Episcopal Church Executive Council: opening remarks from the President of the House of Deputies

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The following are the opening remarks of President of the House of Deputies the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings at the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, currently meeting through October 27 the Conference Center at the Maritime Institute in Linthicum Heights, MD.

Executive Council opening remarks
24 October 2014
Maritime Center, Linthicum Heights, MD

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings
President of the House of Deputies
The Episcopal Church

Good afternoon.

I thought a lot about church structure this summer. Probably not as much as I’ll think about it next summer, but it was a good warm up.

I also thought a lot this summer, particularly as I watched the news from Ferguson, about our promise to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

In July, I spoke to the annual meeting of the Union of Black Episcopalians. We met in Atlantic City, surrounded by a cloud of witnesses from Freedom Summer and the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Let me tell you, it’s a humbling experience to give a speech with the voice of Fannie Lou Hamer echoing in your ears.

We were gathered just before the fortieth anniversary of the ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven. On July 29, 1974, eleven women who had been called by God were ordained Episcopal priests by three bishops who were willing to risk ecclesiastical discipline and the derision of their colleagues in the cause of justice.

A fourth bishop, the Rt. Rev. Antonio Ramos, who is today the retired bishop of Costa Rica, attended the ordination and joined in the laying on of hands. He issued a statement afterward in which he said that the ordination “stands as a prophetic witness on behalf of and for the oppressed.” It would, he said, “be characterized as an act of disobedience, ecclesiastical disobedience on our part, willfully done to abolish a system of canon law which is discriminatory, and which can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.”

So while I was thinking about church structure, I was also thinking about all of the places where I believe God is calling us today to abolish systems that can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.  How do we as Episcopalians best do that holy work?

I believe in my bones that we do it best through General Convention, where we consider issues and concerns that bubble up from across the church. The legislative process at General Convention allows us to hear about, learn from, and consider what God is doing in many contexts and communities. We have to put legislation into action—passing a resolution is always the beginning, not the end. But we need the legislative process to hear all of the voices of the people of God.

Now, I’ve been fond of saying that restructuring begins at home, and in order to make the legislative process one that can best help us discern our mission and ministry, we do need some restructuring. On Wednesday, I wrote to deputies and alternates giving them a lot of details about how we’ll do things differently in the House of Deputies this convention. I want to tell you something about this work, both because many of you will be at General Convention and because we all need to look at what we can do, in practical terms, to make our participation in God’s mission more sustainable.

You might know that Bishop Katharine and I have restructured the legislative committees of General Convention.

I plan to appoint House of Deputies legislative committees by the end of 2014 and instruct all deputy committee chairs to begin committee work before General Convention. I hope that having committees begin work early--a change that is permitted by the current Rules of Order--will make it possible for us to consider legislation much more efficiently once we arrive in Salt Lake City.

If you've had a chance to review the General Convention draft schedule posted on the General Convention website, you may notice some highlights and changes from previous conventions:

The nominees for presiding bishop will be presented to deputies and bishops on June 24, the day before the first legislative day. I am truly delighted that both houses of convention will have an opportunity to hear from the nominees together. On June 27, the House of Bishops will hold its election. The House of Deputies, by voting to confirm or not to confirm the choice of the House of Bishops, also has a critical role to play in the process.

Bishop Katharine and I spoke about our hope to have more joint sessions.  During General Convention, the House of Bishops and House of Deputies will have three joint sessions. On June 26, we will have a joint session to receive officially the nominations from the Joint Nominating Committee for the Election of the 27th Presiding Bishop and to receive nominations that may have come through the petition process. During this session, we will also have a conversation on church structure. On June 30, we will gather for a joint session on mission. And on July 1, we will meet together to hear the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget & Finance.

We will have a special Eucharist on July 3, the final legislative day of Convention, to welcome the presiding bishop-elect. I want to say how grateful I am about the ministry of our current Presiding Bishop. Although the new presiding bishop will also be seated at the Washington National Cathedral later in the year, we intend for the service at General Convention to be the primary celebration so that we can all participate in an event with only modest additional costs.

We’re also working on the rules of order of both houses. At the beginning of this triennium, Bishop Katharine and I appointed a joint committee to revise the Joint Rules of Order of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies and the separate rules of order of each house. A committee of bishops, deputies and advisors met together in 2013, and since then, each house has continued its work. The House of Deputies Rules of Order are being revised to be more logical, easier to understand, and accessible—especially to the more than 40% of deputies who are serving for the first time. I am grateful to the people who have worked hard on this important task, including Byron Rushing, Jim Simons, Michael Barlowe, Sally Johnson and Bryan Krislock.  I am also grateful to Mark Duffy and the staff of the Archives.

We’ve also spent a good deal of time considering how to move legislation more efficiently through General Convention and reduce the bottlenecks that we have sometimes encountered in previous years. I plan to use a few tools, including a resolution review committee, legislative aides, conference committees, and drafting advisors to help move things along.

This restructuring work can be simultaneously tedious and terrifying. We all know at this point in the triennium that church structure conversations can become pretty charged with emotion. I think that’s because when we talk about structure, we’re really talking about our identity. We’re talking about our vision of the reign of God, and whether restructuring could impoverish it or imperil it if we lose sight of the gifts of all orders of ministry. We are talking about the fate of the governance structures through which we have progressed—sometimes haltingly, sometimes kicking and screaming—toward equality for people of color, for women, and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians.

When we talk about structure, we are getting clear about what is unnecessary and also what is the inevitable messiness of our democracy—democracy that makes possible not just our ministries of social justice and advocacy, but also the very mission of the church. We are figuring out what rules we need to advance the cause of justice and equality. And we are figuring out what God is calling us to do about the parts of our institutions and our world that can no longer stand the judgment of the liberating Christ.

This is the DNA of our Episcopal identity. We can restructure it, we can streamline it, we can even make it more nimble. But it is the heart of who we are as the people of God, and I pray that it guides our work together at this meeting and for the rest of the triennium.

As we work and pray together this weekend, I ask that you keep in your prayers especially our sisters and brothers in the Episcopal Church in Liberia, which is struggling mightily to respond to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. God willing, their representatives will be with us at General Convention, where they have seat and voice in the House of Deputies. I pray that God will be with them and the people of their country in this desperate time.