What's General Convention For?

June 03, 2015

Every three years, several thousand Episcopalians gather for more than a week to debate, worship, pray and learn. The triennial gathering is called General Convention, and it is the primary governing body in the Episcopal Church. This year’s General Convention will be held in Salt Lake City from June 25-July 3.

At the General Convention, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies—made up of equal numbers of laypeople and clergy—debate hundreds of resolutions submitted by people and committees all over the Episcopal Church. Resolutions can deal with the Book of Common Prayer and other official liturgical publications, church disciplinary processes, social justice issues, the structure of the church’s governance, and nearly anything else.

In an era of downsizing, streamlining, and hierarchy-flattening, some Episcopal leaders, like those on the recent Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, have called for radical changes to General Convention. Others, like House of Deputies Vice President Byron Rushing, a civil rights leader and the majority whip of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, find more value in the current legislative process.

“Make up a list of what you like about the Episcopal Church,” said Rushing in a recent interview. “Where did those things come from?...My guess is that over half of them came from General Convention.”

At this year’s General Convention, the Diocese of Chicago will be represented by Bishop Jeff Lee, who sits in the House of Bishops and is a member of the House of Bishops Prayer Book, Liturgy and Music committee. Chicago’s House of Deputies members includes clergy deputies Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, Dave Hedges, Kevin Caruso and Bonnie Perry and lay deputies Patricia Abrams, Vicki Garvey, Louisa McKellaston, and Newland Smith. Emily Mellott and Tobyn Leigh are alternates deputies.

It’s not likely that the central issues slated for this General Convention will have immediate effects on daily life in Episcopal congregations across the Diocese of Chicago. However, several scheduled debates may change the church significantly over time, and others may be of particular interest to Episcopalians who follow church news.

Election of the 27th Presiding Bishop

On June 27, the House of Bishops will elect a new presiding bishop for the Episcopal Church and the House of Deputies will hold a confirmation vote. The presiding bishop serves a nine-year term as chief pastor and primate, and later this year, the term of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has served as presiding bishop since 2006, will come to an end.

Last month, a nominating committee made up of bishops, clergy and laypeople announced four candidates for the post. They are: the Rt. Rev. Thomas Breidenthal, bishop of Southern Ohio; the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, bishop of North Carolina; the Rt. Rev. Ian Douglas, bishop of Connecticut; and the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, bishop of Southwest Florida. Visit the General Convention website to read the nominees’ essays and watch their video interviews.

Church Structure

In 2012, the General Convention voted unanimously to appoint a task force “to present the 78th General Convention with a plan for reforming the Church’s structures, governance, and administration.”

That group, which named itself the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church, issued its final report in December 2014. The report includes proposals to reduce significantly the size and scope of General Convention and the Executive Council that governs the church between conventions, the elimination of most churchwide commissions on which bishops, laypeople and clergy serve, and a unicameral structure for a new General Convention that would include fewer clergy and laypeople.

Since this report was issued, other groups have also put forth resolutions about church structure to be considered by General Convention. One group, Episcopal Resurrection, has also issued a letter to the church, called a memorial, about the future of the church. Each of these resolutions and the memorial will be referred to the legislative committee on Governance and Structure, which will recommend resolutions about church structure to the entire convention.

Marriage

For the past three years, the Marriage Task Force created by General Convention in 2012 has been consulting with people across the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, considering the needs of Episcopalians in states, like Illinois, where same-sex marriage is legal, and considering “issues raised by changing societal and cultural norms and legal structures.”

In its final report, issued in February, the group calls for General Convention to authorize Episcopal clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings and to change language in the marriage canon (church law) to be gender neutral. Recently, the Anglican Theological Review published a critique of the Marriage Task Force’s work written by an Episcopal bishop, two scholars, and a member of a breakaway Anglican church, as well as several essays by scholars in favor of the proposed reforms. Deputy Tobias Haller of the Diocese of New York, a member of the task force, has also blogged extensively on the issue.

Israel and Palestine

Three dioceses—Hawaii, California, and Washington—have submitted resolutions to this General Convention about Israel and Palestine. In addition, a new group that includes Diocese of Chicago Deputy Newland Smith, called the Episcopal Committee for Justice in Israel and Palestine, has prepared a paper and resolution backed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu that call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against corporations involved in the occupation of Palestine.

The Episcopal Church’s current policy on Israel and Palestine, calling for constructive investment and engagement in the region, is outlined in Resolution B019 of the 2012 General Convention. That resolution also called for an interfaith model pilgrimage, which Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori led in January.

 

During General Convention, watch for updates on the Diocese of Chicago’s Facebook page, on Episcopal News Service, and on the #GC78 hashtag on Twitter and Instagram.

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