May 19, 2012

Both Your Houses

Should General Convention be Unicameral?

I’ve commented before on the rumblings abroad concerning the “restructuring The Episcopal Church” — which usually means restructuring the budget or the staff at “815.” I would like to set those issues aside for a moment and look at one way of restructuring General Convention itself. I launch into this in part because Bishop Provenzano floated the notion a short while ago, and it is one about which I have also reflected in the past: should we merge the separate Houses of Bishops and Deputies into a unicameral synod?

First of all let me define my model a bit more carefully, to avoid at least one of the objections I’ve heard: Bishops, clergy and lay deputies would sit in their diocesan deputations, have full freedom of debate, and all matters other than the merely procedural would be decided by a majority vote in each order. (This is not the same as our current “vote by orders and dioceses” — which is even more stringent. If it is desired to maintain that as an additional requirement for the same questions now requiring it, it is easily maintained.) The use of electronic voting could make this almost instantaneous, as it has been for the Deputies in the past (depending on the system used.) The requirement of a majority in each order (as is the norm in many other synods) is to forestall the concern that a sudden influx of bishops might overwhelm the assembly — something I think unlikely in any case, but this does provide a safeguard.

There are several advantages to this proposal, not least of which is the efficiency of being able to hold single votes on all matters rather than the separate votes in each house now required. Another thing this proposal would avoid is the occasional “improvement” of a resolution in one house in a way not supported by (and already debated and defeated) in the other.

On a more positive note, a unicameral house would actually embody our theology of ministry and order, which holds that all persons, lay and ordained, have a role in governance. It would better allow all to hear the wisdom and reflection of each particular perspective. Cutting the bishops off from the laity and clergy is not good for any of them — and we benefit greatly in hearing each other. A unicameral body would reflect the ideal of the church as gathered community.

We already have limited experience of unicameral work: General Convention sits as a single body to hear the presentation of the budget; and the legislative committees of each house, which up until about a generation ago met separately, have been meeting together (but voting by house) for the last several years, to very good effect in terms both of the efficiency and utility of hearings and deliberation.

So much for the benefits. Let me cite some of the objections I’ve heard to this sort of proposal and offer my response:

This departs from our original structure modeled on the Federal legislature.

General Convention does not in fact model the structure of Congress in its most significant aspect, a balance between the houses of Congress of proportional and unitary representation of the several states. The House of Deputies is not proportional, and the House of Bishops only circumstantially so, to the extent that a larger or wealthier diocese might be able to have a suffragan or two. A look at early history shows an even more surprising distinction: the two houses were not intended as equal bodies at the outset. In the original Constitution of The Episcopal Church, provision was made that until there were three bishops they would sit with their deputations in a single house, and only after there were at least three as a separate “house of revision” without the right to originate or definitively veto legislation. It is true that the two houses eventually gained the ability to originate and overrule the other house’s action (by non-concurrence) but this in effect undercuts the need for a separate house, since both do the same thing now. The notion of the bishops as a separate council of elder kibitzers (as originally conceived) was, as original intents go, far from the model of the US Senate and what the House of Bishops eventually became.

Won’t the assembly be even larger than the present House of Deputies, and unwieldy in terms of debate?

Even if every bishop, including retired bishops, were to attend the sessions of General Convention, and all deputations remain at the current maximum of eight deputies, the assembly or synod would only be about the size of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America “Churchwide” governing body, which at its last session had 1,025 members. This might be the time to consider changing the size of deputations to three lay and three clergy members, and restrict the voting bishops to those still in active ministry — or even more only to diocesans, as is the custom in some synods — but those are really separate issues that have to be argued on their own merits. However, the time saved in not having duplicative debates on the house floor would give more time for extended joint (now truly joint) legislative hearings, where much of the real work of Convention is done.

Don’t the bishops have some things to do that only concern them?

There are a few duties the bishops exercise on their own, and it would certainly be possible for them to arrive a day early to deal with that agenda, or defer such actions to their interim gatherings — which it would likely be wise to continue on an annual basis in order to encourage episcopal collegiality. Having met in a unicameral General Convention might help remind the bishops that their authority to act apart from that body is considerably circumscribed.

Will the clergy in particular feel comfortable speaking in opposition to their bishop?

This seems to me to be a real concern, and all I can say is that I would hope the clergy would feel confident in doing this — or perhaps more confident than they would in their own diocesan conventions. As a very public forum every speaker would be on the spot to speak their mind without fear of reprisal, and the courage to do so would be to the betterment of the church. Giving in to fear seems not a good reason not to grow into a more mature ability to speak one’s views in the body of the people.

Who would chair the meetings? What would happen to the President of the House of Deputies?

I suggest this adjustment to the structure: the Presiding Bishop (to be elected by the whole synod and not just the bishops with the consent of the deputies) would remain as President and Chair;anelected Vice-President, always to be of the lay or clerical order, would take the chair to spell the President, much as is done now with the House of Deputies; we would retain a Secretary of the General Convention and a Secretary of the House of Bishops (the latter for their separate meetings, also assigned, as was originally the case with the Secretary of the House of Deputies before it had its own VP, to take the chair in the absence of the PB).

So that’s a proposal I think worth examining. What do you think?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Paul (A.) said...

As to "a majority vote in each order": Will we then require deacon deputies? And to what extent can deacons feel free to act contrary to a position taken by their bishop?

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Paul, I was using "order" here in the sense that the Constitution and Canons use it, that is, Lay and Clerical order, as opposed to "order of ministry." But to address the peculiar relationship of deacons, I think deacons elected as deputies have thereby been given a particular responsibility to act as they see best, even it if means going contrary to their bishop. Some of the most important deacons in church history have stood up to bishops, after all; Francis of Assisi is just one example. An ironic part of holy obedience is that is sometimes involves helping superiors see the error of their ways.

Brother David said...

I think that until we recover a true theology of the episcopacy and with it a theology of deacons and priests, we will always have this kind of question asked. Deacons and priests have no different allegiance to their bishop, they serve in the bishop's ministry to the people of the diocese, only which ministry to the people is different.

Marshall Scott said...

The General Synod of the Church of England meets this way, IIRC. In addition to the probable time savings, it would be consistent with our current practice of joint meetings of legislative committees.

That said, I fear the concerns about bishops swaying their deputations (which may not always be inappropriate) would never go away. Indeed , I wonder whether it would divide deputations, if deputies in one order (and I really expect it would be lay deputies) were to be more in line with the bishop. And, again, that might not always be inappropriate.

Michael said...

What about doing this and taking a page from the House of Bishops, and not have deputations sit togeter, but instead sit mixed across the floor. This would force us to talk with others one on one. It would also mean that one way or another a bishop could not "intimidate" members of his/her diocese.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Bro David, I agree we are not completely clear on our theology of ministry and orders; but the point being raised was the practice, in some dioceses anyway, of making all deacons directly answerable to the bishop, apart from any parish connection. I certainly agree that both priests and deacons have a relationship with their bishop, but the deacons' is, in some places anyway, more "intense" if I can put it that way...

Marshall, that's my understanding about the C of E. As to the swaying of deputies, I see the point, but I'm less anxious about it. And ultimately, in a free society, if people are swayed, they will be swayed -- and maybe that is part of the mix?

Michael, that is a thought. Some of my colleagues love to act and think in "deputation" terms -- I tend to be much more a maverick. (No Palin jokes, please!) So I'd be all for it, including even the vote by orders and dioceses. Right now that requires proximity because everyone has to sign the form... but if we went to pure electronic voting it could be accomplished in a diffuse manner as you suggest.

Another though would be to have all the bishops sit in a section all to themselves. "God bless and keep the Bishop... far away from us!"