[Episcopal News Service] More than 300 people attended a Sept. 8 online session intended to provide information and solicit feedback on a series of proposed House of Deputies rules changes that would reshape and streamline how General Convention considers resolutions, with legislative committees completing most of their work online in advance.
Testimony at the Zoom session was limited to 35 people who registered in advance, and of those who spoke, an overwhelming majority expressed reservations or outright criticisms about the proposals, particularly new limits on committees and a new 90-day deadline for submitting resolutions before the start of the 81st General Convention, scheduled for June 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.
The changes, if enacted, also would make greater use of what is known as the “consent calendar” to pass many resolutions with single votes and no debate. Some critics warned this would raise troubling barriers to open discussion of pressing topics while increasing the authority of the Dispatch of Business Committee to manage General Convention’s schedule.
“I worry that we are too enamored with the technology and lose track of the incarnational nature of our church,” said the Rev Eric Metoyer, deputy from the Diocese of California, in arguing for retaining a greater emphasis on the in-person churchwide gathering. “We need to be together.”
The Rev. Daniel Vélez-Rivera, a deputy from the Diocese of Virginia, acknowledged that considering and acting on more than 400 resolutions at General Convention is a “logistical nightmare,” and the church showed the value of conducting some business online in the months leading up to the 80th General Convention in 2022.
But Vélez-Rivera, as a leader of the House of Deputies’ Latino Caucus, noted that many members of his caucus live across multiple times zones in the United States, Central America, South American and the Caribbean, and online meetings can pose unique time and technology challenges for those deputies. Finding ways to raise up their voices “is the mandate of the church,” he said, “and we should work hard not to restrict it.”
The changes to the House of Deputies Rules of Order were proposed by a 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 after the experience of holding a pandemic-shortened convention in July 2022 in Baltimore, Maryland.
At that meeting, bishops and deputies gathered in person for four days – half the time 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.
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.
General Convention is a bicameral governing body, made up of the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Although bishops and deputies meet separately and are assigned to separate General Convention committees on parallel topic areas, each pair of corresponding committees typically meets together to conduct hearings and other business. For that reason, changes to how the House of Deputies schedules its committees’ work likely would influence the bishops’ plans as well.
Several of those testifying on Sept. 8 cautioned the church not to take changes made last year in reaction to a public health emergency and make them permanent now that the threat of COVID—19 infection has subsided. In particular, “pushing committees to do all their work online is draconian,” said Sarah Lawton, a deputy from California, who is active in the progressive Episcopal coalition known as The Consultation.
Deputies serving on committees in 2022 were forced to attend numerous online meetings across several months, Lawton said, putting a strain on some members, particularly those who are juggling those meetings with work and family life. Online meetings serve a purpose, she said, “but they cannot be a substitute to being in the room together for hard discussions … We need space [in person] for the spirit to move at convention.”
Joe McDaniel, a deputy from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast and convener of the Deputies of Color, also emphasized the power of face-to-face interaction.
“Being in the same room gives courage, knowledge and power to historically marginalized communities to speak among themselves and to the church,” said McDaniel, who serves on the church’s Executive Council. He warned the changes would be a step backward, toward “an imperialist way of transacting the church’s business.”
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 opened the Sept. 8 session with an overview of the legislative process and what he called the “pain points” that result in “a huge barrier to entry for people.” When General Convention previously convened entirely in person, it meant a rigorous and even exhausting schedule for deputies and observers who were interested in tracking some of the hundreds of resolutions from start to finish.
Processing so much legislation in such a short timeframe also made it difficult to ensure adequate translations for what has become an international, multilingual church. And though bishops and deputies enjoy the fellowship and personal engagement of attending General Convention, the marathon schedule can take a physical and emotional toll, Krislock said.
General Convention already approved rules changes in 2022 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. The changes are intended to increase churchwide accessibility, improve governing transparency, minimize the time devoted to procedural discussions, lower the cost for more people to participate, and foster new opportunities to receive feedback on resolutions, including through written testimony.
Krislock also explained the rationale for setting a resolution deadline 90 days before General Convention. An underlying cause of committees’ scheduling challenges in 2022 related to their need to react to newly filed resolutions over the span of several months. For 2024, by requiring resolutions to be filed in advance, committees will know the full scope of their work before they start meeting online.
There still would be ways to introduce new resolutions at General Convention, such as by act of the House of Deputies president or by vote of the house.
Those goals of the special committee and certain aspects of its proposed changes were welcomed warmly by some of the people who testified. Several offered suggestions for adjusting the proposals to make them more effective or more aligned with the church’s values and democratic principles of church governance.
Nathan Brown, a lay deputy from the Diocese of Washington, strongly endorsed the continued use of online meetings, explaining that “as a lay person with a secular day job, it’s a lot easier for me to negotiate that time off,” rather than spending more days away from home and work to attend the in-person convention.
Brown’s endorsement, however, was one of the few exceptions. Most of the others raised objections, including to the underlying process for approving and implementing the rules changes. Because they would not be approved until the first day of the 81st General Convention, committees meeting online would have to follow the pending rules in anticipation that they would apply retroactively.
“I’m afraid we are setting a bad precedent in our governance by implementing changes before they are voted on in the house,” said Alan Murray, a deputy from the Episcopal Church in Western Oregon.
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.