Big Things in Small Packages

Reverend Sandy Webb is blogging from General Convention in Salt Lake City.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the General Convention tackled in earnest the question of structural reform. Many substantial changes have been approved, and many significant agreements have been reached. Yet, at the end of the day, one issue threatens to derail the entire movement, in fact just a single word: "Joint."

Under the proposed structure, the General Convention’s Executive Council will retain its current size (38 members – more than three times the size of General Motors’ board of directors), but its often inefficient network of policy-making bodies will be largely abolished. As someone who has thought a great deal about the need for structural change, I welcome this first step, though I think that far more work is required before it can be called a reform. (If you would like to read more of my thoughts on structural reform, consider this article: “Standing Commissions in the Twenty-First Century: A Case for Reform.” Journal of Episcopal Church Canon Law, July 2010.)

The sticking point relates to the Chief Operating Officer of the Episcopal Church (the position, not its current incumbent, Bishop Stacy Sauls). The House of Deputies has proposed that this position be a joint appointment of the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies (who serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the Executive Council). However, a significant and vociferous number of bishops feel that this senior staff position should be appointed by the Presiding Bishop, after consulting with the President of the House of Deputies.

The canons are clear about the relationship of a rector to a vestry with regard to personnel: The vestry approves the funding of positions, and the rector appoints people to fill them. (Though, a wise rector takes counsel with her vestry before making such decisions!) The same is true at the diocesan level: Elected bodies approve the funding of diocesan positions, and diocesan bishops appoint people to fill them. The underlying question is this: Does the Presiding Bishop have the same prerogatives with her staff that rectors and diocesan bishops have with theirs?

The conflict here is an historical one. The Constitution of the Episcopal Church was written at a time when the United States governed itself as a confederation of independent states. When the United States adopted the principles of federalism in 1787, the Episcopal Church carried on with its decentralized structure. As our church-wide structures grew more complex, especially in the twentieth century, this two hundred-year old system began to show its age. Our Constitution never envisioned a large central staff, with multiple layers of responsibility and oversight.

The House of Bishops adjourned tonight without making a decision. Some bishops say that agreeing to the joint appointment of the Chief Operating Officer is a very small concession that should be made in the interest of passing the overall reform before Friday’s adjournment. Others say that it strikes at the heart of a bishop’s authority. As is so often the case, a big issue was hiding in a small package.

Our bishops will reconvene in the morning to discuss and resolve this question, but I hope that they will act in a way that preserves (or, perhaps, claims for the first time) the Presiding Bishop’s authority to appoint and lead her own staff. This is a season where dynamic leadership is needed. We need to entrust our new Presiding Bishop and all of his successors with the tools they need to do the work we have asked them to do.

Posted by Cara Modisett at 2:57 AM
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