This is the first in a series of essays on the 80th General Convention and prayer book revision that Covenant will publish in the coming weeks.

By Matthew S. C. Olver

This article’s title kept swimming in my head while I was at the 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church (henceforth abbreviated as GC and TEC) that met in Baltimore in early July of this year. But I’ll get to that in a minute.

Another thought that kept occurring to me is that the structure of the GC embodies the vision of Alexander Hamilton and not the vision of Thomas Jefferson. My daughter is into musical theater in a big way, so hear me out. Jefferson, obviously, is something of a villain in the musical Hamilton (as is Samuel Seabury, TEC’s first bishop, but that’s another story). When it comes to the structure of the new American republic, Hamilton’s vision was essentially an elitist approach to authority that concentrates power in the hands of a few. He didn’t trust the masses. Ironically, for a church so deeply committed to a certain kind of progressive vision where the rights and needs of various marginalized groups are ostensibly lifted up and protected, it was not until I actually participated in a GC that I realized just how remarkably the structure of the church does not reflect that. Or to put it differently, for a church that often speaks about its gift to other churches of dispersed authority and the importance of having a wide variety of voices represented, our current structure does not seem to facilitate this very well.

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Another reality that slowly dawned on me was how the GC, especially the House of Deputies, is much closer to the unfortunate way that many vestries operate, namely, as the rubber stamp for decisions made elsewhere and by other people. In the case of GC, those other people are the members of the various committees, task forces, and standing committees that operate between each GC. The vast majority of legislation comes from those committees and are then sent to the legislative committees which are created for each GC. The membership of the various bodies, along with the legislative committees, is determined by just two people: the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies. Full disclosure: I’ve been appointed to several such committees during the last 17 years: the Anglican Roman Catholic Consultation in the U.S. (ARCUSA); the Task Force on Liturgical and Prayer Book Revision; and Legislative Committee 19 on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the most recent GC.

Representation

Again, for a church so ostensibly committed to a progressive vision where the rights and needs of various marginalized groups are lifted up and protected, it’s probably time that we begin to speak honestly about how elite the GC actually is. It’s no different in American politics. Most people who become politicians are not “average” or representative. They need to have an unusually high level of motivation to engage in complicated bureaucratic maneuverings and a willingness to educate oneself about the minutia of parliamentary procedure and law. They need the sort of job or socioeconomic level that can allow them to be away from work and family for such a long period of time. The same is true for those who will have significant influence in TEC and at GC, which turns out to be one of the largest parliamentary bodies in the world. This fact is just one of the many indicators that radical reform is needed to GC and the structure of the church more broadly. It has been a long time since politicians and the American public actually cared what the Episcopal Church says on this or that issue that concerns the public good. The relationship between the enormity of our bureaucracy and our ever-shrinking size membership is not just crass but should be a cause of shame. We must address this.

David Goodhew’s recent piece on white privilege at the Lambeth Conference highlights inequities which are also found at GC. He points out that there are eight TEC dioceses with less than 1,000 people in church on a Sunday (the 2020 data moves that number up to 14), 10 of the 30 Canadian dioceses with the situation, with similar statistics in Scotland. To put things in proportion, North America contains about 2 percent of the membership of the Anglican Communion, while it brought over 100 of the 650 bishops present at the 2022 Lambeth Conference. This should not be.

The bicameral structure of the GC was modeled in part on the structure of the US Congress, with the House of Bishops being the analog to the Senate and the House of Deputies as analog to the House of Representatives. The difference, however, is that while the House of Bishops basically provides equal representation for all dioceses regardless of their size, the House of Deputies does not have proportional representation. (In the House of Representatives, “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at least one Representative.”) Article 1.10 of TEC’s Constitution states that each diocese normally shall be represented by four lay and four clerical deputies.

Just to give a sense of how varied are the sizes of dioceses in TEC, here is a list of every diocese that listed an ASA higher than 9,999 in 2020 (see the report here).

  1. Texas, 21,619 (20,933 + 686 from North Texas, which merged with Texas)
  2. Virginia, 17,237
  3. Haiti, 14,469
  4. North Carolina, 12,718
  5. Atlanta, 12,058
  6. Central Florida, 11,448
  7. Massachusetts, 11,410
  8. Southwest Florida, 11,008
  9. Connecticut, 10,612
  10. Washington 10,579
  11. Dallas, 10,329
  12. New York, 10,222

These 12 dioceses reported a combined ASA of 153,709, which is 31.8 percent of TEC’s total ASA of 483,108.

What follows is a list of all the dioceses who reported an ASA under 1,000 in the 2020 report:

  1. Micronesia, 52
  2. Navajo Missions, 176
  3. Northern Michigan, 233
  4. Ecuador-Central, 312
  5. Eau Claire, 357
  6. Equador-Litoral, 476
  7. W Kansas, 499
  8. Taiwan, 678
  9. San Joaquin, 699
  10. Eastern OR, 729
  11. Virgin Islands, 810
  12. Cuba, 917
  13. Churches in Europe, 942
  14. Colombia, 983

These 14 dioceses reported a combined ASA of 7,863, which is 1.6 percent of TEC’s total ASA. A few more details: 17 dioceses reported an ASA between 1,000 and 2,000; 21 dioceses between 2,000 and 3,000; 11 dioceses reported an ASA between 3,000 and 4,000; six dioceses reported an ASA between 4,000 and 5,000. To give a sense of comparison, one has to combined the ASA of these 69 dioceses (which is approximately 151,000) to get close to the ASA of the 12 largest dioceses (153,709).

One solution could look something like this: “The Number of Deputies shall not exceed one lay and one clerical for every 3,500 persons in their reported ASA, but each Diocese shall have at Least one lay and one clerical deputy.” This would drastically reduce the size of the House of Deputies from over 875 people to approximately 375 and allow for representation to have a real relationship to the size of respective dioceses.

Legislation

The volume of legislation at GC is difficult to comprehend (let alone read), even for the deputies. This volume was supposed to be radically curtailed because of the significantly shortened length of GC, down to just 4 days so that we would deal with just “essential business.” But it turned out that every legislative committee believed their work to be essential, and thus we considered more than 80 percent of the number of pieces of legislation than at the last convention, even though it was less than half its length. This meant that on the first day, the consent calendar (the legislative means by which seemingly-uncontroversial resolutions are adopted as a group by one vote without debate) had approximately 140 resolutions. The combined use of the consent calendar and the volume of resolutions means that very little of the legislation can even be debated, let alone even read and understood. And when items are debated, the time is relatively brief.

At this convention, the special rules included the feature that required a 1/3 vote to remove any item from the consent calendar. This rule also included the prohibition of any debate about this move and the inability of the proposer to identify why they might wish to debate the legislation individually. The House of Deputies was generally left with the impression that if somebody wanted to remove something from the consent calendar, it was because they disliked it, when it might have been the complete opposite (the deputy liked the resolution and wanted to strengthen it)! Add this to the rather circular argument that because we had so much business to do, there was no time to debate these matters individually and everything we’re doing is essential. We had some deputies making arguments that we should only vote to remove things from the consent calendar if we wanted to have evening legislative sessions! Imagine Athanasius suggesting that they curtail debate at Nicaea so there would be more time for evening cocktails!

I had hoped that the shortened GC would be catalyzing force to really ask the difficult questions about what really is important. What does it mean to pass 130 resolutions in one fell swoop? What does it mean to do this when is likely that most deputies haven’t even read most of the resolutions? What are we doing when we use the consent calendar to pass quite controversial resolutions (e.g., a proposed abortion policy more radical than any liberal country) without debate alongside changing “Suffragan Bishop” to “Bishop Suffragan”? If most of the deputies can’t read all the legislation, is anyone reading them? These and many other questions swirled around my mind as I waited for the hours that we were wasted as the insufficient WiFi in the convention center attempted to deal with all the iPads we used to vote.

Thankfully, the newly-elected President of the House of Deputies, Julia Ayala Harris, served as a member of TREC, the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, which in 2014 made sweeping recommendations for changing the governance of the church, most of which were not adopted. But it seems that she is clear that the issues that precipitated TREC’s creation have not disappeared.

Two Houses

The sharp contrast between the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies could not have been more striking. The House of Bishops can choose to take considerable time to debate a particular matter. And at this convention, they did just that. They took hours to consider what they thought to be a question of fundamental theological and ecclesiological concern: namely, the nature of the Book of Common Prayer. I would’ve been much more relieved had a more robust compromise resolution been produced. But that will be the subject of the following essays in this series. Nevertheless, the tenor of the House of Bishops was both striking and extremely heartening:

  • They gave hours of time to a topic they thought to be fundamental to the nature and identity of this church, namely, the prayer book, the only place the preamble to our Constitution says is to be articulated the Faith and Order of this church. This is the bishops taking seriously their vocation as guardians of the faith.
  • The Presiding Bishop structured this time such that they first had a long period in which any bishop could ask any clarifying question before turning to debate, after which they had time for discussion at their tables, and only then did they turn to debate. The degree of charity and gracious restraint evident in all of this was simply remarkable and filled me with hope.
  • A number of controversial resolutions were proposed, including a resolution affirming  “that all Episcopalians should be able to access abortion services and birth control with no restriction on movement, autonomy, type, or timing” and another resolution on “the Ongoing Harm of Crisis Pregnancy Centers.” Several bishops stood up to ask why, in a very divided American political climate, the GC would seek to pass such extreme and divisive resolutions. Is this what Christians are called to do? Another wondered aloud: Who is reading these resolutions? What do we imagine that they are actually doing? Are we simply pontificating to each other?

Conclusion

I mentioned earlier that one idea that kept surfacing during my time in Baltimore went something like this: “I taught canon law. Then I went to General Convention.” The nature of GC, namely, that it happens just once every three years it is not a continuing body, places an undue pressure on the entire apparatus to make rapid decisions about a whole host of matters. Not all resolutions are created equal, of course: some carry much less authority, such as resolutions that state the convention’s opinions on this or that matter. This is one of my comforts, actually, that allows me to make peace with some of the most radical resolutions: they are simply the mind of this body at this time. If resolutions do not change the prayer book or the Constitution and Canons, and if they do not include a mechanism for enactment (if they are they sort of resolution) and the corresponding funding, they may well be described in the words of Macbeth:

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

But some resolutions are of enormous substance. Revisions to the Constitution and Canons can be of tremendous significance and can cut to the heart of our Faith and Order. There are many ways in which even the canon law and rubrics that we already have are winked at or ignored all the time (e.g., inviting the unbaptized to receive Holy Communion in violation of Canon 1.17.7; the Celebrant receiving the Holy Eucharist last in direct violation of the rubric on pp. 338 and 365). More than that, GC seemingly has been authorizing texts beyond the BCP without having the constitutional or canonical authorization to do so. The SCLM writes: “Texts that churches use every Sunday, across the breadth of the Episcopal Church, have very tenuous constitutional and canonical authorization.” They go on to claim: We discovered that the church has been working without a canonical net.”

But at this convention we stepped into one of the most significant revisions imaginable: a revision to Article X of the Constitution which governs the Book of Common Prayer. The only place the Constitution states that this church’s “historic Faith and Order” is set forth is in the prayer book. Thus, any revision to the nature and content of the Book of Common Prayer is as seismic a change as possible. Nothing this significant has been considered at GC since the complete revision of Title IV (which governs discipline) and even that revision did not strike at the heart this church’s identity as does the prayer book.

But something like the revision of our constitution in A059, which is an enormous matter, was produced in a span of 24 hours and passed without objection. This should be concerning. The first reading of the constitutional amendment to Article X includes language that should not be found in such a document. For example, the vague and aspirational language of the second and third sentences is simply not the sort of the language appropriate to a Constitution:

The Book of Common Prayer in this Church is intended to be communal and devotional prayer enriched by our church’s cultural, geographical, and linguistic contexts. The Book of Common Prayer shall contain both public worship and private devotion.

Then, there are the changes themselves that this revision would introduce, whose effects cut to the heart of this church’s identity.

In the coming weeks, I will have a series of essays that will lay out the history of trial use, how it has been used and abused, what proposals have come before the GC as of late, the implications of A059, and the issues around the nature and content of the Book of Common Prayer that I think the Episcopal Church needs to consider carefully before the 2024 General Convention.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is associate professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, the assistant director of liturgy at St. Mary’s Chapel, the 2022–2023 Alan Richardson Fellow at Durham University, and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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9 Comments
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C R SEITZ
1 month ago

It is indeed a mess.

Troy Beecham
1 month ago

Did D083 pass both houses?

Byron Rushing
1 month ago
Reply to  Troy Beecham
Ben Lima
1 month ago

Thank you. The question of proportional representation in dioceses is quite interesting and would seem to open onto the question of ‘democracy’ in church bodies more generally. Theologically speaking, what is the place of the ‘will of the people’ in a church in general? And how would churches handle ‘redistricting’ of dioceses? Certainly in the case of legislatures that faced this question, the process can be controversial (e.g. Reform Act of 1832 eliminating ‘rotten boroughs’ in the UK, Reynolds vs. Sims mandating ‘one person one vote’ districts in the US Congress).

William Rowland
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben Lima

I am somewhat amiss as to what had been proposed. Nevertheless perhaps we could have two déligates from each diocèse or province with a presiding Bishop providing the swing vote

29 days ago
Reply to  Ben Lima

Ben, thanks for your comment. And you are quite right to raise the larger question: is this kind of democratic representation itself a good thing? I wrote the piece assuming the fixity of the basic approach to governance: a bicameral legislature. My point was that while we speak as if this structure is democratic, it is clearly not. Some proportionality related to size seems quite reasonable.

William Rowland
1 month ago

With all due respect; i Think you do not understand the différences between Jefferson and Hamilton. Briegly Hamilton was a centriste which our centrist church government suited him well. Jefferson while Being a very devout membre of ECUSA was more of the independent sort a friend and ally of the American Baptist Church (they broke into the Southern Baptiste over slavery in 1860 approximately) who questionee both dogma and scripture and went so far as to rewrite the New Testament removing all thé miracle stories. Jefferson was very closed mouth and secretive about his Faith refusing to discuss it even… Read more »

29 days ago

William: thanks for your comment. And I must have not made my analogy very clear! Apologies. My point about Hamilton and Jefferson was not to describe their views about the church and its structure, but their views about the structure of the American republic.

Joe Rankin
27 days ago

Democratic church governance is appealing but one must remember it rests on the knowledge and beliefs of the representatives. The church will have secular values if that is what the representative want and believe or follow Christ if that is their belief. For me the real question is how to safe-guard that the Church follows the will of God and not the will of the people. That should be the job of the bishops but for me many of them are secular humanists. We elect our bishops to reflect our values not whether they strive to do God’s will. I… Read more »