House of Deputies considers plan to finish most committee work online ahead of General Convention

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 15, 2023

[Episcopal News Service] Clergy and lay leaders representing a diverse range of progressive Episcopalians and Episcopalians of color are mobilizing against proposed changes to 81st General Convention scheduling and procedures that effectively would push most, if not all, legislative committee business online in advance of the in-person churchwide meeting.

The Deputies of Color, an umbrella group of members of each of the House of Deputies’ four ethnic caucuses, released a letter dated Aug. 12 that was addressed to churchwide leaders, warning that the proposals “would fundamentally change how legislative committees function.” A separate group known as the Consultation, which represents seven progressive Episcopal groups, issued a letter dated Aug. 14 raising similar concerns, saying the changes “would undercut the spirit of relationality that is the heartbeat of governance at the General Convention.”

Both groups urged their members and all deputations to review and comment on the proposals during a House of Deputies listening session scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern Sept. 8 on Zoom. They also can submit written feedback through an online form.

“We find ourselves in a transition that is touching and engaging all of us,” the Consultation said. It urged church leaders “to balance our desire for efficiency with the admission that the inefficiencies of inclusive processes can create space for voices and issues we need to hear, including the voice of the Holy Spirit.”

The changes, such as an earlier deadline for resolutions and greater use of what is known as the “consent calendar,” were proposed by a House of Deputies Special Committee on Rules of Order that was appointed in March by House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris to consider ways of improving General Convention’s legislative process. The special committee’s underlying goal was to apply lessons learned from the church’s experience of holding a pandemic-shortened 80th General Convention in July 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.

At that meeting, bishops and deputies gathered in person for four days – half as long as was originally planned – to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. The shorter in-person meeting was possible because legislative committees for the first time had spent the previous months completing most of their work online.

Deputies and bishops at 80th

Deputies and bishops listen to a budget presentation on July 10, the only time the two houses met jointly at the 80th General Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo: Scott Gunn

Before the pandemic, meetings of General Convention typically were held every three years and included 10 legislative days in late June or early July, preceded by additional days for committee work. After the four-day meeting in Baltimore, church leaders decided to allot six days, June 23-28, 2024, for legislative sessions when the 81st General Convention convenes in Louisville, Kentucky.

The decision in favor of a six-day convention revived a long-running debate over what is the proper length of General Convention. Planners typically must balance bishops’ and deputies’ availability and the cost of hotel stays with the need to schedule enough days for effective churchwide governance, legislative activity, networking and fellowship.

Some Episcopal groups, including the Consultation, raised concerns that a second shortened General Convention in 2024 could change the nature of the gathering going forward and hinder the church’s ability to have open and productive discussions on a range of important issues. Convention planners now face similar objections to the newly unveiled proposals to change the House of Deputies Rules of Order.

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who chairs the House of Bishops as one of The Episcopal Church’s two presiding officers, declined to comment for this story, saying through a spokesperson that the matter is in the hands of the House of Deputies. Bishops and deputies are assigned to separate General Convention committees on parallel topic areas, and each pair of corresponding committees typically meets together to conduct hearings and other business.

Ayala Harris provided a written statement in response to Episcopal News Service’s inquiry about the proposed rule changes, saying she welcomes robust input on the proposals.

“I am encouraged to see so much participation and excitement surrounding the House of Deputies Rules of Order,” Ayala Harris said. “While some may think this is a mundane topic, these processes are important to the life of our House and the work of the church. The Special Committee was formed to begin this conversation with the wider community and discern a way forward for our processes to be more inclusive and accessible.”

Some of the most consequential changes, if approved, would relate to the resolution filing deadline and the consent calendar, a batch of resolutions that are approved together in a single vote, usually because they are routine or without controversy. Under the proposals, resolutions would need to be filed 90 days before the start of the in-person legislative sessions at General Convention, allowing time for legislative committees to conduct hearings on and deliberate the resolutions online. The new Rules of Order also would elevate the role of the deputies’ Dispatch of Business Committee in determining which resolutions would be removed from the consent calendar, enabling a full floor debate.

“Given the increasing volume of resolutions at the convention and the limited time to discuss them, the consent calendar is essential for processing resolutions,” the Special Committee on Rules of Order said in its report. “It also reflects the practical reality: The key work on resolutions takes place in the committee, not on the floor of the house.

“Additionally, we feel it is important to balance the floor time intentionally to ensure adequate time for meaningful deliberation on key resolutions and issues facing the church. If the volume of resolutions that receive a full debate is too high, deliberation becomes increasingly limited, and everyone becomes frustrated.”

The benefits of holding legislative committee meetings online were demonstrated in 2022. Overall, about 2,500 people attended the online meetings and hearings of two dozen legislative committees, which allowed anyone with an internet-connected device to observe or testify.

“We have opened the legislative process for the church to the entire church—not just those who can afford the time off or the travel to the site of the General Convention,” the special committee said in its report. “Challenges do remain, but we are confident they can be addressed.”

Others, however, have noted that the committees’ online work spread out the time commitment for bishops and deputies across several months, sometimes taking a toll on committee members. Likewise, it minimized the opportunity to engage meaningfully with each other on the issues at the in-person meeting.

“We believe we can do some legislative committee work in advance, but it should not replace the ability to meet in person,” the Deputies of Color said in their recent letter. “We are incarnational people. In a post-pandemic world, there is a deep hunger for in-person relationship building. We need to have the ability to build relationship and discern as a community.”

The letter called some of the proposals “draconian,” particularly the changes that limit committees’ ability to draft new resolutions and earmark resolutions for a full floor debate. “These proposed rules would also not allow the General Convention to address other new issues that may arise near the time of or at General Convention,” the Deputies of Color said.

The Consultation noted in its letter how the 78th General Convention convened in 2015 shortly after the killing of nine Black worshipers at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. That massacre prompted bishops and deputies to craft and approve new resolutions focused on racial reconciliation.

The Consultation also said that, while it supports holding some committee hearings online, “the proposed requirement for committees to complete all their work before convention is onerous and will diminish the voice of lay deputies in our church governance. … Most workers, students, and caregivers do not have flexible schedules to sit in Zoom meetings in the middle of multiple working days over many months.”

The two groups’ letters were signed individually by 30 clergy and lay leaders, including three sitting members and several former members of Executive Council, which is the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention. The Consultation’s letter also was signed by Byron Rushing, the former House of Deputies vice president.

The Special Committee on Rules of Order is chaired by Bryan Krislock, the House of Deputies parliamentarian. The other members are the Rev. Molly James, deputy executive officer of General Convention; Mike Glass, chancellor to the House of Deputies president and the Rev. Emily Mellot, chair of the Dispatch of Business Committee.

Krislock, in an interview with ENS, said he welcomes the feedback so far on the proposals and looks forward to receiving more input at the Sept. 8 listening session. General Convention already approved rules changes to enable committees to conduct online meetings, he said, so the proposed additional changes are intended to formalize a streamlined process for that online work and the in-person sessions at General Convention.

Committees in 2022 often were forced to schedule multiple days of meetings and hearings because they received new resolutions over the span of several months, Krislock said. For 2024, by requiring resolutions to be filed 90 days in advance, committees will know the full scope of their work before they start meeting online.

Online committee meetings also ensure broad transparency and input in church governance, he said. “We want to open up the committee process to the entire church, not based on whether they can afford a plane ticket to Louisville.”

Krislock countered some of the other concerns raised about online meetings, saying they should foster rather than hinder the relational work that happens at the in-person convention. Instead of scrambling to keep track of committee meetings and hearings, deputies in Louisville would be able to focus their in-person attendance on more meaningful conversations and debate on the resolutions that the committees recommend for approval.

And General Convention still would have mechanisms for shifting gears at the last minute in response to late-breaking developments, Krislock said. Previously submitted resolutions could be rewritten or substituted as appropriate.

He also emphasized that the proposed changes to the consent calendar are intended to ensure there is enough floor time to debate some of the top issues facing the church, without deputies feeling rushed by the crunch of hundreds of other resolutions. Dispatch of Business is the committee responsible for striking that balance, with all resolutions starting on the consent calendar unless the committee decides to schedule a floor debate on a resolution.

Even so, if 20 deputies disagree with Dispatch of Business’ decision, under the proposed rule changes, they could force a resolution off the consent calendar and onto the floor.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at