This is the third installment in a series of essays on the final report of the Task Force for Reimagining The Episcopal Church. An index to all my posts analyzing the TREC report can be found here.
In many ways, the report looks as though it was written by Captain Obvious—seminaries should do their jobs, the Church Pension Fund should do its job, we should eliminate inessential standing bodies, etc. Perhaps the only non-obvious recommendation is for a unicameral legislature. Even this is not a new or radical idea.
In its nine General Convention resolutions, the TREC report gets deeply into details of tweaking the church as it is now. If one actually compares resolutions to existing constitutional and canonical provisions, a comparison inexplicably missing from its report, it becomes obvious that the task force worked hard to change as little as possible. Even formulations likely to raise objections are often lifted unchanged from our existing governing documents.
Where is the new vision for a 21st-centuy Episcopal Church? The task force might better have spent its time dreaming of a new church built from the ground up and letting others worry about the details of implementation. To be sure, General Convention would not dissolve the church and start over from scratch, but a more visionary report might have provided a better long-term goal toward which to work.
Consider the task force’s recommendations for the General Convention. Even taking into account the change from two to one legislative body, not much is really changed. No recommendations are made concerning its frequency of meeting, and no suggestions are made to allow more younger people and ordinary working people to play an effective part in church governance. Could we have more frequent, shorter meetings? more electronic meeting? Were such ideas even considered by the task force?
Who would be part of the General Convention under the TREC plan? Happily, Resolution A002 excludes retired bishops from seats at the General Convention. This idea has often been proposed and has always been voted down. Perhaps things will be different this year. What I have not seen remarked upon is the exclusion of assistant bishops. Why are suffragans included but assistant bishops and retired bishops are not? Arguments could be made here, but they have not been. Further, there are some problems with the Article I revision. An assistant or retired bishop is not automatically included qua bishop, but can they attend at all, that is, could they be elected as clergy deputies? It seems not, but the matter is unclear. Moreover, electing an otherwise disqualified bishop takes a slot away from ordinary clergy.
Our current Article I allows diocese to send as many as four clergy and four lay deputies to the General Convention. TREC has this to say about deputies:
[Dioceses] shall be entitled to representation in the General Convention by three ordained persons, priests, or deacons (“Clergy”) canonically resident in the diocese, and not more than three lay personsUnder this provision, one suspects that diocese would send three clergy and three laypeople as deputies. Why does TREC say “three ordained persons” and “not more than three lay persons”? In the current Article I, the provisions for clergy and lay deputies are phrased identically. What is going on here? Is TREC encouraging a diminished number of lay deputies? Who knows. The provision is strange.
Some people have been perplexed by this TREC provision:
General Convention by Canon may reduce the representation to not fewer than two deputies in each order.This seems like a radical idea, but, in fact, the provision is in our current Constitution! Personally, I think we should be rid of this.
One can argue, of course, that a smaller General Convention will be more “efficient.” This is perhaps true with respect to legislative sessions, but it may be a burden on legislative committees. In any case, reducing the number of clergy and lay deputies will necessarily reduce what diversity there is at General Convention. Minorities of whatever sort—theological, racial, etc.—will have less opportunity to be elected deputies if there are fewer deputies sent from each diocese. This is especially true since one sees many of the same people at each General Convention. Certain clergy and laypeople are sent to the convention again and again. Reducing the number of deputies will make it even harder for new blood to find its way to the convention. (Of course, the good news is that perennial deputies do die.) Perhaps deputies should be term-limited. The experience of the old hands is useful, but not to the exclusion of new deputies.
If TREC was simply interested in decreasing the size of the General Convention, it could have left the number of lay deputies per diocese at four and decreased the number of clergy. General Convention is dominated by ordained persons, yet most Episcopalians are not ordained.
I find it somewhat depressing that I am writing about such small changes in our church polity. I am not alone in being unexcited by the TREC report. I had hoped for an exciting vision of a newly empowered church. I don’t think the TREC report will inspire much joy in Salt Lake City.