Saturday, March 01, 2014

Increase the power of the presiding bishop?

The recent paper from the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church is troubling in some ways and encouraging in others. As it is a long paper, I will probably return to it a few more times. As the part that troubles me comes at the beginning of the paper in the discussion of General Convention, I will start there.

The authors of the paper are pursuing some worthy goals such as streamlining the legislative process,
diminishing the unwieldy number of resolutions that convention is sometimes asked to consider and making the triennial gathering more efficient and cost effective. But one of its principal proposals for achieving its goals is to limit by subject matter the types of resolutions that the convention can consider. Resolutions on social justice issues are singled out as a particular problem, and, if the Task Force has its way, these will be “screened” (they don’t say by whom) to determine whether they are worthy of the convention’s time.

If you are someone who regards advancing the church’s social justice agenda as something of a vocation (as I do) then what TREC is telling you is that you are involved in a ministry that is requiring more attention that it deserves, and is so potentially destructive to our common life that it must be singled out for special monitoring.

Several advocates of this proposal have told me that the social justice work of the church will continue but that either it will arise from the grassroots, or that the issues on which we will focus our energy will be designated by the Presiding Bishop in consultation with the Executive Council. There are at least four problems with this response.

1. Legislation brought to General Convention often does come from the grassroots, and activists at the grassroots know what supporters of this proposal do not: that it is enormously helpful to have the support of national organizations with moral credibility behind you when you speak in public, write op-eds or letters to the editor, list your supporters on your website, or call on members of Congress or your state legislature.

2. Currently, the Office of Government Relations requires General Convention resolutions to authorize its participation in any advocacy effort. Outfits like OGR are essential to grassroots advocates because, as any grassroots advocate will tell you, when building the kind of coalitions required to sustain effective movements to change the status quo, it is almost impossible to make significant progress without the help of trained and experienced legislative advocates.

3. One cannot intelligently argue for both of these ways of doing business. Either our advocacy comes from the grassroots or a single individual sets it in motion. It can’t be both.

4. I f, as a church, we are going to disenfranchise the General Convention and enfranchise the Office of the Presiding Bishop (in consultation with a body of which he or she is president) then we are shifting authority in this area of our common life away from the elected representatives of the people of the church for three-year terms to an individual who is more or less unaccountable to the church once elected to a nine-year term by one house of the convention. The breadth and effectiveness of our advocacy would depend heavily on the appetite, abilities and political leanings of a single individual. I can’t be the only person who thinks that would be a terrible idea.

There are numerous other ways to reduce the number of resolutions that come before the convention—some of which the task force explores elsewhere in the paper. That it nonetheless recommended screening one—and only one—category of resolution, prompts a question: Is the task force only trying to streamline the legislative process, or is it using the need to streamline the process as cover for an attempt to diminish the advocacy efforts of the church? If it is the former, it should explain why it singled out social justice legislation for special scrutiny. If it is the latter, it should be honest about its intentions and let the church debate that issue on the merits.

I should add that I think restricting General Convention legislation by subject matter—regardless of the subject matter—is a bad idea, and one that we would almost immediately regret and need to reverse if only because we cannot predict the subject matter that future conventions might have to deal with. But more on this and the rest of the TREC governance paper another day.

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