In a recent post to the House of Deputies, the president, The Rev. Gay Jennings sighted some very good reasons why she thinks we should not consider the proposal for a unicameral house. You can read her letter to the House of Deputies here.
She offered the first reason was to be a kind of balance or check on those who have, "the authority to hire, fire, discipline and shape the careers and ministries of members" of the laity, priests and deacons. This offers that the House of Deputies is an important balance. I agree. I think this is not automatically lost in a unicameral situation and room can be made that this balance is maintained, for instance through number of laity and clergy vs bishops, voting power, etc. So this is more of a hurdle and not a road block.
She then offers that because we meet from time to time that bishops (and I am one) control more of the governance. I don't think this takes into account the vast majority of meetings held each triennial of the CCAB's (committee, commissions, and boards) where joint governance is structured and undertaken through mammoth cost of time, gifts, and money. Furthermore, it does not recognize or honor the amount of work the Executive Council does on our behalf to govern the Church. Together the CCAB's and the Executive Council do the vast majority of governance while the House of Bishops spends about 3 hours each year on governance. So this doesn't actually work as a reason to not have a unicameral form of governance.
I agree that balances within the system are important and that all people, deputies and bishops, laity and clergy alike have a hard time looking as Jennings says, "beyond their own self-interest. It isn’t sensible to bestow tremendous advantages on one group within the system and expect that members of that group will never be tempted to use them. Checks, meet balances. Balances, meet checks." Of course what you see here is actually the huge amounts of power, time, and money that is being used for governance under the leadership of he laity, priests, and deacons - the deputies. It is funny though that the argument that Jennings uses is the same argument that the House of Bishops uses when they are fearful of the unicameral system.
Like Jennings I too, "want to be sure that our polity continues to allow bishops, clergy and laypeople to work together to create proposals, programs and advocacy agendas for the Episcopal Church. Right now, the House of Deputies, Executive Council and the commissions, committees, agencies and boards of the church are among the means through which that happens." And, I would not want "the ability to create a legislative agenda and lobby for it is in the hands of only one order of ministry." As you can see though that is a straw man for why we shouldn't have a unicameral. None of that is automatically taken out of the system if the unicameral is designed well and designed by the people of General Convention.
3 Reasons Why We Should Consider A Unicameral
Let me begin by saying that I think governance is important and we are going to spend time and energy on it. I like our system of two houses and believe those houses should meet in a unicameral gathering. Why? I offer you three reasons.
Governance costs money. No matter what you have to have it. But it should not be overwhelming or keep us from doing our work. At our General Convention I promise you we will do some things: we will cut budgets to our poorest mission dioceses that we support. We will cut ministries for youth. We will cut work with emerging ministries and new church starts. We will not pay the pensions for clergy and laity working in the poorest diocese so that they can have a living retirement like their peers in the U.S.
Transparency: I recognize if the 45% of us who don't give our full asking did we would also be in a different position and that is why in Texas I am working to fix that and together with my people are getting close to giving $800,000 of or our asking to the budget - while maintaining the other $1,000,000 in gifts we make to the Episcopal Church outside of the budget.
At the same time we will spend a vast amount of money at every level on General Convention. I went through and I added up the cost of General Convention. I added together the budget components that are visible, I added the tourist data on what an average person is expected to spend in Salt Lake City for hotels and food, I added in transportation cost, and I added in the salaries of those who help us run convention as it is formed in its two houses for eight days plus the four days of set up in advance and this is what I found out. I found out that by the first day of convention we will (in money spent by deputies and bishops and staff) write a whopping total of $1,125,000 roughly. And by the end of it we will have spent more than $11,125,000+ and I think that is really conservative. That takes out sunk cost for those salaries of full time church workers who could be doing something else. It also does not include the church and para-church organizations who will themselves spend large amounts of money to be present to argue for their budget or sell their goods.
Think of it this way. A small and poor diocese traveling from outside of the country could spend well over $20,000 for the event. A small to medium diocese will spend about $40,000. A large diocese might spend well over $100,000 given the numbers of people.
We are responsible for spending this money. Think of it another way. On the first day we could pay two full budgets of two mission diocese. By the second day, we could have restored all the funding we have cut from our mission diocese. We have a responsibility, a fiduciary responsibility, to ensure that we use governance to help mission and not hinder it.
We are a diverse and a church filled with great difference. This is something I am proud of and I want to celebrate and we in Texas are trying to reflect more and more this reality as it is experienced across our Episcopal Church and given our mission context. We are a place with many theological views, ethnicity, and many income levels. I am proud that our House of Deputies is diverse and I don't want that to change. I am proud of the diverse representation throughout our governance. I want to work with people of difference and listen and learn. I want to share and hear from others with different experiences and backgrounds.
One argument is that a unicameral house would cause this experience of diversity in our governance to go away. We studied this and found that the diversity would not actually go down if we reduced the number of deputies. That seems important.
But what is more important is to recognize that General Convention is a privilege. It is a privilege to those who can take off eight days of work, or who have eight days of vacation, or who have jobs that allow them to leave for eight days in a row. Most Americans get only 10 days all together on average. Then there is the expense. General Convention is a privilege because you have to be able not only to take off (and either lose wages or perhaps you are salaried) you have to spend - even on the cheap - $200 a day. That is a total of $1600 - not including your registration and travel.
The number of people who actually get to speak at the microphone is a very small percentage of the whole who are gathered. Furthermore, on the most important issues there is actually a planned microphone strategy to decrease representative voices by those who know how things work. I know this is true in the House of Deputies from my experience.
I say all of this because a smaller house, with diverse voices, speaking across all the orders, working together in a shorter time period with the best supporting governance could actually be more representative than it is today.
Just because you have the numbers does not mean all the voices are heard or present in the room with you. A unicameral gathering of the two houses might actually do better at forcing us to listen to one another in our difference. It might actually model shared leadership. It could even help us to hear those voices that are difficult to hear because of size and the fact we are separated into two rooms.
Most of the comments about the unicameral proposal have to do with the fact that there is fear that somehow the House of Deputies will lose its voice or lose power. What is interesting is that no one has pondered or thought about the fact that by having two houses we actually strengthen a false hierarchy that is not meant by our constitution, canons or imagined in our ordinal.
By having two houses with bishops (who are a member of the clergy) in one and the rest of the laity and non-bishop clergy in another it actually makes it appear that there is a hierarchy to the church which has never been imagined.
Some of the very things that those of us who believe in the shared ministry of the church, the mutual ministry among laity and every clergy order, the idea of shared governance is actually undermined by the fact that the House of Bishops is separated out.
I want to protect the voices of those who are different than me. I want them to sound out and speak truthfully of their experience. I want them to tell me about the issues facing parishioners and I want to hear those voices for myself. I want to sit at a table with people not from my diocese and share the ministry of the church. I believe we can actually work together without the false hierarchy of a past age.
A unicameral body with two houses meeting together can be, and should be, organized to support this work, decrease cost, protect and amplify voices of difference, and govern our church.