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Thousands of Episcopalians have arrived in Indianapolis for the church’s triennial General Convention. During the week-long assembly, bishops and elected representatives of the clergy and laity discuss changes to church law and policy. But before the main legislative work begins, the General Convention’s committees must scrutinize the plethora of proposed resolutions that have been submitted.
Institutional reform is a topic that looms large on the Convention’s agenda, and dioceses across the country have submitted resolutions calling for structural change. During an evening hearing on July 5, the Committee on Structure heard testimony from bishops, deputies, and visitors who claimed that the church’s institutions were in need of comprehensive reform.
The Bishop of Central Pennsylvania, Sean Rowe, struck an ominous note when he warned the committee that “the church structure as it is now is on the verge of imploding.”
Similarly, the Bishop of Atlanta, Neil Alexander, called for “a new structure and a new approach to doing mission in the 21st century.”
“I believe that every baptized person, ordained or not, shares in the governance of the church, but we’ve also frankly got some idolatry, I believe, around some of our structures and I think it’s time we put them all on the table and gave them a really hard look,” he continued.
Other witnesses took a more cautious line. “Let’s stop thinking and saying our church is broken. Our church is not broken,” said Joan Geiszler-Ludlum, a Deputy from the Diocese of East Carolina.
“We have in place structures and concepts and values that have served us well for more than 100 years,” she continued.
But when the committee gathered the next day to consider what they had heard, members noted that the testimony did not contain any firm solutions to the problem.
“People don’t know exactly what they want but are asking for change, something different,” said Judith Conley, a Deputy from the Diocese of Arizona.
Fifty-one resolutions calling for structural reform have been submitted to the General Convention, and the Committee on Structure decided to appoint a subcommittee to try to streamline them into a single resolution to put before the whole Convention.
Many of the resolutions were based on a model resolution proposed by Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church’s Chief Operating Officer. That resolution called for a special commission to be appointed by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies which would be charged with coming up with “a plan to the church for reforming its structures, governance, administration, and staff to facilitate this church’s faithful engagement in Christ’s mission.” The resolution also called for a special General Convention to be held prior to the next scheduled one in 2015.
Others called for more radical change. The Diocese of San Diego proposed a resolution that would amend the church’s constitution in order to provide for the calling of a special constitutional convention that could immediately enact constitutional changes.
According to the Rev. Michael Russell, one of the diocese’s deputies, the other proposals “are just going to be an opportunity to recycle the same old things by folks who are already well-embedded in the system.”
He went on to say that the proposed constitutional convention would be a great way “to bring all the issues that we have with the constitutional, the canons, the Book of Common Prayer, all those pieces and get everybody at the table who wants to discuss making change in the church.”
Elsewhere, the Prayer Book, Liturgy, and Music Committee endorsed a resolution creating a task force to study “biblical, theological, historical, liturgical and canonical dimensions of marriage.”
It also instructed the task force to work with the Standing Commissions on Canons and on Liturgy and Music to provide assistance for clergy living in jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is legal.
Testifying in support of the proposed task force, deputies from the Diocese of El Camino Real spoke of how a similar study in their own diocese had proved to be a positive experience.
Within the committee itself there was some dissent. The Rev. David Thurlow, a Deputy from the Diocese of South Carolina, objected to the cost of the task force, as well as its effect on The Episcopal Church’s ecumenical outreach.
“My deepest regret is that, when it comes to moral theology, we’re really willing to part company with the wider one holy catholic church,” he said during the committee’s deliberations.
But his fellow committee member, Deputy Katrina Hamilton from the Diocese of Olympia, spoke out in favor of the task force. “I would like to get married one day myself, and when I do I would like to know what it is,” she said.
“I think we need this for all of us, not just for our gay and lesbian friends and brothers and sisters, but for me as well.”