn’t seem to have been a factor. I’d have to spend a whole lot more time on this to determine whether they were using some form of seniority (ordination, canonical residence, or committee service) to select the person the Standing Committee elected as president.
So, the diocese seems always to have had clerical presidents of the Standing Committee. The change in the ’50s was intended primarily to assure turnover on the Standing Committee and to prevent anyone from holding on to the presidency from year to year. I think most of us would agree that those objectives are desirable ones.

I am, of course, grateful for Joan’s research. I must say that it is a great help to have an archivist on the diocesan staff

Update, 7/12/2013. I will be submitting proposals to the Committee on Constitution and Canons to change the rules for the election of Standing Committee officers. The committee meets next Tuesday (July 16). Thinking further about the matter and as a result of conversations in other venues, my suggestions to the committee will be somewhat different from those presented above. I expect to say more about Article IX later.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you, Lionel. My take at this point would be that I would support an initiative to remove any requirement that the President of the Standing Committee be of the clerical order. I would oppose I think any further effort to constrain the SC in the election of its officers. I think we can and should trust the people we send to that table to organize themselves in the way that best promotes the stewardship of their ministry.

    Bruce Robison

    Bruce Robison

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bruce,

      My initial impulse was to support your preferred solution. Some people felt that, unless we forced that there at times will actually be a lay president, it might not ever happen. It would be helpful if present and past Standing Committee members would express their opinion as to what change they would prefer and how they would expect the Standing Committee to operate with altered rules.

      Delete

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