February 26, 2014

Some Initial Thoughts on the TREC Study Paper on Governance and Administration

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church has issued its second study paper. This one is titled “TREC Study Paper on Reforms to Church Wide Governance and Administration.” (For convenience, I will refer to the paper as RCGA.) I read through the paper today and thought it useful to offer some initial impressions.

I have my own views on how we run our General Convention, and I find the recommendations of the task force to be reasonable, even though they are presented without much justification. I must admit to my eyes having glazed over as I read the section on administration. I may have more to say about that later. (Or not.)

The view of the General Convention that undergirds RCGA’s recommendations is that the convention is too big, too long, too specialized, too unwieldy, and insufficiently focused. In the paper, these assumptions are largely implicit, and there is no attempt to justify how implementing its recommendations will correct the implied deficiencies.

The recommendations can be summarized as follows:
  1. Limit the range of legislation and establish legislative priorities.
  2. Add a focus to General Convention as a “Missionary Convocation” by including non-deputies and adding workshops, network meetings, etc.
  3. Reduce diocesan deputations to three laypersons, three clergy, and a maximum of three alternates; and exclude retired bishops from voting in the House of Bishops.
  4. Limit “the legislative function” to seven days.
  5. Empower a legislative committee to meet 90 days prior to the convention to winnow resolutions, assign resolutions to legislative committees, and to decide what resolutions will be allowed in the 90 days before convention.
  6. Reduce the number of legislative committees.
  7. Allow legislative committees to kill resolutions.
  8. Reduce the assessment on dioceses to something closer to 10% and “develop a sensible means of holding dioceses accountable for paying their assessments.”
  9. Allow legislative committees to hold virtual meetings beginning 90 days before the convention to accomplish preliminary work, and allow “the church public” to participate in this work.
My own experience with General Conventions—I have attended General Convention, though never as a deputy—has left me frustrated with the legislative process. Important resolutions sometimes get short shrift, while inessential ones seem to be debated interminably. Recommendation (1) is clearly intended to facilitate doing a better job of setting legislative priorities. It is not clear, however, that the suggested changes will sufficiently improve legislative efficiency to avoid having the fourth recommendation be counterproductive. It simply takes a certain amount of calendar time to perfect legislation and give it a fair hearing.

Reducing the size of deputations will save money for dioceses, though it doesn’t clearly reduce the cost to the general church of staging a General Convention. Moreover, having fewer deputies means that there are fewer people to do the necessary committee work.

Whether wise or not, it was clear that there was going to be a recommendation to decrease the number of convention deputies. At least in some diocese, recommendation (3) will have the effect of decreasing the diversity of deputations. (Whether deputations are diverse is highly dependent on the election procedures for electing deputies.) It is not at all clear that there is any benefit to be gained by limiting the number of alternates. There is some slight administrative overhead to having more alternates, of course, but dioceses send at least some alternates without subsidizing their attendance.

Limiting the number of alternates to three is curious. Should diocese designate two clergy and one lay deputy as alternates? Two lay and one clergy? Three alternates of the same order? If we want to decrease the size of the House of Deputies, I suggest that deputations consist of two clergy and four laypeople. Clergy have more than enough influence; they make up half the House of Deputies and all of the House of Bishops. Let dioceses decide how many alternates they want to send.

The matter of retired bishops voting has frequently been raised, but no action has been taken. It probably is time to take away their votes, which seldom affect outcomes anyway.

Recommendation (5) seems helpful, as long as the committee cannot simply kill legislation its members do not like.

Recommendation (6) is more specific than I have suggested in the above list. RCGA suggests combining the constitution and canons committees, for example. The recommendation does not eliminate fundamental tasks, but it may reduce administrative overhead, which is positive.

The actual wording of recommendation (7) is this: “Expressly permit legislative committees to let resolutions die in committee.” I assume there is some ambiguity about the power in question. Actually, I am inclined to think that legislative committees have too much power already. If a committee receives resolutions that take very different positions on a subject—dealing with the church’s response to the Windsor Report or Anglican Covenant come immediately to mind—a committee can bias the work of the convention by bringing forth one resolution or another. I am not at all convinced that the will of the 2012 General Convention was to duck a decision on the Anglican Covenant because the church was so divided as to its desirability. The convention passed the cowardly Resolution B005 because that is what a committee brought forth, and insufficient time was available in the House of Deputies to adequately debate the resolution. (See recommendation (1).)

Resolution (8) is not a simple matter. The general church could ask for less money from dioceses if all dioceses actually contributed to its upkeep. Dioceses that fail to pay their assessment, except in cases of severe financial hardship, should loose their votes both in the House of Deputies and House of Bishops. Historically, failure to pay any of a diocese’s assessment has resulted from hostility to the general church. That is a different problem entirely.

Recommendation (9) sounds like a good idea, but the technical problems may be difficult, particularly that of allowing all comers as spectators or, in some cases, as participants.

As for recommendation (2), adding a kind of ministry fair to the General Convention, I am skeptical. On the one hand, it would bring more people to the convention—I thought we were trying to reduce the size of it, however—but, at the same time, it would of necessity make it difficult for deputies to attend, as they should be attending to legislative matters. I would rather see such an event completely separate from the General Convention, perhaps held in years in which there is no convention. The main synergy achieved by combining legislation with a ministry fair involves the dual role of exhibits.

Although RCGA offers some interesting suggestions, it is disappointing that it is vague about the motivation for them and fails to make the case that implementing its recommendations will somehow improve the work of the General Convention. It is not obvious that TREC thought deeply about the issues with which it is dealing.

Postscript. What follows may seem petty, but I think my observations suggest deeper problems.

Alert readers may notice that I abbreviated the name of the study paper as “RCGA.” Its full title is “TREC Study Paper on Reforms to Church Wide Governance and Administration.” Why did I not use “RCWGA”? Well, this paper uses “church wide,” though other material from TREC uses “churchwide.” In fact, on the TREC Web site, one can find both “Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church” and “Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church.” In general, the material from TREC, content aside, seems poorly edited and formatted. Perhaps this is the result of too many cooks spoiling the broth. It might have been useful to identify a general editor for TREC material early on.

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