Forecasting the Legislative Weather

 |   | 

Among the favorite pre-General Convention pastimes on social media platforms where Episcopalians congregate has been guessing what will be the most significant and sensitive legislative issue at the gathering, which begins with hearings tonight but opens officially on Thursday, July 5.

At this convention, that game is a little more complicated than in the past. But here’s a review of some of the most talked-about issues in the run-up to convention with a few thoughts on the possible outcomes of each.

Should the church put rites for marrying same-sex couples in the Book of Common Prayer, thus making them available to all couples?

Eight bishops in U. S. dioceses do not permit same-sex couples to marry within the diocese, and some do not permit their clergy to officiate at same-sex marriages outside the diocese either. Resolution A085, proposed by the Task Force on the Study of Marriage, would, among other things, begin the process of including same-sex marriage rites in the Book of Common Prayer, where they would be available to all couples.

Resolution B012, submitted late last week by three bishops, would extend the use of same-sex marriage rites on a trial basis, and allow congregations whose bishops would not grant permission to use the rites to seek Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) from another bishop who would allow the rites to be used.

Those who favor A085 argue that it is time to make same-sex marriage rites available to all Episcopalians so that couples can get married in their own churches. Supporters of B012 argue that it is charitable to honor the consciences of the eight bishops who currently do not permit the use of the rites and that it is unwise to revise the Book of Common Prayer one piece at a time.

That the proposers of B012 at no point communicated their intentions to the Task Force on the Study of Marriage has made early debate on this issue hotter than it might otherwise have been, as has a press release from the supporters of B012 which, opponents say, seems to pit the interests of people of color against those of LGBTQ people.

Should the Episcopal Church undertake comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer?

Online chatter suggests that this is the most contentious issue that will come before the convention. However, the chances of this convention moving ahead with comprehensive revision appear remote.

Some background: Resolution A169 of the 2015 General Convention instructed the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music to submit to this convention “a plan for the comprehensive revision of the current Book of Common Prayer.” The SCLM has instead presented the convention with a choice of two resolutions, one (A068) that would result in “full prayer book revision in nine years” at an estimated cost of $1,917,025, and another (A069) that “calls the Episcopal Church to devote the next triennium to deep engagement with the structure, content, language and theological thrust of The Book of Common Prayer (1979), with a view to increasing the Church’s familiarity with the book in its entirety” at a cost of $1,180,625. (See the relevant subcommittee’s report beginning of page 193 of the first volume of the 2018 Blue Book.)

The existence of two proposals has been read in many quarters as an indication that full prayer book revision lacks the necessary votes to pass, despite the 2015 legislation.

Resolution D036, drafted by the House of Deputies Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation also proposes comprehensive revision of the prayer book.

D046, also proposed by the subcommittee on theology and language, had not been posted at press time. It would “encourage the use of inclusive and expansive language within existing authorized resources, including but not limited to the Book of Common Prayer and Enriching Our Worship, by replacing masculine-gendered language for God with feminine or neutral language.”

Many opponents of comprehensive prayer book revision are supporters of using inclusive and expansive language, so D046 may be seen as a middle ground.

Will the church initiate a truth and reconciliation process for victims of sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation?

In February, House of Deputies President Gay Clark Jennings appointed a House of Deputies special committee to draft legislation on sexual harassment and exploitation.

“The committee of forty-seven women, lay and ordained, considered three broad areas for change: worship life and language (Subcommittee on Theology and Language), the Church and its structures (Subcommittees on Structural Equity, Title IV and Training, and Truth and Reconciliation), and the world (Subcommittee on Social Justice for Women),” the group wrote in a report to convention.

They have submitted 24 resolutions to convention, including one, D016, that, among other things would “authorize the establishment of a Task Force for Women, Truth, and Reconciliation for the purpose of helping the Church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms by those in power in the Church…”

The precise wording of this resolution when it emerges from legislative Committee 3, the Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV, will likely determine its chances of clearing the House of Bishops. The resolution currently calls for “an external audit conducted by an outside auditor of the culture within church-wide structures in order to identify systemic expressions of power and leadership that create and continue gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls…” However, it does not call for the presiding bishop’s office to open the books on its handling of past cases of abuse brought against bishops, which is the source of significant frustration among victims’ advocates in recent decades.

In Resolution D033, the special committee also proposes the creation of a “churchwide intake officer” to handle Title IV complaints that cannot be handled fairly under the current system due to conflicts of interest in the diocese in which they occurred.

How the bishops respond to these resolutions, which will probably come to the house not long after the #MeToo listening session and liturgy on July 4 at 5:15 p. m., will be among the most closely watched developments of the convention.

Should the President of the House of Deputies be paid?

The House of Deputies voted to compensate its president in 1997, 2000 and 2015. Each time the House of Bishops opposed the legislation. This convention has received three resolutions that would pay the president, two of which are submitted by groups of bishops.

Resolution A028 from the Task Force to Study Church Leadership and Compensation

would “direct … Executive Council to fix a salary for the President of the House of Deputies as an officer and agent of the Council and as an agent of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.” No amount is specified.

Resolution C043, drafted by a group of bishops in Province IV and passed by the provincial synod, directs Executive Council to fix a per diem compensation for the President of the House of Deputies and calls for the creation of a task force to “make recommendations to the 80th General Convention for potential amendments to the Church’s governing documents that will clarify and enumerate the comprehensive role of the President of the House of Deputies.”

The task force’s proposal is given little chance of passing the House of Bishops and the Province IV proposal is unlikely to pass the House of Deputies, which is suspicious of recurring, bishop-driven proposals to study the role of the president of a house to which bishops do not belong.

A third resolution, B014,  would “direct the Executive Council to compensate the President of the House of Deputies, who serves as Vice President of The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society and Vice Chair of Executive Council, in the form of Director’s Fees for specific services rendered in order to fulfill duties required by the Constitution and Canons” and includes no call for a task force.

On Facebook last week, Jennings thanked both the task force and the proposers of B014 for their work.

The budget Executive Council gave the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance in January did not set an amount for a presidential salary, but set aside $900,000 over three years until a decision was made and an amount fixed.

Will steps be taken to clarify the relationship between the Church Pension Fund and the General Convention?

The pension fund believes there are significant limits on the convention’s ability to give it direction. Numerous church leaders disagree. Resolution A060 would create a task force to study the fund’s history and “the Church’s involvement in its creation its current structure, governance, and relationship to The Episcopal Church including but not limited to the right of the General Convention to direct The Church Pension Fund.”

The pension fund’s influence in the House of Bishops is extremely strong. At the 2015 convention, the HoB passed a mind of the house resolution protesting the House of Deputies’ decision to accept nominations from the floor for pension fund trustees at the behest of Bishop Wayne Wright of Delaware, who was then chair of the pension fund’s board.

If that spirit still defines the house, it is unlikely the bishops will submit the pension fund to any scrutiny.

A related resolution, A061, would create a task force of the theology of money to “study the investments and other assets of the Episcopal Church, including but not limited to the holdings of the Church Pension Fund, to discern ways in which those investments and assets reflect the Church’s theology of money.” The fate of this resolution, too, may rest on the bishops’ attitude toward the pension fund.

Will the Episcopal Church adjust its 2012 policies on “positive investment” in Israel and the territories?

How the Episcopal Church should use its investments and political influence in the Middle East has been a vexing question for the church. At the last General Convention, trust among the House of Bishops, the House of Deputies and some now-departed church center leaders broke down over this issue. This was due in part to the perception among some deputies that church center leaders were exerting undue influence over the debate on this issue, and in part to procedural rules that designated the House of Bishops as the house of initial action on legislation regarding Israel and Palestine. Because the bishops voted down any legislation that would mandate more aggressive resistance to the policies of the Israeli government, deputies at the last convention had little chance to debate the issue.

After the 2015 convention, Jennings and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry appointed a Working Group on Israel and Palestine, which suggested naming the House of Deputies as the house of initial action on resolutions regarding the Middle East at this convention, among other changes, to ensure a full discussion of the issue. The House of Deputies will hold a special order of business to debate resolutions on Israel and Palestine on Sunday, July 8 at 4:15 p.m.

Numerous resolutions on Israel and Palestine have been filed, many of them by individual deputies with a long history of activism in this area. Some of the resolutions will be heard by Committee 7, the Committee on Social Justice and International Policy and some will be heard by Committee 18, the Committee on Stewardship and Socially Responsible Investing. The committees will hold a joint hearing on all resolutions related to Israel and Palestine on Friday, July 6 at 7:30 a.m.

Debate will no doubt be influenced by Archbishop Suheil Dawani, who is both bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem and primate of the province of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and The Middle East. The archbishop, a native of Nablus, is not an Israeli citizen and travels under a Jordanian passport. He needs a permit to live in Jerusalem. In 2010, Israel denied him a permit, setting off months of legal wrangling that culminated with the permit being restored.

Dawani will speak to the convention and it is unlikely that either house, but especially the House of Bishops, will take any action more aggressive than he can countenance.

What other issues might attract attention?

On the next-to-last day of the 2015 convention, the houses voted to add more than $2.8 million to the budget for church planting initiatives, with a special focus on Latino ministries, bringing to $5.8 million the amount devoted to planting churches and non-traditional communities of faith. What issue might rise to sudden prominence from the convention floor?

One candidate is the church’s budget for formation. As the church deepens its commitment to evangelism, many are asserting that intensifying formation efforts is a logical next step.

Resolution A022 (not online in the form that will be proposed), which would create a “Theological Education Networking Team” to “gather and disseminate resources and best practices” for discernment committees, Commissions on Ministry and the local formation of clergy and licensed lay leaders and Resolution D030, which calls for an annual grant of $50,000 each year of the triennium to Forma, a grassroots Christian formation organization are the resolutions to watch in this regard.

Jim Naughton, a former reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post, is editor of Deputy News.