Bicameral or Unicameral? Deputies Debate Structure

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In the first of a series of viewpoint essays, Deputy Bonnie Perry of Chicago and Deputy Jennifer Adams of Western Michigan debate Resolution A002, which would make General Convention unicameral.

Jennifer Adams “Strong alone. Unstoppable together.”

True confession. That’s a Nike slogan from the Women’s World Cup, not a verse from scripture. But it does capture my argument for moving toward a unicameral structure for The General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Central to our polity as Episcopalians is the active participation of bishops, clergy and lay people in the agenda-setting and decision-making bodies of the church. The question is not whether we should change that core; it’s how to shape it, how to structure it best to play to our strengths and support the mission of the Church.

In our current bicameral structure, our houses have individual charisms, independent strengths. The House of Bishops, for example, has regular opportunities to meet. The mutual support, study and prayer that bishops are able to share through their gatherings contribute to our health as church. Bishops also have a particular calling to guard the “unity of the church,” a unity which they are given regular opportunities to promote and embody.

The members of the House of Deputies, on the other hand, “live closer to or at the grassroots of the church,” as President Jennings wrote recently, “they have a sense of what issues are urgent and what people are passionate about.” This house has at many times claimed a prophetic voice and taken the lead on issues such as women’s ordination and the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the church. The House of Deputies also reflects a breadth of ministries and a level of diversity not present among the House of Bishops.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t prophetic bishops or communally minded deputies, but that each house has particular strengths that spring from the callings inherent in our orders. The prevailing fear is that our coming together as one House (or “Synod”) would inhibit those strengths, in effect stifling our polity.

But what if just the opposite happened?

What if our strengths were allowed or even encouraged to thrive in a shared gathering intentionally structured for that purpose? What if the Bishops led us in being one Body, not only as a House of Bishops modeling unity among themselves, but as a General Convention committed to being the Body of Christ together? And what if the deputies stood up in the presence of bishops, thereby claiming our baptismal authority (and responsibility) to lead the church into the world with a vision and a promise for justice and peace, claiming our voices not only as a check or balance, but also as a contribution toward making us whole?

I think it’s very possible that the charisms currently embodied by each house, when brought together, wouldn’t kill us (or each other); they’d make us stronger. Perhaps they’d make us faster and smarter too.

Over the last fifteen years or so the separation between houses has become greater in a way that I think actually undermines our polity, or amplifies its weaknesses rather than allowing our participatory form of governance to thrive. Too often we’re clamoring to maintain our power and authority, or over-claiming authority that should be shared, rather than collaborating to move our church forward. While there is a significant amount of detail to work through (including how to ensure fair representations on the interim bodies that exist between conventions) we don’t have to look far for models to make unicameral imaginable for Episcopalians.

Liturgically, theologically, we gather as one household for prayer, for giving thanks, for offering praise, for healing, for feasting, for proclaiming justice. Why would we do anything else for governing ourselves? On some fundamental level there is almost an inconsistency about how we do General Convention. We are a “household of God” when we pray, yet bicameral when we decide.

We need each other, not only to check and balance; we need each other to thrive.
Healthy checks and balances can be part of a unicameral model by including vote by orders, allowing for break-out sessions, and by keeping the number of clergy and lay deputies at three per diocese. Working together is something we depend on everyday in this church. Why not make it our convention practice too?

Finally, if coming together as one house can’t happen among the elected leaders of the church, why would we expect it to happen out there? Beyond the “how to best shape our polity” argument for a unicameral structure, is the argument that says that the larger church and the world need to see that it can be done. The Episcopal Church can do more than pray together (although it’s in our best interest that that continue without ceasing.) We can also meet together and deliberate together. We can listen together. We can stand together. We can check and balance each other while offering the particular charisms of our orders to a common, gathered and greater good.

Together, we can move the mission of this Church forward, and we can strengthen each other as we go.

The Rev. Jennifer Adams, a deputy from the Diocese of Western Michigan, was a member of the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church. She is rector of Grace Church in Holland, Michigan.

Bonnie Perry

I’m bi. That is, I’m in favor of our bicameral legislative system. Primarily because I believe it is the cornerstone of the diverse, egalitarian, democratic nature of our governance.

The two houses, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops have two completely different ethoses that have evolved over the centuries. The House of Bishops reminds me of a vibrant country church where absolutely everyone who attends knows everyone else. In this small congregation some of the people are close, some are not close, but regardless of their personal feelings there is a depth of connectivity that is palpable. When I enter their house and watch their prayers and proceedings, I can tell that they know each other’s business, each other’s gifts and each other’s flaws. As in a tightknit community church, the members know about each other’s children, they know who cares about what line in the budget and who will perhaps speak a bit longer than anyone would like. If this group were a small, intimate congregation they would know at coffee hour who would put out doughnuts and cinnamon rolls and who bring yogurt and fresh fruit. The House of Bishops is a collegial group of people with the same vocation who know each other well. When I visit their house, “their church,” I am struck by their intimacy and measured pace.

The House of Deputies reminds me of a dynamic, resource-size congregation. The sheer numbers who gather make it impossible for everyone to know each other, yet this is the type of faith community that gets things done. It is home to multiple groups and diverse ministries that attract wildly different people from all walks of life. Small group ministries flourish, characterized by deep friendships and passionate commitment to living out the Gospel. Despite its size, if the House of Deputies were a congregation, there would be evident to any visitor a tangible connection amidst this disparate group of people. This connection is born of a common embodied mission. Amazing things happen in this substantive place of faith.

What might be gained by combining these two faith communities? Who would choose to close each of these congregations with an eye toward somehow melding and fusing them into a porridge of something new? What would be lost? What charisms misplaced? Why merge a small, vibrant community with a large dynamic community?  Why risk losing the very best that each has to offer?

I passionately believe that if we combine the House of Bishops with the House of Deputies we risk losing the unique charisms of each house. We will lose the ability for each house to respond effectively to the contexts from which they were born, thus limiting our future effectiveness rather than enriching it.

A vital, small community, a large dynamic community, each incarnating the Gospel in its own, unique way; each is different, yet each is effective in what it does. Each embodies the Gospel. Each meets the needs of the community its serves and the people it supports in ministry. Together these very different faith communities effectively embody the vast continuum of Christ’s mission in the world.

I’m Bonnie Perry and I’m bicameral all the way.

The Rev. Dr. Bonnie A. Perry, a deputy from the Diocese of Chicago, is rector of All Saints Church in Chicago.