By the Very Rev. George L.W. Werner
Polity is the form of government of a religious institution. For Roman Catholics, it is based on the Pope’s authority as infallible when speaking "ex cathedra". Quakers sit in silence waiting for the spirit to move one of the members. In the Episcopal Church, it is a representative democracy, born in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution.
William White, Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, and Chaplain to the Continental Congress, invited representatives from the colonies which formed the United States to meet with him in the cradle of liberty and discuss mutual commitment to the Book of Common Prayer. It was 1785 and the first meeting of the House of Deputies of what would soon be the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Within four years, White, Samuel Seabury, and Samuel Provoost had been consecrated bishops and composed the first House of Bishops.
This July, the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church will convene in Anaheim, California. In 2006, there were 112 Dioceses, representing the United States and more than a dozen other sovereign nations and territories. The 858 members of the House of Deputies consisted of up to four lay and four clergy members, duly elected by each of those 112 Dioceses. There were more than 300 resolutions presented for "perfecting" to two dozen "cognate" committees that bring together appointed members of each house. The debate was usually in English, though occasionally in Spanish and French as well. (Haiti is the largest Diocese.)
Like our federal Congress, both Houses must concur before a resolution is adopted. In significant matters, such as revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, Hymnal, or the Constitution and Canons of the Church, the House of Deputies follows a system of parliamentary checks and balances to ensure wide support before a change can be adopted. Often, these votes result in a two-thirds majority or more. It is a careful system and perhaps one of the few in the Anglican Communion not dominated by bishops, but rather a joint effort of laity, bishops, priests and deacons.
The Convention is a time of prayer and worship. Daily Eucharists and common prayer — to open sessions, at noon time, and when deemed necessary or desirable by the presiding officer or chaplain of each House — are the soul of convention. There are numerous other occasions as well for both convention participants and visitors to worship, meditate, and pray together.
The Convention is a family reunion. Many organizations of the Church schedule occasions during the 10-day period to bring old and new friends together. A large exhibit area offers opportunities to purchase books, music, art, curriculum, vestments and other Church appointments. It also has hospitality booths for many ministries, seminaries, organizations and institutions.
No Church polity or system of government is perfect or without flaws. Paul warns us in Romans that we are to "outdo one another with honor." In 36 years as a member of the House of Deputies, I have memories of many faithful and holy moments, but also some others as well. In 1945, when Winston Churchill had become the hero of the free world, the British people voted him out of office. Nevertheless, when asked about the system, he replied: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried."
Please pray for our Bishop, our deputies and the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church in these difficult times, both secular and sacred.
The Very Rev. George L.W. Werner was the 31st president of the House of Deputies. He served from 2000-2006. He is the Dean Emeritus of Trinity Cathedral in Pittsburgh and a current member of the Standing Committee.