In describing The Episcopal Church, I often suggest that it is the most American expression of Christianity in the United States. The reason for this is found in our governance, the way we are organized and agree to live and work together. We are a representational democracy, a from-the-bottom-up system that begins in annual parish meetings when we elect leaders to serve on vestries as wardens, officers, and members, and choose delegates to Diocesan Convention. That dynamic is carried on in Mission Areas and annual conventions of the Diocese where we elect laity and clergy to Diocesan Council, the Standing Committee, the Commission on Ministry, the Episcopal Community Services board, and to serve as our deputation to General Convention. In identifying these leaders, passing legislation, affirming the Diocesan budget, or electing a bishop, the actions of the Diocesan Convention require bi-cameral approval, a majority (and sometimes a super-majority) of both the clergy and the lay delegates.
Likewise is this the case in the General Convention, the triennial gathering of clergy and lay deputies (four of each from every diocese) and all bishops in the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, respectively. When we meet, we are the second largest legislative body in the world. Every piece of legislation must be passed by both houses for it to become the church’s practice. We are a bi-cameral legislature, just like our federal system of governance. This is no surprise as we were established in 1789 by the same people who designed our national government. Making such a system work as it was envisioned is challenging work, as evidenced by the current difficulties of the Congress to find any common ground and identify better paths forward by working together.
While being hierarchical in our structure of Holy Orders, we are democratically organized in our governance, each of us investing some of our baptismal authority in one another for specific things, and receiving that authority as responsibility. This cyclical process of investing authority and receiving responsibility is, I believe, very much a spiritual discipline, one that helps us surrender our will to God and take on the care and support of all of God’s beloved. As a representational democracy, any concern or initiative can make its way through the system, get a fair hearing, and be considered by the whole body. There is no entity that can dispose of an issue other than the Convention itself. That is one reason we are so messy, and why we are sometimes at the front edge of challenging issues. Every voice is important, and everyone counts.
This July, the 79th General Convention of The Episcopal Church will convene for nine days in Austin, Texas. It will include worship, legislative hearings and the crafting of legislation by 26 different legislative committees, and of course debate and action in both Houses. The Diocese of Ohio has a long history of leadership in the General Conventions of the Church. You are doubtless aware that the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, one of our senior clergy and former Canon to the Ordinary, serves as the President of the House of Deputies, which numbers almost 900 members. Every member of our deputation serves on a legislative committee, and Jim Simon (Church of Our Saviour, Akron) and I serve as the Deputy and Bishop chairs of the Committee on Constitution and Canons. Every three years, numerous communicants of our own diocese participate tirelessly as volunteers, helping the Convention accomplish an extraordinary amount of business in a relatively short period of time.
As always, the General Convention will set the direction and funding of our common ministry as a denomination and make decisions about liturgy and music, canonical expectations and practices, ecumenical and interfaith relationships, environmental stewardship, Christian formation, congregational vitality and evangelism, domestic and world mission, denominational governance and structure, stewardship, and other important elements of our life as a faith community.
The General Convention has its own website (generalconvention.org) which provides a thorough picture of how we organize and govern ourselves as a denominational body, the polity to which all of us commit ourselves by virtue of our Confirmation or Reception “into the fellowship of this communion.” When we understand how we have agreed to live and serve together, we do it better and are less vulnerable to the divisions into which the power of evil strives ceaselessly to lead us. I encourage you to explore this extensive website and familiarize yourself with how and who we are as “the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement,” to quote Presiding Bishop Curry.
Over the years of our serving together, many of you have heard me explain how, for me, the structure and polity of our church are essential to the discipline of selfsacrifice into which Jesus invites us to join with him. That structure and polity constitute an important part of how God answers my prayer that “thy will be done.” If I want a community where I get my own way, this is not it. And of course, regardless of what I may want, that is not what I need. What I need, in my faith and in my life, is a context of accountability and sacrifice that leads me with others ever deeper into the heart of God.
Please keep our Deputies, Bishops, volunteers, and colleagues from across our denomination in your prayers as we prepare to serve God by serving God’s church in the General Convention.
The Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth, Jr.
Bishop of Ohio