Since You Asked... June 2006

May 31, 2006

Q: "Do the people in the pews have a vote in any of the major decisions of the church?" 

The Rev. Rosemari Sullivan of Virginia Theological Seminary responds:

A: This questions holds within it the question: What does it mean to the individual to be part of a representational democracy?

When the first representatives of the community that became the Episcopal Church gathered in 1785, they began the work that resulted in our Constitution and Canons and a revised Book of Common Prayer. These documents shaped the life of the new body. The constitution and canons each begin with a statement that there shall be a General Convention of this church, with careful attention to its composition and authority.

The basic fabric of our way of being church included a clearly democratic process that begins in each parish and leads to the triennial meeting of the General Convention. The vote of each baptized member of the Episcopal Church counts.

Each year our parishes hold the annual meeting of the congregation. It is often experienced as a bit boring.  However, when understood as the basic unit of governance, the annual parish meeting takes on greater significance.

Electing members of the vestry and voting on matters of importance to inform the work of the vestry are key elements in each annual parish meeting. In addition, the participants in the annual parish meeting select the parish representatives to the Diocesan Convention or Council. Members of diocesan annual conventions/councils elect the four lay and clergy deputies to the General Convention from each diocese. These bodies also refer matters to the General Convention for consideration.

It is important for us to understand that, just as in our Congress, the elected representatives are expected to vote based on available information to make decisions for the good of the whole. The representational form of governance in our nation and our denomination offer the opportunity for full debate on issues and invite nonvoting participants to state their positions, but the voting is entrusted to representatives.

The theological framework for our form of governance is rooted in the Pauline understanding of the body of Christ, frequently cited by our presiding bishop, Frank T. Griswold, “The eye cannot say to the hand I have no need of you.” The very way we are structured means that our roles in the life of the church are differentiated.

All are necessary to the full expression of the gospel. For the church to be fully engaged in God’s mission in the world, each of us participates, but we do not all have the same role. We do have a vote, but not each of us at all levels of governance.

The second part of the questions posed is actually a statement that begs the question: Why do we not take a poll of all Episcopalians on issues and policies?

This would be government by referendum. Our system of governance makes room for all the participants to make their positions, opinions and arguments part of the debate. It is of the essence of who we are as a church to be open to the Holy Spirit and make decisions that are as well-informed as possible.

However, our form of governance remains representational.

The Rev. Rosemari G. Sullivan, director of alumni affairs and church relations for Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Va., served as the executive officer and secretary of the General Convention from 1998 to January 2005.