Intro to General Convention

For the 77th time since its founding in 1785, the entire Episcopal Church will gather in General Convention in July. Some 800-plus deputies, nearly 300 bishops, 500 volunteers, and hundreds more exhibitors and visitors will gather for eight days in Indianapolis, Indiana, July 5-12. When they do so, they will be following the structure established by the first convention of The Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1785. 

Uniquely for its time, the first General Convention settled on a bicameral house in which elected (rather than royally appointed) bishops would make up one house and lay and ordained deputies (equally represented) would make up the other house.  That convention began work on a constitution and a revision of the Book of Common Prayer, the church’s book of worship. Within ten years the General Convention had agreed on its form of governance and its pattern of worship, both of which endure to this day.   

All bishops of the Episcopal Church, active and retired, are entitled to seat, voice and vote in the House of Bishops (except for consent to elections of bishops, upon which only diocesan bishops may vote). Each of the Episcopal Church’s domestic and overseas dioceses – as well as the Convocation of Churches in Europe — is entitled to elect eight deputies, four lay persons and four priests and/or deacons, to the House of Deputies.  

Deputies are not delegates; that is, they are not elected to represent the electing dioceses. Deputies vote their conscience for the good of the Church. They cannot be instructed to vote one way or another, for to do so would preclude godly debate and preempt the work of the Holy Spirit.  

The House of Bishops and House of Deputies meet, deliberate, and vote – separately — on resolutions that come before each body. To be enacted, resolutions must pass both houses in the same language. Both houses have the right to amend legislation, but any amendment must be accepted by the other house.

The House of Bishops is chaired by the Primate of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.  The House of Deputies is chaired by the President of the House, Bonnie Anderson.

Debate on the floor is governed by the Constitution and Canons of the church, Rules of Order for each house, Joint Rules of Order (that apply to both houses) and Roberts’ Rules of Order.  Deputies are expected to listen respectfully to the views of others and to adhere to the rules, which require, for example, that persons of different points of view alternate at microphones.

General Convention meets prayerfully. Each morning bishops, deputies, registered alternates and delegates to the Episcopal Church Women Triennial Meeting gather for Bible study and Holy Eucharist. Both the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops have chaplains who lead their houses in regular prayer at the beginning and end of sessions and daily at noon. Chaplains are also asked to pray before the enactment of important legislation. Organizations within the church sponsor additional worship services, while volunteers staff a prayer room in which there is continual intercession for the work of convention.

A highlight of every General Convention is its festival Eucharist at which the United Thank Offering is presented. (The United Thank Offering is taken up in parishes twice each year for the mission of the church.)

Convention is more than legislation. One of the most interesting parts of convention is the Exhibit Hall. The Exhibit Hall is reminiscent of an oriental souk: it is a marketplace of goods and ideas in which the organizations and interest groups within the church present their wares, recruit members and do their best to influence legislation. It is a colorful part of convention, and it would not be General Convention without it.



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