The TREC (Task Force for Re-imagining the Episcopal Church) report attributes to General Convention the ability to debate and discern fundamental church issues such as women’s ordination, lgbt inclusion, etc.
General Convention (GC) has historically been most effective in deliberatively discerning and evolving the church’s position on large-scale issues (e.g., prayer book revision, reform of clergy formation and discipline canons, women’s ordination, same sex blessings). This should continue to be the primary role of General Convention.
Without a deeper look this is a simplistic attribution. These things neither sprung forth from General Convention, nor were taken up by GC with great enthusiasm. There’s a grassroots story that needs to be told and that needs to inform those who are seeking to modify the GC and other church structures. If this is what General Convention does best, it is not necessarily in our best interest to shrink and streamline GC.
I can only tell this story from the LGBT experience, but I have spent countless hours with allies working on other issues, and I would say that our experiences are very similar.
In 1976, a GC of some moment, one of the resolutions passed affirmed that gay persons were children of God and equal in receiving the pastoral attention of the church. How did that resolution get there? The short answer is that a movement had begun among members of the church, lesbian and gay, to find one another and seek to organize for mutual support and to work towards ensuring that their visibility as lesbian or gay people in the church could not be called into question.
What is important is that a movement was started. We call it grassroots now, and it was indeed that. But then how do we get from the movement to the resolution of GC? It was the openness of our system. A GC large enough that allies of lesbian and gay people could get elected as deputies, and, within a couple of GC’s, lgbt people themselves. And these people had access to the system, i.e., a resolution process that was relatively easy to initiate and an open hearings policy that allowed people other than deputies and bishops to speak.
These two factors—a prior movement and a process with much flexibility and openness—were a crucial reason why the Episcopal Church was among the first denominations to open the ordination process to lgbt people and to work relatively quickly toward a blessing for their unions, and, as we continue the journey, to equal marriage. It took more time in other denominations because their equivalents of GC were much more closed, and it took far longer for lgbt people to be elected to serve in their governing bodies.
This is a critical story to be remembered when we are considering shrinking and streamlining GC, Executive Council, and other church bodies. I fully recognize the very logical arguments about cost and cumbersomeness. Yet both have been a contributing factor for any number of justice-related issues in the church to be heard and acted upon. It’s not obvious to me from the TREC report that positives and negatives of the current system have been carefully weighed. If the church had had fewer people as decision makers and a much more streamlined process (which cannot possibly happen without someone exercising greater control), it is not clear to me that we would be where we are at least on lgbt issues. The resistance in the system to dealing with issues of human sexuality, even in the current system, were very strong, and, as one of the leaders of that movement in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s, I had plenty of people in positions of power ask me, even beg me, to slow down, and very annoyed and angry that there was not much they could do about it. If a movement wants to be heard at our GC it is almost impossible to stop it. That is one of our glories. We should exercise significant discernment about whether to change that dynamic.
I myself tried hard to make the system work as quickly as possible, although I was not entirely successful in that attempt. The cumbersomeness of GC did not allow for a quick decision on the one hand, but it also allowed a decision to form over time on the other. It is certainly true that it takes 800 people a long time to deliberate. But do we really want that to change? What future movement will be dealt with too quickly so that a poor decision is made, either for or against, and the church done more harm in the long run? And who will not be at the table to join in that conversation? How can we “streamline” without narrowing our scope of vision?