Bishops delay decision on retired bishops' voice and vote

July 15, 2009

The House of Bishops ended an emotional discussion July 17 by again delaying a long-sought decision about whether retired bishops should be able to vote.

Bishops voted 72-39 to refer Resolution A052 to the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons to provide more time to study the issue. The issue will not resurface until another "first reading" at the 77th General Convention in 2012, where, if passed, it will require approval again at convention in 2015.

Several bishops expressed conflicting personal as well as theological feelings about excluding retired bishops from any official legislative role.

"I've gone back and forth on emotional reasons – it's hard for me to take anyone's vote away," North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry told his colleagues. "Then I've gone back and forth on hard-core theological and ecclesiastical reasons – then I've gone back again. The long and short of it is referring it … will allow for thoughtful and in-depth reflection on this. This is actually important."

Questions about the authority of retired bishops have swirled within the church for decades. In 2000, the House of Bishops voted to eliminate retirees' voting power, but the House of Deputies defeated that resolution. In 2003, the move passed in both houses, but it then was amended in 2006 to become yet another first reading.

The resolution would maintain seat and voice in the House of Bishops for all bishops but limit votes to bishops with jurisdiction; coadjutor, suffragan or assistant bishops; and "every bishop holding an office created by General Convention." As a constitutional amendment, the resolution must pass two successive conventions with the same wording.

Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe and other retired bishops expressed their dismay about the proposal, contrasting it with recently passed measures calling for fuller inclusion and comparing it to a waning cultural respect for the elderly.

"There aren't many retired bishops present at this gathering," Rowthorn said, "but we came at our own expense to offer our experience and wisdom we have accumulated over the years to your deliberations. So my friends, as you come to vote, … remember the elders."

Newly seated Texas Bishop Andy Doyle agreed: "As one of the youngest bishops in what is a very ancient order and perhaps an ancient house, I would really regret losing the voices of those who have been so very important to me in my discernment process and my journey. I think it's a mistake for us to do this in a variety of ways."

Wyoming Bishop Bruce Caldwell and others, however, called for support of the move for various reasons.

"One, I listened to the roll call at the beginning of this session, and it went on for a long time before the sound of present," he said. "That group is growing in numbers … before long there will be four times as many retired bishops as bishops with jurisdiction in this church, I bet. And I have trouble framing this as a justice issue; I think it's more of a jurisdiction issue.

"People need a responsible connection with the people in the pews if they're going to vote."

In other business, bishops also decided against commissioning a review of the church's national communications operations. Resolution D037 called for a survey to determine whether Episcopal Life remains the best media for reaching members and other readers, but bishops argued for a faster move toward electronic forms of communication.

Bishop Neil Alexander of Atlanta urged defeat, saying the resolution "represents business as usual.

"We need to affirm the leadership of our Presiding Bishop, we need to affirm the leadership of our director of communications in having a new and fresh and exciting strategy for this time and not 50 years ago," he said.

In other business, bishops also adopted proposed additional prayers in Holy Women, Holy Men, a revision of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but only after reinstating references to Jesus' mother as "the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Deletion of the word "virgin" had been one of the proposed changes in Resolution A099, which now goes to the House of Deputies for consideration. The prayers instead referred to "Blessed Mary," "Mary of Nazareth" and "God-bearer."

Bishop William Love of Albany warned that such a move would elicit widespread criticism: "I guarantee you that if this passes as it is by taking ‘the Blessed Virgin Mary' out, there's going to be headlines that ‘the Episcopal Church denies the virginity of Mary,' or something to that effect, and I'm not sure that we really want to do that."

Bishops also reconsidered Resolution A075 regarding an agreement with the Presbyterian Church USA. Bishops decided to formally adopt the agreement rather than "receive" it, as was decided earlier in convention. The agreement allows and encourages sharing of clergy and Communion between the two churches.

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