July 5, 2018
Now that it is meeting, and we are praying for it, what is the General Convention of the Episcopal Church and why does it matter?
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church is a body which meets every three years in order to oversee the Constitutions and Canons and the inter-diocesan cooperation of the mission of the church. It was established in 1789, yes, the same year the Constitution of the United States of America was approved and instituted to replace the Articles of Confederation. The political philosophy behind the Constitution seems to have a direct impact on the ecclesiological theology of the General Convention.
There are oddities concerning General Convention which are clearly not part of our country's governance. General Convention is a voluntary Association which exists only for those days that it is in session. This year when the Convention ends on July 15, it will cease to exist, although, there are "standing committees," which have been given power to exist and continue work between conventions. One such committee is the Standing Committee on Liturgy and Music, which is constantly updating and evaluating liturgical practices such as music, liturgies and prayers for the Book of Occasional Services, or liturgies and prayers for the Enriching our Worship series. Otherwise, the life of the church is carried on in the several dioceses and through the incorporated entity, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the effective arm of the General Convention which lives at 815 Second Avenue.
The Convention itself is made up of two bodies, the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. The House of Bishops is made up of all bishops of the Episcopal Church, Diocesan, Suffragan, and Assisting, both active and retired. This House now meets twice a year between conventions and is headed by the Presiding Bishop, currently Michael Curry, who is elected to a nine-year term. The role of the Presiding Bishop has changed over time. Originally the Presiding Bishop was a function that rotated among the Bishops. In the early eighteen-hundreds the Presiding Bishop was the senior bishop in the House of Bishops. In 1926 the Presiding Bishop became an elected office.
Laity and clergy are part of the House of Deputies, so the deputies consist of Priests, Deacons and lay men and women. There is a role for the President of the House of Deputies, which, for the longest time, was an-every three-year job, has now become much more involved. A resolution to make this a paid office is before the convention this year. More commentary after that vote happens.
In the third century in the Western Church determined that the smallest administrative unit of the church was the Diocese. Therefore, on a going basis, Diocese, under the structure of the Constitutions and Canons and the Book of Common Prayer, administer the life of the church on a co-equal basis. Until the changes to the disciplinary canons in 2012, bishops and diocesan Standing Committees were completely self-sufficient as to discipline and cooperation. So, General Convention is a big deal, but the life of the church is the life of the Diocese and Parish.