Primer on General Convention Legislative Process
What is General Convention?
The General Convention is the governing legislative body of The Episcopal Church. It is a bicameral legislature—like the federal government with the House of Representatives and Senate—that includes the House of Deputies, with clergy and lay deputies elected from the 109 dioceses, at more than 800 members (up to four clergy and four lay persons from each diocese); and the House of Bishops, with upwards of 200 active and retired bishops. It is reputedly the largest legislative body in the world with the second largest being the Parliament of India with 588 members. Attempts at reducing the number of deputies have always failed miserable.
General Convention gathers every three years. The 2018 meeting will convene in Austin, Texas for an 9-day legislative session (July 5-13, 2018) and will be the 79th General Convention of the Church.
The work of General Convention includes adopting legislation of concern to the Church; amending the Book of Common Prayer, the Constitution, and the Canons of the Church; adopting a triennial budget for The Episcopal Church; and electing candidates to offices, boards and other committees.
What happens at General Convention?
The principal work of the General Convention is conducted in its legislative processes. General Convention is also filled with activities and opportunities for mission and ministry gatherings. The Exhibit Hall is a wonderful place to visit. There you will see so much of the diversity of the Episcopal Church through various booths. It’s enjoyable to walk through and strike up conversations with a variety of people connected in some way to the Episcopal Church. The calendar highlights a number of these, including worship, an evening sponsored by the hosting Diocese, and opportunities for seminary alumni and friends and other meetings for groups with common interests. For more than a century, the Triennial Meeting of the Episcopal Church Women (ECW) has been held at the same time and place as the General Convention. For information about the ECW Triennial, visit www.ecwnational.org/triennial-meeting-2018.
Where does legislation originate and how does legislation get passed?
Legislation originates in local Episcopal churches, Diocesan Conventions, Provincial Synods, and CCABs (Committees, Commission, Agencies, and Boards) of the Episcopal Church.
There are two legislative bodies at General Convention: the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. All legislation must be passed by both houses, just as in the Federal Government.
- The House of Bishops is made up of every Diocesan Bishop, Coadjutor, Suffragan, and “resigned,” that is, retired bishops. (If you want a five-minute lecture, just ask a retired bishop if he or her is retired; they will be happy to regal you with the difference between being retired (one never retires from being bishop) and being resigned. The rest of us must resign ourselves never to refer to a retired bishop as “retired.”
- The House of Deputies is made up of 4 clergy deputies and 4 lay deputies from each diocese. A few, usually smaller, dioceses will send fewer than their allotted 8 because they will not fund all the expenses for 8 deputies. Attending General Convention is very expensive.
- Some refer to the House of Deputies as the “senior House.” Mostly these are people who love the fact that the House of Deputies was formed prior to the House of Bishops. This is a difference without significance. To be fully the Church, Episcopalians recognize that we need bishops (as in “The Episcopal Church”).
There are two types of legislation: Memorials and Resolutions. For Resolutions or Memorials to have the force of representing the mind of the Episcopal Church in a matter they must be passed word for word by both houses. Legislation can “die” because one house’s legislation does not agree with the other house’s and time runs out on the calendar to get the resolutions to agree.
- Memorials are sort of “mind of the house” statements that do not call for specific action but can become a catalyst for further action.
- Resolutions call for specific action to specified individuals, committees, commissions, or boards. Many resolutions are de facto memorials because they don’t assign responsibility to anyone or require is follow up required of any Episcopal body. This is true of many social policy statements.
For a more technical introduction to the General Convention—it gets pretty deeply into the “weeds”—written by the General Convention Office, go here. For a good and thoughtful overview of the convention from a process standpoint by The Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement, go here. Also, check out this post by Fr. Gunn about legislation in general.
Who are the officers of General Convention?
General Convention is run by a large number of people with officers leading smaller groups. Each House has its own officers.
First, the General Convention has two major officers.
- Executive Officer and General Secretary of the General Convention is The Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe. He basically runs the whole shebang.
- Treasurer of the General Convention is Kurt Barnes. He is also Treasurer for the Presiding Bishop (which really means of the Episcopal Church). This means he has a heck of a lot of influence over everything.
Next, each committee at General Convention has, usually, a chair, vice-chair(s), and secretary (ies), depending on the size. I have served as the secretary of a committee once and never want to do it again. It takes a lot of lot of extra time. Between extra officers’ meetings, taking extra notes, delivering the flash drive after each meeting to the secretariat, and not really getting to participate in debate at the hearings because I was busy taking notes—no, thank you. Once was enough for me. I’d like to have time go visit The Broken Spoke in Austin at least once.
The House of Bishops (HoB)
- Presiding Bishop (PB) is The Most Reverend Michael Curry. Don’t let the designation as an officer of the House of Bishops fool you. He runs the staff at the Episcopal Church Center (“815”). Of course, as The Most Reverend, he is not necessarily the most reverend person in the Episcopal Church. “Most” is a title, not an adjective.
- Vice-President of the HoB is Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves. She chairs the meetings of the HoB when the PB “vacates the chair” for any reason.
- Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce is the Secretary of the HoB. She is primarily responsible for appointments (with the other two officers) of bishops to CCABs and administration of the HoB.
The House of Deputies (HoD)
- President of the HoD is The Rev. Canon Gay Jennings. She basically runs the HoD. Historically, the office of the PHoD alternates between being a priest and a lay deputy. This is only the historical practice; it is not mandated in the canons. One of the issues before General Convention this year is whether to provide a full-time salary for the President of the HoD. There are three issues here.
- The PHoD has always been a volunteer position. This means that only retired or people of means are able to serve as president of the HoD. The office is really a full-time job; and since the PB is provided a full-time salary, it seems only fair to pay a salary to the PHoD.
- The canons have never even hinted that the PHoD would be a full-time job. To provide a full salary to the PHoD sets up the Episcopal Church as having two, seemingly co-equal officers. That is also not envisioned in the canons. Also, to provide for a full-time PHoD is a sign of increased centralization of power in the bureaucracy of the church contrary to the democratic spirit running through the constitution and canons of the Church.
- The PB is elected by the HoB and is affirmed by the HoD. As such, the HoD has a voice in the election of the PB. The PHOD is elected only by the deputies. For the PHoD to have an increased role in the life and governance of the church seems not very fair and gives an advantage to the HoD.
- Vice-President of the HoD is The Honrable Byron Rushing. Without any offense intended to Mr. Rushing, “Honorable” is a title, not an adjective, which has been assigned to him as a representative in the Massachusetts legislature.
- Secretary of the HoD is Canon Barlowe (again). Yes, he runs General Convention in general (pun intended) and has a key leadership role in the House of Deputies.
For further and more detailed information on the legislative process, specifically regarding the 79th General Convention see “An Introduction to The 79th General Convention The Episcopal Church for Deputies and Bishops.”