In 1910 the General Convention acted to create the Joint Commission on the Support of the Clergy to study the feasibility of a pension system, and, four years later, through other acts of Convention, the Church Pension Fund (CPF) was incorporated in the State of New York. At the time, under the encouragement of Bishop William Lawrence, the will of the Episcopal Church, as expressed through the legislative process of the General Convention, was to care for its clergy in retirement. For over a century, CPF has responded to that mandate, securing for many clergy financial security in their later years. Recently, however, the church has struggled to refine that mandate because the legislative process has been encumbered by a lack of clarity in the relationship between the General Convention and CPG. I believe it is in the best interests of both the church and CPF to restate the historic framework of that relationship and remind the church that CPF is not and has never been independent of General Convention.
One can see this lack of independence not only in the canons (see Title I, Canon 8) but also in the way in which CPF influences the legislative process through testimony offered in legislative hearings, the nomination process for CPF trustees, and informal conversations between deputies and representatives of CPF, all of which are designed to guide the work of convention to help CPF meet its own interpretation of its mandate. Whenever a proposal that CPF feels might threaten its ability to maintain business-as-usual, like divestment or pension parity, comes forward, representatives of CPF speak out against it in legislative meetings and other direct communications with church leaders. Except nominations from the floor, all of the nominees for trustee are vetted by CPF, further steering convention to provide continuity in CPF’s leadership. During the last triennium, in my work with the Committee on the State of the Church, I received phone calls and e-mails from clergy who admitted that representatives of CPF had asked them to call me and express their concerns about the nature of our committee’s work. To pretend that CPF is independent of convention denies both the canonical structure of that relationship and its actual embodiment in the legislative process.
Although some specific areas of CPF’s work, like the evaluation of particular investment managers, should be independent of convention, the values and objectives of the church must be enshrined and reflected in the leadership, investments, and business methods of CPF. In a published report, CPF wrote, “…CPF is independent of General Convention because the trustees are required at all times to act in the best interest of CPF.” CPF does not hesitate to influence the legislative process, but, when convention seeks to clarify the mandate it has given to CPF, the representatives of CPF appeal to the fiduciary obligation of its trustees as a seemingly impenetrable wall through which General Convention’s influence cannot pass. This is a perversion of the historic relationship between the two, and it reduces the ability of CPF to respond to the needs of the church by silencing a potentially constructive dialogue before it begins.
No one wants to undo the excellent work that CPF has done to provide for clergy in retirement. No one wants to erode CPF’s financial sustainability. But General Convention, as the body through which the will of the church is expressed, must be able to influence CPF through the legislative process. In the canons, General Convention has named CPF as the group “authorized to establish and administer the clergy pension system” as well as “the lay employee pension system and denominational health plan” (Canon I.8.1). Convention has made the decision to give that authority to CPF, and it remains Convention’s authority to define the work that CPF will do.
If Convention acts to require that CPF divest from all fossil fuel holdings, CPF must comply because that is the will of the church. If Convention acts to require that all church workers, whether lay or ordained, receive equitable pensions, CPF must comply because that is the will of the church. Yes, to meet their fiduciary obligations, representatives of CPF must inform the Convention about the consequences of those actions, but CPF cannot continue to hide behind the myth of independence in order to duck its responsibility to the whole Episcopal Church.
I applaud CPF for its tireless efforts to ensure that its mandate will be fulfilled, and I hope that General Convention and CPF will be partners in the work of ensuring that our pension system meets the needs of the church for generations to come. The only way that partnership can succeed, however, is to acknowledge the ways in which CPF remains a body under the authority of the General Convention.
The Rev. Evan D. Garner, deputy from Alabama, will begin working as the rector of St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas, later this month.