November 9, 2013

Observations on the Diocesan Convention (Part 4)

This is my fourth and final installment of reflections on the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh held November 1 and 2 at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Pittsburgh. Part 1 can be read here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.
I was surprised that the Committee on Constitution and Canons offered quite a few changes for the convention to vote on this year. These were mostly little tweaks to bring diocesan rules up-to-date.

I was particularly pleased with one change. A proposal was put forward to amend Article IX of the constitution to allow the president of the Standing Committee to be either a clergy or lay  person. This change is actually more important than it seems. By tradition, the senior clerical member of the Standing Committee has automatically been “elected” president, and the senior lay member has been similarly selected to be secretary, (See “Who Can Be President of the Pittsburgh Standing Committee?”) Constitution and Canons offered a simpler amendment than I had suggested, but a perfectly acceptable one. It merely indicates that lay and clerical members can become either president or secretary. The change passed easily and will become effective when passed again by the 2014 convention.

I was less pleased with the disposition of the proposed change to Canon XII. (You can read the proposal extracted from the pre-convention journal here.) The change was not accepted but was sent back to the committee instead.

When I first read the proposed change to Canon XII, it was not obvious just what the point was. The stated rationale for the change made it seem like another technical change. In fact, in the early days of the Duncan episcopate, a resolution was passed that allowed parishes to divert part of their assessment that was destined for The Episcopal Church to some other approved cause. This allowed the many parishes hostile to Episcopal Church—most such parishes are now in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh—to minimize their contribution to the church. Funds were diverted to many causes, with a number of contributions going to Anglican Relief and Development, Duncan’s alternative to Episcopal Relief and Development.

Disallowing such diversions was something I thought convention should have done immediately after the departure of much of the diocese in 2008. I was told that such a change was premature, however, as some parishes that remained were not ready to end their diversions. It seemed an insult to The Episcopal Church to continue to allow them, however.

I was not present for the debate about the Canon XII revision, but, having been told earlier that some clergy were uncomfortable with with the proposed change, I had suggested options for adopting the change but delaying its effect. Apparently, these options were presented to the convention, but the convention voted simply to refer the proposal back to the committee with no particular instructions as to what the committee should do with it.

This is the second time in as many years that the convention has taken such an action rather than debating and letting the fate of a proposal be determined by an actual vote. Last year, a proposal intended to give more deputies to mid-size parishes was referred back to committee, largely without discussion or instruction as to what the committee was supposed to do with it. The proposal was not brought back this year.

In the case of the Canon XII proposal, there was debate, though it appears not to have dealt with what I considered to be the real issue, namely, are we going to wholeheartedly support The Episcopal Church or not. The failure to adopt the proposed change suggests continuing ambivalence toward the wider church. No doubt, its opponents would dispute this interpretation.

Apparently, a group of conservative priests had discussed their unhappiness regarding Canon XII and were prepared to speak against the proposed change. That the rationale for the proposal offered by the committee failed to take note of the elephant in the room meant that many deputies probably did not really know what was at stake. Another problem was the sound system, whose inadequacies I mentioned in an earlier post. In asking deputies for their versions of the debate, I learned that many of them had no idea what was happening because they could not hear the discussion.

I find it demoralizing that (1) the lack of a viable sound system in Trinity Cathedral was so deleterious to the conduct of the diocese’s business, and (2) that, yet again, deputies seemed ill-prepared to deal with proposals with which they had been supplied details in advance.

In light of the problems with the Canon XII proposal and other problems I noted in earlier posts regarding the Trinity Cathedral convention, I have two recommendations for the leadership of our diocese and parishes:

  1. Hold the 2014 convention somewhere else—anywhere else. St. David’s would be a good choice, but St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon, or Calvary would be fine.
  2. Encourage parishes to hold deputation meetings after deputies have attended information meetings sponsored by the diocese and before convention to discuss in depth the matters coming before the convention.  Attendance at such meetings should be mandatory for parish deputies.
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Thus end my rants concerning the 2013 annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. I have no illusions that everyone will agree with everything I have written. At least one good friend telephoned me to complain about one of my comments. No doubt, others have also been annoyed. Whether you agree with my observations or not, I hope that I have caused people to think more deeply about how we run our diocese, how we stage our conventions, and how we could do a better job. If you disagree with anything I’ve written, leave a comment expressing your opinion. I don’t want to discourage positive comments, however, and I invite those as well. May our 2014 convention be a better one; may our diocese be stronger a year from now; and may all of us in the diocese be equipped to move forward together. 

6 comments:

  1. I don't agree with everything my borough, school district, and state and federal governments do with my tax money, but I am not free to reroute my taxes to things I like better. I can lobby my representatives to change their policies, I can move, or I can run for office myself, but I can't ad-hoc fund my own shadow governments.

    Withholding part of your church's assessment and sending it to some organization you like better seems, at least to me, like the church version of being a tax protestor, or putting a cardboard license plate on your car saying that you are a "sovereign citizen."

    With all due respect, I'm not sure that it's productive, nor compatible with democratic polity.

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  2. What was the elephant in the room that most deputies were so unaware of?

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    1. The ongoing permission to divert money that should go to support The Episcopal Church.

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    2. I don't think anyone there was unaware that that was the subject being discussed. And since no one was shouting 'speak up' or any of the many variations on that them used throughout the day, I'm not sure I buy the idea that deputies had no idea what was happening. And I don't remember anyone actually objecting to the proposed change; the question was merely asked as to whether the Constitution and Canons Committee had talked to any of the parishes where money was still being withheld and asked them what effect it might have on their parish life, and when it turned out the Committee hadn't bothered, they lost the benefit of whatever doubt there might be. The message of the Convention to the Committee was 'we expect more diligence than this'. I also think the fact that we had just passed, without a single dissenting voice, a budget that withheld money from the national church for no better reason than that money was tight this year made people willing to show a bit of sympathy for people who might actually have conscientious objections to the way the money would be used.

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    3. I don’t buy the notion that parishes were caught off guard. They have had five years to clean up their act and pay all of their assessment. Moreover, the proposed canonical change was disclosed well before the convention. I don’t know that the committee had any idea what parishes might be affected and may well have concluded that, after five years, virtually no parish was. There was nothing stopping parishes from contacting the committee. I had proposed delaying the effect of the canon. Since that was not considered acceptable, I can only assume that some parishes will change their policy only when forced to do so. I trust they will be forced next year.

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  3. I'm not sure what you mean by not "buying" that this came to some as a surprise, Lionel. And to me anyway this vocabulary about the use of "force" sounds like a not very compassionate approach to the real challenges many congregations have been dealing with over the past five years. In 2008 there was a conscious and careful decision, recognizing that a few of our parishes were attempting to hold together still very-divided congregations, to provide a pastoral tool to help in that effort by continuing to allow a "redirection" of that portion of the diocesan assessment that was proportionally represented by the diocesan contribution to the Episcopal Church. We also of course made the decision that we would no longer as a diocese use that "redirection" in calculating how much we would send to the Episcopal Church. So we might say, members of congregations paying full assessment agreed to carry the (not very onerous) burden of this decision. The St. Andrew's assessment is a few dollars a month higher, I guess, because another parish reduces its assessment by a few dollars. In 2008 some may have assumed this pastoral accommodation was to be very temporary. Others may have assumed it would remain in place for as long as it was helpful. The question I and others asked this year in the weeks running up to convention was whether there had been an assessment of the impact of a change in those few congregations where the established practice of allowing a redirection has continued. The answer was that no such assessment had been attempted. I believe the message to take away from the vote at this convention is simply that such an effort should be made. It would be relatively easy for the Constitution and Canons Committee to find out from the Budget and Assessments Committee which parishes still indicate a "redirection." And it would be relatively easy for the Committee to send a note to the Rector, Wardens, and Vestries of those parishes informing them of the interest of the Committee to amend the canon, and to solicit comment and conversational response--and to give those leaders in any event an ample opportunity to prepare their congregations with some pastoral sensitivity to the possibility that the canon would change.

    My own opinion is that we would do better spiritually and in mission, in the long run, without force. The Episcopal Church after all does not have a mandatory assessment, but an "asking." Thus while the Diocese of Pittsburgh might have responded to a 19% with a roughly $200,000 check to TEC, we instead responded to the "asking" with $150,000. "Because that reflected our financial reality." Similarly, we at St. Andrew's may "ask" our members to tithe, or to increase their pledge in 2014 by 10%, etc., but what they will actually do they will do in freedom. If we don't think the parishes of our diocese would effectively support the work of our diocese without "force," that doesn't say much about our confidence in the spirit of our common life . . . .

    But that's something of a different topic.

    Bruce Robison

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