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Understanding the General Convention*
One shorthand description of the government of The Episcopal Church is this phrase, "episcopally led and synodically governed." The phrase occurs widely in various documents of Anglican churches and full-communion partners. Is it an accurate description?
Understanding the General Convention and how it works begins with the American Revolution. Before 1781 and the Battle of Yorktown, the Church of England congregations were under the Bishop of London. They met occasionally to network (we would say today), calling those meetings “conventions.” Although the “protestant episcopalians” respected the faraway jurisdiction of London, they had little to do with it, basically developing their own congregational ways and means of being church. In order to be confirmed or ordained, one had to take the perilous voyage to the mother country.
It has been argued that one of the causes of the Revolution was a plan to appoint a bishop for the colonies. Be that as it may, after 1781 the Episcopalians began to think about how to organize themselves, including how to secure American episcopal oversight. The congregations were in a parlous state, as many clergy and laity had left for England or Canada, and dozens of church buildings lay in ruins. The Connecticut clergy sent one of their own, Samuel Seabury, to England in 1783 to inquire after ordination as Bishop. In 1784 clergy and laypeople held several meetings and eventually a call went out for a convention to meet — styled "a general convention" as opposed to those held before in the several colonies.
On November 14, 1784, Seabury was consecrated bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church, which did not require him to pledge allegiance to the Crown, as English bishops do to this day. In September 1785 the first convention met in Philadelphia. In 1786 two meetings of the second convention occurred in Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware. At issue for both was a request to the English Parliament to make allowance for consecrations outside the Church of England, a revision of the Book of Common Prayer, and the writing of a constitution and canons, all in the absence of Bishop Seabury, whose Scottish consecration was controversial. In 1787 William White and Samuel Provoost were consecrated by bishops of the Church of England.
The New England congregations wanted episcopal, top-down leadership; the southern congregations wanted lay and clergy meetings to lead. The 1789 General Convention established The Episcopal Church as both. What was at the time a compromise became a fresh new way of being Christian while holding to the faith handed down through the Church of England.
It is worth pausing to consider how extraordinary this achievement was. The dispirited remnant of American Episcopalians in 1781 had come together to secure for themselves the continuation of the episcopate for America, had written a Book of Common Prayer with what can be considered significant advances on the 1662 English Book, and had approved a constitution and canons. Moreover, the first Constitution came into full force without the ratification of the churches in the several states. The 1789 Convention adopted it, and from that beginning all Episcopalians were subject to its authority, whether they had approved of it or not, or sent deputies or bishops to Convention. By 1790 every congregation and cleric in the land had acceded to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.
This brings us to a key point. While the General Convention has final power over the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons, that is, definitions of our identity as a church, this is the extent of its unchallenged authority. Other legislation may be considered authoritative when Convention labels it an official teaching of the church, but one may still dissent from it, even clergy who have sworn to “conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship” of the church. While diocesan constitutions and canons may not contradict the General Canons, there is no "model" that dioceses must follow.
This type of limited authority, now called “subsidiarity”, springs from our church’s origin. While the founders wanted to have bishops leading the church, even though most had never even seen one, they did not want the bishops to have unlimited power. Each diocese now has a standing committee, that serves as a “council of advice” to the diocesan bishop, and which must concur with the bishop’s important decisions such as ordination and deposition of clergy before they can be enacted.
Of course, we can see that this practice comes from the organizing of The Episcopal Church not by outside authorities, but from clergy and laypeople sent by their state churches (as they were known then — the word “diocese” was not used until well into the nineteenth century) to serve as deputies or be ordained bishop. And that sense of how church is run came from the decades when congregations made decisions for themselves, despite commissaries or colonial legislatures occasionally trying to exercise oversight.
The General Convention is not like the U.S. Congress. There is no judiciary. The “executive branch” is not independent of it. There are important distinctions between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, and these form the driving force of the body. Deputies have always been volunteers, elected by their diocese to a three-year term to go and vote their conscience on legislation, and also to originate legislation for consideration. The Presidents of the House of Deputies have always served in that same capacity — they first must be elected or re-elected as Deputies with the usual three-year term before election or re-election as President.
The clergy and lay Deputies and Alternates elected by each diocese have a term that does not end with the Convention for which they were elected. As such, they are important to their diocese, bearing its concerns to Convention, possibly submitting legislation, voting their consciences, and returning to explain and interpret the actions of Convention — and their votes — to their diocese. It is a labor of love for their church and for their God, to whom Deputies are solely responsible for the exercise of their ministry.
The bishops are by virtue of their ordination vows the people responsible for overseeing that the authoritative decisions of General Convention that form our church’s identity, namely, the Book of Common Prayer and the Convention’s Constitution and Canons, are fully respected in their several dioceses. This is what “defending the faith and guarding the unity of the Church” actually means for Episcopal bishops. Bishops are overall accountable for the exercise of their authority to their dioceses and in particular to the House of Bishops, and the provision for canonical discipline of the bishops has been steadily strengthened in recent years.
For the exercise of their ministry as a House, Deputies meet every three years for the General Convention. Bishops meet at least once a year besides General Convention to discuss policies for the exercise of their ministry.
And so we come to this shorthand description of our church: “episcopally led and synodically governed”. Other churches may be said to be either episcopally led and governed, or else led and governed by a synod. The synod of the Episcopal Church, the General Convention, takes its inspiration from the ancient councils and synods of the Church, in which laypeople, priests and deacons were involved in decision making, as well as the chief bishop and other bishops. When both Houses meet together, therefore, the Presiding Bishop chairs that meeting. But we are governed only by decisions agreed upon by both Houses.
At the same time, we ordain and consecrate men and women to the episcopacy, because as an episcopal church, we look to bishops to exercise leadership, separately in their dioceses, together as a House, and, as the Ordinal says, "to share in the leadership of the Church throughout the world."
However, certain powers are granted to the House of Deputies that the House of Bishops does not have. The bishops elect the Presiding Bishop, but the Deputies must vote to confirm the election. The Deputies elect their President, independent of the bishops. Moreover, the President of the House of Deputies has a clear and separate role in the governance of our church, appointing the majority of members of all commissions, committees, agencies and boards of the Episcopal Church (the Presiding Bishop only appoints bishops to these). While both Houses elect their members to the Executive Council that is responsible for executing the decisions of the General Convention when it is not in session, the lay and clergy members strongly outnumber the bishops on Council. While the Presiding Bishop chairs the Council, the President of the House of Deputies serves as its Vice-chair.
The House of Deputies elects its Secretary, who then becomes the Secretary of the General Convention with the consent of the House of Bishops.
The Presiding Bishop does lead, in that she or he alone is by canon responsible for the overall strategic vision of the Episcopal Church and speaks to the world for the Episcopal Church. As Primate of the church, the Presiding Bishop has equivalent rank to the other thirty-eight primates, the heads of the other churches of the Anglican Communion, and also speaks for our church in those councils. Thus, both the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies have distinct roles within their respective Houses; while they have similar responsibilities relative to General Convention, each also has unique duties throughout the three years between Conventions.
Episcopally led and synodically governed — the saying sums up the governance of the Episcopal Church, enshrining the genius of the first Episcopalians.
While the Episcopal Church can be proud of its way of ordering its affairs, there are some points to remember, as well.
The General Convention is very good for bringing the concerns of "the person in the pew" to the highest levels of government. It is not designed to lead the church in doing its part in God’s mission in creation. This was recognized as early as 1821, when a special General Convention created the Domestic & Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, Inc., of which every Episcopalian is automatically a member. It can be said that the present Presiding Bishop’s portrayal of our church and its "DFMS" as "the Episcopal part of the Jesus Movement" is to re-instill an urgency for mission for us all, over against purely institutional concerns.
Moreover, as excellent as it is, our unique form of church government did not help Episcopalians dismantle slavery or resist segregation. On the contrary, slave-owning Episcopalians profited from human bondage until 1865, and rarely struggled against segregation — the first suffragan bishops were consecrated "for colored work" in 1917 and 1918. Not only were women not allowed ordination until the 1976 General Convention, they were not allowed to serve as Deputies to General Convention until 1970. Women did not sit on parish vestries until the 1960s in most dioceses. The first female President of the House of Deputies, Pamela Chinnis, was only elected in 1991, and the first female Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, in 2006. Furthermore, we lagged well behind several mainline American denominations in the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Episcopalians in the life and governance of our church. Now the General Convention faces the challenge of the full inclusion of people who disagree with some of its actions concerning marriage of two persons.
Nevertheless, we may perhaps paraphrase Winston Churchill’s adage on democracy, and say that this manner of church government is the worst form of government, until one considers all the other types of church government. The General Convention will always need redeeming and reforming, as will The Episcopal Church in general, but we should always go forth, confident that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it."
*Of the Episcopal Church (USA)
Bishop Whalon welcomes comments or questions about this article. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.