Friday, August 29, 2014

General Convention Resolutions and How the Church Responds

For those in the Episcopal Church, there is a conversation going on right now at the House of Bishops/Deputies listserv about General Convention (GC) resolutions and how the church responds to them. I weighed in with the following post a little while ago:

As someone who has served on Executive Council and on our diocese’s General Convention deputation and Standing Committee, I’d like to share some thoughts about the subject of responding to GC, and by extension, Executive Council, resolutions.

The Joint Standing Committees of Council, along with other CCABs (Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards of GC) also receive referred GC resolutions for which we are expected to provide feedback. 

Even though the "requirement" is to "report to" Council on the status of referred GC resolutions, in my memory of now five years of service on Council, I do not recall ever seeing any such report(s). Some particularly conscientious CCABs do include commentary on those GC resolutions referred to them in their minutes, but not every CCAB submits minutes even though that is a required duty that is communicated in training and manuals.

Further, I'm not sure what Council would do with such reports if we saw them. The reality is that the work plans of most CCABs and staff departments, based on their specific mandates (which are shown on the GC Website under the CCABs’ tabs) and referred resolutions, are already in motion with not much excess capacity for following up on additional subjects, as we progress into each triennium.

Reality meets expectations, and reality always prevails, no matter how much we gnash our teeth, stamp our feet, or demonize those good people who don't meet our expectations.

There is an age-old quandary about the weight of GC resolutions and whether they are mandates, requirements, requests, or suggestions. I suspect that depends on a number of factors, including, most frequently, how much energy or importance a specific diocese or deputy has on a specific resolution or topic. Canonical requirements do get attention and compliance, because there are liability consequences for failure to comply, both to the diocese and to the churchwide organization, and there are administrative staff assigned to their oversight.

Most governance entities have a plethora of laws on the books that no one pays much attention to. That's a fact of life. Many of those laws are the brainchild and pet project of only one or a few legislators. It's really not that difficult to get seemingly innocuous laws passed in the wee hours of the legislative session when there is such a profusion of laws that garner interest, support, and controversy in every legislative session to take up the attention of the assembled legislators and their constituents. 

Everything is important to someone, but not everything is important to everyone. Just because something is law doesn’t automatically mean that it makes sense to the organism to comply either. Organisms have self-protection and survival instincts that trump machinations of its parts, no matter how vocal or strident.

Humankind has a long history of attempting to legislate morality and other people's behavior, but humans are also highly individualistic, egoistic, and contrary. Episcopalians certainly fall into the category of not liking to be told to do things and resisting anything that feels like they are being railroaded. 

Granted, GC and the way we do legislation are our established polity, but that doesn't mean there is any reality that Episcopalians across the church and church's governance believe in, endorse, support, or comply with the church's polity fully. As has been pointed out repeatedly, many church members simply don't have any interest in our polity and lack any awareness of the work of GC. That doesn’t make them bad Episcopalians or bad people. It makes them busy people and people with other interests and priorities. As St. Paul said, all the parts of the Body are needed and intrinsically connected, but not every part is needed to care about the same thing.

Responding to and enforcing legislation is the purview of the administrative branch of governance, whether it's states or dioceses, each with its own character and priorities. Each bishop and Standing Committee arrive at their own understanding of their duties and make choices of how to prioritize those duties. They also differ in the amount, expertise, and capacity of the resources available to them. It's unrealistic to expect a well-resourced, sophisticated diocese to respond in the same way as a more challenged, less-resourced diocese. It doesn't happen, and our expectations can be a harmful source of accusation and guilt. 

In my mind, there is a disconnect between what we say we want our church governance to be, and how we really want to relate to and with one another. The narrative around the concepts behind Episcopal Church polity are lofty and speak of shared governance by bishops, clergy, and laity. The reality is somewhat different, and, in my pragmatic mind, probably has to be for the following reason:  

Bishops and clergy have a vocation in the church that includes how humans understand the characteristics of a job or employment to be. Laity’s vocation in the church tends to be understood by most people at an emotional level as “in addition to” other vocations such as parenting or earning a living.

Although our narrative (and our Prayer Book) says that the first order of ministry is the Laity, the meta-narrative of society tells us something different. The reality is that we are all enculturated into society’s narrative before being baptized and enculturated into the Church’s narrative.

I’ll stop here with this lengthy post.

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