House of Deputies passes two structure resolutions

The House of Deputies today passed resolutions that substantially reduce the number of standing commissions that help shape church policy between meetings of the General Convention, and maintained the church’s 38-member Executive Council at its current size. A task force that studied the church’s governing structure had recommended reducing the size of the council by half.

The House also denied the Executive Council the power to “direct” the church’s presiding bishop to fire certain senior staff members.

The resolutions now move to the House of Bishops.

The votes this morning are the first action either house has take on far-reaching proposals to restructure the church’s governance, which some find cumbersome and expensive, but others defend, saying it facilitates a wide range of input for clergy and lay people in the governance of the church.

The 2012 General Convention created the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) to study the church’s governing structure and propose changes. TREC’s proposals were then significantly rewritten by the convention’s Legislative Committee on Structure and Governance. However, a number of its principle recommendations survived.

Those recommendations received a mixed response. TREC had proposed halving the size of Executive Council, cutting the number of standing commissions from 14 to two, and allowing the Executive Council to direct the dismissal of the church’s chief operating officer, chief financial office and chief legal officer on a two-thirds vote.

The task force also recommended that the church’s bicameral General Convention become a unicameral body. That proposal, redrafted by the legislative committee, now calls on the convention to “explore” unicameral legislatures. It has yet to come to the floor of the House.

Tom O’Brien, a deputy from the Diocese of Southwest Florida and vice chair of the deputies’ committee on governance and structure said the group “considered very seriously reducing the size of Executive Council,” but concluded that in abolishing numerous standing commissions the convention would increase the council’s workload.

The resolution that abolishes 12 standing commissions also authorizes the presiding bishop and president of the House of Deputies to create time-limited task forces with specific agendas to pursue work that might previously have been assigned to standing commission. These task forces would need “someone to report to,” he said. “The someone is Executive Council.”

The debate on whether Executive Council should be able to direct the presiding bishop to fire staff members revealed sharp divisions in the House.

The Rev. Adam Trambley of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania argued that as the church’s board of directors, Executive Council requires a mechanism to hold the presiding bishop—who is elected for a nine-year term—accountable to the wider church. To keep “responsibility, accountability and authority together … we want to give Executive Council… some limited authority,” he said. “This is very limited authority, only to be used in the most extreme circumstances after mutual ministry reviews. It’s a very small piece, but it is important.”

The Rev. R. Stanley Runnells of the Diocese of West Missouri, a member of Executive Council, said he had “limited contact” with senior staff members named in the resolution. “I am hesitant to allow myself to get into a triangulated position on someone’s employment,” he said.

The resolution to reduce the number of standing commissions passed easily after spirited debate.

“They threw out the baby with the bath water,” said one deputy during the debate, calling the legislation “incomprehensible and unacceptable.”

However, Deputy Jamie McMahon of the Diocese of Pittsburgh who recently served on a standing commission said he believed that many of the commissions did not need to exist in every triennium.

The two standing commissions preserved in the legislation are a Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons and a Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. The house defeated a proposal by Deputy Sarah Lawton of the Diocese of California to add a Standing Commission on Mission to the resolution.