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Year of Leadership: Governance

Episcopalians love committees and meetings and, more recently, Zoom calls. We chat about shared missions and still have differing opinions on almost everything. It is something that makes the Episcopal tradition beautiful–the free expression of different experiences, cultures, and opinions. We have vestry and Bishop’s committee meetings, and Executive Council meetings, and the Standing Committee, and Diocesan Convention . . . How did the Episcopal Church get this way?

The late 18th century was a tumultuous time in the history of the United States. The American Revolution was in full swing, and not surprisingly, it came with a strong desire among American Anglicans to distance themselves from the Church of England. Yearning for a church that mirrored their newfound nation’s ideals, early Americans convened the first convention of the Church in 1785 in Philadelphia–the future first capital of the fledgling country–and established the Constitution and Canons of the Church. This outlined the democratic structure we enjoy today. It was a momentous occasion, marking the birth of a new religious institution that would strive to reconcile its Anglican heritage with the democratic spirit of the young nation.

At the core of The Episcopal Church’s identity lies a democratic structure designed to give voice to its members at every level. The foundation of the Episcopal Church’s structure rests at the local level within individual churches, where dedicated and passionate individuals are chosen to represent their faith communities. Each year, at each church’s annual meeting, vestry members and delegates to Diocesan Convention are selected by the congregation and leadership to represent their local church.

When each church’s delegation attends the annual convention of a diocese, they play a crucial role in discussing and voting on numerous resolutions, the annual diocesan budget, electing lay and clergy people into diocesan leadership, and electing the deputation that will attend the General Convention. The Diocesan Convention also gets to elect its diocese new bishop at times of transition.

Every three years, at each diocesan convention, deputies and alternates are elected to represent the diocese at the largest meeting of the Church–General Convention. This process ensures that a diverse range of voices and perspectives are brought together from various regions and backgrounds to collectively decide on matters of faith and governance.

The General Convention itself operates under a two-house system, consisting of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. This two-house structure is a reflection of the Episcopal Church’s commitment to inclusivity and balanced representation. The House of Bishops includes the spiritual leaders of the church, while the House of Deputies is comprised of elected representatives from every diocese, including both clergy and lay members.

The broadest level of the church, TEC, is led by a Presiding Bishop who is elected at General Convention to serve a nine-year term. While you may have heard our overall church described as the “national” church, The Episcopal Church (TEC) is actually very international. It comprises 108 dioceses, three mission areas, and 22 countries or territories, totaling over 1.5 million members. Similar to cities and states, there are levels of governance embedded within the Episcopal hierarchy. There are TEC, Dioceses, and Churches, each having a different level of authority and autonomy.

The Episcopal Church is divided into geographical regions known as dioceses. The Diocese of San Diego stretches across San Diego, Riverside, Imperial, and Yuma counties. Each diocese has its bishop, clergy, and lay representatives. Each diocese operates with a large degree of autonomy in many matters, including managing their finances and making decisions about local church practices. This decentralization allows dioceses to adapt to the unique needs and circumstances of their communities while adhering to the broader principles of the Episcopal Church.

Zooming in further, we encounter individual Episcopal churches within each diocese. These local congregations have their rectors or vicars and lay leaders. While they faithfully follow the overall structure and teachings of the Episcopal Church, they also possess a degree of autonomy in managing their own affairs. This local autonomy enables them to serve the specific needs and preferences of their local population.

The Episcopal Church’s democratic roots, sown during the American Revolution, continue to shape its governance and identity to this day. It is a story of faith and democracy intertwined, where the pursuit of religious independence and self-governance became inseparable from the quest for freedom in the United States. This unique blend of faith and democratic principles is mirrored in the church’s hierarchical structure, where the voices of both clergy and laity are heard and respected at every level.


Category: #Communications, #Convention, #Sundays

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2 replies to “Year of Leadership: Governance

  1. Agnes West-Kohler | on January 17, 2024

    This is sooo hard to explain to others. As a docent at the Cathedral I often was questioned about the differences between St Paul’s and St Joseph’s and between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in GB or even in Canada.

  2. Tim O’Malley | on January 17, 2024

    This was very interesting, I like the way you compared the church and our government. I will pass this on to my Bishop’s Committee next month.

    Thank you
    Tim O’Malley
    Bishop’s Warden
    Holy Family
    Santa Fe, NM

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