Legislative committees met for the first time yesterday morning. There was an early afternoon budget hearing, and we had our first [non-legislative] session of Convention.
If you have heard rumors of tension between the Presiding Bishop (PB) and the President of the House of Deputies (PHoD) over the past triennium, you'd not have been left wondering. There they were, audible plainly just beneath the civility. The PB spoke again, lyrically, of mission and the work of the church. The PHoD, reminding us it was the 4th of July, spoke of gaining independence from the dictates of princely dominion. She referred, disparagingly (sarcastically?) to the suggestions floated in the past few months that General Convention is too expensive, too unwieldy, too complex.
The principal issues of contention this time are not about sex. Those votes have not finally been taken, but the matters are more or less resolved, at least politically. The principal controversies this time are about money and power.
Those discussions occur this time under the heading of "structure," which refers to our church's procedures, rules, and institutional hierarchy. Questions include: Should General Convention have two houses (House of Bishops and House of Deputies, with clergy & lay deputies)? (If we were unicameral, some believe, bishops would gain power.) Should we continue to have 8 deputies from each diocese, plus alternates, or fewer? (Fewer would almost certainly mean less racial diversity and fewer post-Baby Boomer deputies -- and the total proportion of bishops would go up.) Should we continue to have 20 or more committees and commissions carrying out the work assigned by General Convention, or far fewer? (Again, the notion is that fewer means more power to bishops, and less participation of young & non-white lay and clergy folk.) And should the church offices continue to be in New York City or move to a less expensive, more middle American location?
If one had thought -- as I naively had -- that nothing would bring out the worst in us like disagreements over human sexuality, one begins to see new abundance in our capacity to be at each other's throats. When belts are synched tighter, baser instincts can come into play. The alternative, of course, may be that a few prelates make all the calls, removed from us ordinary folk by several layers of ecclesial hierarchy. And the rest of us just get in line, or not. The specter of that model may in fact be what puts fire in the bellies of some in the PHoD's camp. Could that worry be justified?
We tried out the voting equipment in the final segment of our deputy orientation yesterday. The Voting Secretary posed the first mock resolution: "Yes" or "No." "Acolytes in The Episcopal Church will wear closed toed shoes." "Yes" votes prevailed, 50.93% to 49.07%. We chuckled, but I admired the cleverness of our Voting Secretary, having put her finger so deftly on one facet of our division.
My legislative committee (Prayer Book, Liturgy & Music) held its first hearing, on matters that we deemed either uncontroversial or calling for early action (having budgetary implications or requiring follow-up by the legislative committee on Constitution and Canons). Four spoke in support of the proposed resolutions calling for a study of our church's theology of marriage, given the significant changes in recent decades in our state laws and local practices. On a resolution calling for so-called "marriage equality," 2 spoke in favor and 2 against.
On the other hand, the early afternoon budget priorities hearing was standing room only. By the end, the legislative committee on budget (Program, Budget & Finance) decided to begin their deliberations from the budget proposed, very recently, by the PB, and not the budget proposed through normal procedures by Executive Council with which the PHoD is aligned. The Executive Council budget was riddled with errors, and there was plenty of blame to go around about that. Some on the committee, though, wanted to make sure we knew that the PB's budget numbers were not the default figures for our budget, but instead her proposal would only provide the general framework, a "template" from which to begin conversations.
In an early blog from the 2009 General Convention I fretted about an impending clash between the bishops and deputies that never materialized. I hope my Chicken Littleish fears are again unfounded, that I have just misread the mood, or at least that cooler heads will prevail.
Postscript: A Good Omen
I crossed paths with two [celebrity] bishops on my morning run a few minutes ago: The Rt. Rev. Mary Glasspool and the Rt. Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori. I crossed paths with the PB on a morning run in 2009 as well, also early in Convention, when I was brooding about the clash to come.