Connecting the Dots
Since the first colony in Jamestown, there have been Anglicans in what is now the United States. As the Revolutionary War was ending in 1782, a 34-year-old Philadelphia priest named William White proposed a form of government for The Episcopal Church that was as revolutionary as the United States itself.
In his pamphlet entitled, “The Case of the Episcopal Church in the United States Considered” William White had the audacious and visionary courage to propose an unheard of and revolutionary process for selecting bishops. White proposed that each state (now dioceses) select their own bishop and the bishop be selected by ballots cast by clergy and laity. In addition, a convention, attended by clergy and lay people from each state, would be asked to ratify a constitution that would join and bind all the separate states into the one Episcopal Church.
Today, lay people, clergy, and bishops make all major decisions affecting the life of the Episcopal Church jointly. Vestries are elected by parishes and along with the rector, govern the work and ministry of the congregations. The congregation, composed primarily of lay people, calls the rector. Parishes elect lay people to be delegates to diocesan conventions where they vote, along with the diocese’s clergy and bishop(s) on major policy decisions, budget and often make statements about issues in the church and civil society. Each of the 109 dioceses in the Episcopal Church has an annual convention, in some dioceses called the “annual diocesan council.” It is only there, where the voices of the laity and clergy are present, that changes to the diocesan constitution can be made.
The laity and clergy of the diocese where he/she will serve elect Bishops. A search committee composed of diocesan clergy and laity seek nominations from the bishops, clergy, and laity in the larger church, hold open meetings where the nominees are met by lay and clergy members of the diocese and each congregation is equally represented at the electing convention by clergy and laity.
Our revolutionary form of governance does not stop on the parish, mission, or diocesan level. Once every three years the Episcopal Church gathers together in a General Convention, which, as a “unitary” form of governance, holds all authority for the Episcopal Church. Laity, clergy and bishops each have had equal voice and vote since the first General Convention in 1785.
Dr. Pamela Chinnis, 29th president of the House of Deputies, summarized the authority of General Convention in this way:
"General Convention has the authority to change the documents that define us as Episcopalians: the constitution and canons and the Book of Common Prayer, along with its accompanying Hymnal and supplemental music and worship texts.
It must also authorize use of national resources and staff who coordinate various missionary, educational and social-justice ministries and adopt a budget to support them.
…. Historically, the convention has also considered resolutions addressing a broad range of ecclesiastical and social policy issues."
(Chinnis, Pamela. Decently and in Order. Forward Movement 2000.)
The 77th General Convention, to be held July 2012, will convene in Indianapolis, Indiana. Each diocese may send four clergy and four lay deputies to General Convention who are seated with voice and vote in the House of Deputies. An Official Youth Presence composed of two high school age young people from each of the nine provinces of the Episcopal Church are also seated in the House of Deputies. All bishops may to attend General Convention and be seated with voice and vote in the House of Bishops. Although the two houses meet separately, all resolutions considered, in order to become concurred must be adopted in exactly the same language by each House.
Worship, fellowship events, open hearings, and regular prayer, provide the opportunity to bring the gathering of clergy, laity, and bishops together in unexpected and blessed ways.
In between the three years when General Convention meets, Executive Council, an elected body, oversees the governance of the larger Church. Executive Council is composed of 40 members; 20 are elected by General Convention (four bishops, four priests or deacons, 12 lay people); and eighteen people are elected from the provinces (one clergy and one lay person from each of the nine provinces).
Even though the House of Bishops meets twice per year between General Conventions, their agenda is limited by the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church, which are set by General Convention. When the House of Bishops is not in session at General Convention but meets between General Conventions it cannot initiate or amend the programs, budget, or Constitution and Canons of the Church as adopted by General Convention. It does have some responsibilities for the discipline of bishops and it sometimes issues statements on matters affecting the general state of the church or in response to the needs of contemporary society. Pastoral letters may also be issued.
In summary, if you are an Episcopalian, you may have thought that the Episcopal Church is unique. As you can see from your own experience and from the various examples above, we govern ourselves. In decisions that are made about our life together as a Christian community, there is no decision making from on high. There is no group with more authority than another. The voices of all the baptized are valued. This value is reflected in everything we do, from how we make decisions, to how we worship and pray. Our governance really is a kind of applied ecclesiology. Our governance is theological in nature as it encourages and enables us to be in community enriched by the great diversity that God has given us. We are encouraged to use the gifts that God has given us; we grow in Christ by what we learn from each other. We look for the face of Jesus among and within us and beyond ourselves as we practice our baptismal promise to “love our neighbor as ourselves, respecting the dignity of every human being”.
Thank you, William White for being a courageous revolutionary. The holy people of God are still enjoying your courageous acts.
Bonnie Anderson, President of the Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, is an advocate for the ministry of the laity. In the tradition of the great lay educator Verna Dozier, who called the laity “the sleeping giant,” Anderson often reminds the church that “there are 2 million ministers in the Episcopal Church and many are still waiting to use their gifts actively to help bring about the Kingdom of God. Let’s get going.”
- “The Case of the Episcopal Church in the United States Considered” by William White
- General Convention website
- Executive Council of The Episcopal Church
- William White