Deputies reject litigation resolution, approve ecumenical agreement and communications study

July 13, 2009

The House of Deputies July 14 addressed issues of church property litigation, a study of church communications, an agreement with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and new propers for Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Results from a vote by orders concerning the proposed elimination of voting privileges for retired bishops will be announced July 15.

Deputies defeated a resolution addressing the disclosure of the costs of Episcopal Church property litigation.

The House of Bishops had asked deputies to concur with their recommendation to refer the resolution to the Standing Commission on Stewardship and Development. The resolution had called for revealing the dollar amount the church spent "on litigation against dioceses, parishes, groups of churches and individuals since General Convention 2006" as well as information about where the funds came from, the money budgeted for litigation in the next triennium and "an estimate of the amount of property value retained and expected to be retained" by the church "because of pending and completed litigation as of General Convention 2009."

"We all need to know about the litigation going on in our church," said the Rev. Ellen Neufeld (Albany). "I speak very strongly in favor of this resolution so that information can be shared."

Deputies debated various options, including referring it to the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance or substituting previous wording to direct the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council to release the litigation information.

Thomas Fitzhugh III (Texas) said he was concerned that the resolution could put the Presiding Bishop and Executive Council "in a bad spot" because divulging information about ongoing litigation would reveal strategy to the other side. "Let's just kill it. This is nothing but an effort by people who try to steal our property" to find out how much the church has spent. "If they didn't try to walk off with it, we wouldn't have this motion."

Deputies ultimately voted not to concur with the bishops' recommendation, killing the legislation.
Concerning communications, deputies approved a resolution directing the Episcopal Church Department of Communications to "undertake a comprehensive survey to determine the most appropriate means of reaching Episcopalians," with results distributed by April 1, 2010. Under the resolution, Episcopal Life's "staffing levels, frequency of publication, printing partner structure and news format" would continue until the study was completed and the newspaper's Board of Governors would "be informed of the survey data and consulted in finalizing the report and determining any changes to be made based on that report."
The resolution came in response to a communications department proposal to change the Episcopal Church's monthly newspaper to a quarterly magazine beginning in 2010, said the Rev. Peter Strimer (Olympia), Communications committee chair. "Word of this decision caused concern among many in the church, particularly the Board of Governors of Episcopal Life and the 31 print partners who publish diocesan newspapers that are mailed" with Episcopal Life, he said. The Office of Communications has "vetted" the resolution, he said, noting the study will let print partners offer input to the survey "and time to develop possible alternatives."

The office indicated the study could be conducted as part of work it already plans for the fall, Strimer said in reaction to a comment about the potential cost of the study.

The Rev. Gerald Keucher (New York) said five-sixths of the department's budget goes to Episcopal Life, meaning the church's communication function is the newspaper "plus a few press releases." He called it "really inappropriate to try to micromanage the Communications Office of the church center in this regard" and urged giving the department's staff the "freedom to move this church into the late 20th century."

But an Episcopal communicator from one of the printing-partner dioceses, Anne Brown (Vermont), noted that a "significant portion of the budget comes from income from the printing partners. So it's not all money that is available if the printing partnerships were to stop." While moving to a quarterly publication could be the correct move, the church would be served best by a study to support that decision, she said, noting that Episcopal communicators want to be part of the decision-making process.

"Episcopal Life is a valued source of connection to the wider church for those in smaller dioceses," she said.

"In these debates," said Kim Byham (Newark), "we have to be careful not to create straw men. This resolution does not micromanage. It simply provides the information that we collect. It does not dictate the conclusions that will be reached. It's terribly important that in making a decision of this magnitude, changing our whole communications approach to the church, that we fully understand who the audience is and what their needs are. This is what this [resolution] attempts to do."

The resolution now moves to the House of Bishops.

Concerning ecumenical relations, deputies adopted, with an amendment, a resolution approving an agreement between the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved by the Presbyterians' General Assembly in 2008. The resolution returns to the House of Bishops because the deputies changed the resolution to have the convention "adopt," rather than "receive," the agreement.

Following the morning's final approval of a resolution adding a significant number of names to the church calendar for trial use in the next triennium, the deputies approved propers for those commemorations – the related prayers, lessons and prefaces included in Lesser Feasts and Fasts. Because deputies amended one of the prayers, the resolution returns to the House of Bishops for reconsideration.

The deputies debated at some length the second reading of a resolution, approved at the 2006 General Convention, to 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.

Some deputies discouraged disenfranchising retired bishops.

"We need to honor the experience and wisdom of our elders," said Debby Melnyk (Florida).

Others urged passage, noting retired bishops had asked for the change.

"It is a courtesy to them to do what they've asked," said Zoe Cole (Colorado).

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