30 June 2015

A Canadian at General Convention - A few random impressions

Today is day 6 of the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I arrived here in Salt Lake City on the afternoon of day 2, and got myself registered as a visitor. Mostly, I'm here to see how General Convention works, being a Synod junkie. Now that I've reached the halfway point of my visit, it seems about the right time to record a few impressions. (Of course, there may be some errors in what follows, which I'll try to correct if notified.)

My point of comparison is the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada, of which I have been a member 4 times, and have also attended as an Assessor twice. (I've served in both capacities once.) What follows is a set of random impressions and comparisons from that perspective.

General Convention is enormous! It's apparently the second-largest democratically elected legislature in the world (behind the Indian Parliament), and the second-largest convention in the United States (behind the Democrat National Convention).

Formally, General Convention is bi-cameral, unlike General Synod's uni-cameral structure. (curiously, my auto-correct just tried to replace "uni-cameral" with "un-American") However in some ways it might be described as multi-cameral because of its extensive use of legislative committees. (More on those below.)

The two chambers in General Convention are the House of Bishops, presided over by the Presiding Bishop (it includes both active and retired bishops of the Episcopal Church), and the House of Deputies, consisting of 4 clergy and 4 lay members for each of the 109 dioceses. The House of Deputies also includes an Official Youth Presence, made up of 2 youth for each of the 9 Provinces in the Episcopal Church. Unlike the 30 youth delegates in General Synod (one per diocese), the 18 Episcopal youth have no vote, though they do have voice.

The two Houses meet separately (obviously) and have very different look and feel to them. They also each have their own rules of order. I have been able to sit in as an observer in both houses, though on one occasion so far the Bishops met for "private conversations" (i.e. in camera). I'm told the Deputies can do so as well, though they do so rarely. The visitors' gallery in the House of Deputies is much larger, as befits a body that is over 4 times as big as the House of Bishops. (not to mention that it's over 3 times the size of the General Synod)

Both houses are seated at tables. In the House of Deputies, diocesan delegations each sit at the same table. I haven't yet discovered how the bishops are organized into table groups. The smaller House of Bishops speak from their tables, holding up a sign with their table number to be recognized. The House of Deputies have gone high tech, with a scanner being used to put their names into an electronic queue that can be read at the head table so the President can recognize Deputies in sequence at one of eight microphones.

Legislative committees are unknown in General Synod, although we do have sessional committees, but they play a different role. I have been intrigued to sit in on several legislative committee meetings over the past few days. These 23 committees review all substantive resolutions before they go to the two Houses for consideration. The committees hear "testimony" from interested parties, who need not be members of the Convention. In fact, on my first day here, I was invited to address the Governance and Structure comittee on the uni-cameral structure of the General Synod, because the committee was reviewing a proposal to make the General Convention uni-cameral also. Although in General Synod we routinely hear from invited guests, there is no equivalent to someone just showing up and speaking.

Committees review legislation, and may offer amendments, even quite substantial amendments and complete substitutions, based on their deliberations in light of testimony they have heard. By the time a resolution gets to the floor, it is presented by the chair of the relevant committee, and comes with a recommendation that the legislature adopt, adopt as amended, or reject the resolution. They may also recommend that the House "take no further action", which is to say, do nothing with the resolution, neither yes nor no.

At first glance, this committee structure looks like a rather complex and bureaucratic system which gives the committees an enormous amount of power to the committee members. But in fact it seems to serve three helpful purposes. First, it allows for participation beyond the official membership of the Convention. Anyone can offer testimony simply by signing up before the committee meets. Second, it allows for a lot of debate and honing of resolutions to happen before the formal debate, minimizing the number of significant difficulties or omissions in resolutions that might need to be addressed in debate, so Deputies can focus on the substance of a well-formed resolution. Third, and related to the second point, the committees can help the very large House of Deputies do its large volume of work efficiently.

So the reason I might use the term "multi-cameral" is because there is a kind of legislative dance including the two Houses that actually vote and legislate and the 23 committees that debate and craft and hone resolutions and recommend action. An example: in a primatial election in Canada the bishops nominate a number of candidates and then the General Synod reverts to a bi-cameral system (as it used to be) so the clergy and laity (which used to be called the Lower House) can vote (by orders) to elect the new Primate. They inform the bishops of their decision and it's a done deal. Here, I observed the Episcopal primatial election, which involved the bishops going off to vote on a slate of candidates that had been prepared by a committee. Then they sent word of their choice to the President of the House of Deputies, who immediately referred the name to the Committee for the Confirmation of the Presiding Bishop. That committee went away for about 45 minutes or so to confer and then returned with a recommendation to the House to agree with the Bishops' choice. It was only at this point that the House was officially informed of the name of the person elected. (Unofficially, someone leaked the name and it went out on Twitter.) Then the House of Deputies had a vote (not by orders) to confirm the election. Now it was a done deal, and Bishop Michael Curry was officially Presiding Bishop-elect. This interposing of a committee in the electoral process to recommend confirmation was foreign to me, but clearly a natural way of doing things here at General Convention. Strictly speaking, of course, the committees don't make decisions, but they certainly play an integral role in steering legislation through the Convention.

Voting is another interesting point of contrast between our two legislatures. Where the General Synod traditionally votes by show of hands (notwithstanding an experiment with electronic voting in 2013), General Convention uses voice votes. Interestingly, however, on a couple of occasions the voice vote result in the Deputies was sufficiently close that the Chair called for an electronic vote to sort it out, and the electronic vote wasn't as close as the voice vote had suggested. In one case the affirmative vote was over 70%. Obviously there's a danger of voice votes distorting results.

I haven't yet seen a vote by orders here, but our two systems are very different on that point as well. In General Synod we simply take three votes: laity, clergy and bishops - requiring a majority (or 2/3 majority in some cases) in each Order. You could call this a tri-cameral voting system. For General Convention, voting by orders only applies to the House of Deputies. Here each diocese gets one collective vote for clergy and one for laity. The procedure is that each diocesan delegation polls its clergy and laity separately, with the majority in each order determining that diocese's vote on the question. So with 109 dioceses it would take 55 clergy and 55 lay votes for a simple majority. (General Synod also has a rarely-used provision for voting by diocese, but that's a different matter, and is not done by orders.) Curiously, it is mathematically possible for a resolution to be adopted by a minority of clergy and a minority of laity in a vote by orders in the House of Deputies. Even a matter requiring a 2/3 majority only needs the barest simple majority under this system - literally 50% plus 1!

General Convention is very formal in the way the House of Deputies functions. Everyone is referred to by title: Mr Secretary or Madam President, or Deputy Johnson. (We learned that Johnson is the most common surname in the House.) And the conduct of business is highly scripted, even ritualized. Each item of legislative business follows this liturgy:

President: "Mr Secretary, what is the next item of business?"

Secretary: "Thank you, Madam President. The matter before the House is the Legislative Calendar. The next item on the Legislative Calendar is ...."

Debate is equally formal. Once the debate is concluded, the result is declared and punctuated with a gavel.

Often at General Synod, I hear people comment on how formal and bewildering Synod is. General Convention is at another order of magnitude in its formality. Indeed, General Synod is positively laid back by comparison. But this level of formality is necessary because of the enormous size of the House. Without it, the legislature would quickly become unmanageable. It does mean, however, that there is a learning curve for new Deputies that must be rather steeper than the learning curve for members of General Synod.

Formality in procedure is reflected in dress, as well. At General Synod dress tends to be almost uniformly casual, but at General Convention large numbers of clergy and bishops dress in clericals, lots of men wear jackets and ties (and bow ties!) and women are no less well dressed. This is serious business, and people dress for business.

Differences aside, there is much more similarity between our two legislative bodies. Synod is Synod. Some of the details are different because of size or culture, but overall I feel very much at home here at General Convention. Part of that is due to the similarities in our legislatures, but a good part is also due to the number of kind people who have been so welcoming.