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Why do we do that? The Constitution and Canons

As a member of the Diocesan staff, my role is to serve the bishop as both Canon to the Ordinary (chief of staff) and Chancellor (legal advisor). On a daily basis, questions arrive from clergy and lay leaders of parishes in the diocese regarding issues common to many small businesses, such as employee benefits and employment matters. However, the answers to many other questions that arise at parishes are found in the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church and the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Ohio. But first, it’s important to understand why the canons matter.

Episcopal Polity 101:

Since coming to Ohio in 2004, Bishop Hollingsworth has taught the polity (structure) of The Episcopal Church. Every year at Winter Convocation, he leads a course in “Episcopal Polity 101,” in which he describes “his take” on how we as communicants relate to the Church. The Bishop starts with Baptism, where we all receive “baptismal authority,” as we experience and participate in the life of a parish community. As we form relationships and participate in various aspects of church life, we invest (or surrender) a portion of that baptismal authority to our fellow communicants for various purposes, including at a parish annual meeting: electing vestry members. Depending on a parish’s bylaws, vestry members further invest some of their authority to elect the wardens and other officers. That invested authority is for specific things like taking care of the parish building and providing for clergy.

Parish members also elect up to three members to attend Diocesan Convention every year, with the authority to elect fellow communicants to diocesan offices, to approve the diocesan budget, and consider proposed resolutions relating to our common life as a Church body.

Every three years, delegates to Diocesan Convention further invest their authority to choose clergy and lay Deputies to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. At the 2022 Diocesan Convention last year, before electing Bishop Coadjutor Anne B. Jolly, the Convention elected individuals to various offices, including four clergy and four lay deputies to General Convention. The 2023 Diocesan Convention will choose four alternate deputies in each order.

The General Convention:
As the governing body of The Episcopal Church, the General Convention consists of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. The House of Bishops consists of nearly 300 bishops led by the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry. Nearly 900 deputies represent 118 dioceses in the House of Deputies, led by the President of the House of Deputies, Julia Ayala, who was elected to succeed the Rev. Gay Jennings of Ohio. The 2024 General Convention will be held in July in Louisville, KY, where a new Presiding Bishop will be elected to succeed Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as he concludes his nine-year term. In addition to approving a budget and conducting elections for church-wide offices, the General Convention is responsible for amending the Constitution and Canons that govern many aspects of parish life. In 2024, the General Convention will consider approving a process to make revisions to the Book of Common Prayer.

Constitution and Canons:
The Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church contain guidelines for how the wider church relates and interacts with Dioceses and parishes. Similarly, Diocesan Constitution and Canons (approved by Diocesan Convention) provides particular ways in which parishes relate to the Diocese.

Why do I need to know about this?

Sales or Transfers of Property:
Most parishes in the Diocese of Ohio own their own buildings and land through non-profit corporations. What is important to know is that the Canons of The Episcopal Church provide that “all real or personal property held by or for the benefit of any parish … is held in trust for” the Diocese and the wider Church. This means that parishes may acquire or purchase property on their own, but when selling, disposing of, or otherwise “encumbering” parish-owned property (such as through a mortgage), the canons provide that the Standing Committee and the bishop need to consent to the transaction. Not all real estate transactions require involvement of the Standing Committee. Fortunately, the Standing Committee has guidelines to help Vestries determine which types of transactions require consent:

Appointing Priests as Rectors and Priests-in-Charge:
There is a canonical process for calling priests to serve in parishes. When a congregation is searching to replace a departing priest, the vestry will often appoint a search committee with the assistance of the bishop’s office, which helps parishes discern the qualities for their next priest. Although the bishop’s staff is involved in these efforts, the canons do require that parishes notify the bishop before formally hiring a rector because the bishop must consent to the rector’s appointment. Sometimes the bishop will appoint a priest-in-charge in situations where there is no rector, or when the parish and/or priest desires a time-limited commitment, or when placing new priests in a parish.

Relationships between Vestries and Priests:
Bishop Hollingsworth has discussed the importance of the relationships between wardens and parish priests. He likens it to building a “vessel” that can hold any issue that may come to the parish leadership. He encourages regular meetings between wardens and the priest to help build that relationship. Since the bishop is involved when a priest is appointed to serve in a parish, the canons also provide that the bishop must be consulted when significant difficulties arise between a priest and the vestry.

If the pastoral relationship in a parish is “imperiled” between a priest and the vestry, the canons provide that either the priest or the vestry may request in writing that the bishop intervene. The vestry would need to determine by majority vote that the issues are “serious,” or the priest can request the bishop to intervene. The bishop then acts as a mediator, or asks a consultant to assist. No priest may resign and a vestry cannot terminate a priest unilaterally unless the mediation process has concluded unsuccessfully and the issues are irreconcilable.

Financial Oversight:
For lay delegates to participate fully (i.e., vote) at Diocesan Convention, the Constitution make required payments of clergy and lay pension contributions and diocesan assessments, in addition to completing annual parochial reports and the parish audits. The larger the parish, the more formality is required in the audit process. The primary rationale for requiring annual parish audits is to demonstrate confidence to the congregation that their financial pledges to the church are being managed appropriately.

Annual Meeting Procedures:
The Canons have very little specific guidance about how to hold annual meetings and how to elect the Vestry. Since most parishes are non-profit corporations, the details are usually contained in a parish’s bylaws (or the corporation’s code of regulations). During the pandemic, holding in-person annual meetings was a challenge, and arranging meetings on Zoom was often impractical. Some parishes used written ballots for vestry election. Since many parish bylaw provisions had not been updated in many years, the pandemic experience led them to consider more flexibility in their quorum requirements, for example. The Constitution and Canon Committee developed a model set of bylaw provisions to assist parishes in updating their bylaws. Members of the committee are available to consult with parishes in this process. Please feel free to contact any member of the committee, or Bill Powel, or Amy Kellogg, Vice Chancellor.

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