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Polity: How Episcopalians make decisions

The 145th Annual Diocesan Convention, February 2019. CYNTHIA L. BLACK PHOTO
Canon Andrew Wright
The 145th Annual Diocesan Convention, February 2019. CYNTHIA L. BLACK PHOTO

“Polity” is how a system is organized and structured. Each expression of Christianity has its own structure and way of making decisions. Some churches found this concept to be so important that they incorporated it into their name: Presbyterians are organized around the work of presbyters (elders); Episcopalians are organized around the work of bishops (episcopos means bishop or overseer). How decisions are made is a specific question within polity. Two common patterns are monarchical, with a central authority making decisions for all, or congregational, with decisions being made by congregations. Most Anglican churches around the world lean towards monarchical, with many decisions, such as selection of bishops, policy decisions or liturgical authorization, still being made by a central authority.

A funny thing happened, though, with the birth of the Episcopal Church in the United States. We were an Anglican church that was deeply formed in the same waters that birthed our nation, with a strong emphasis on representative democracy. It is not accidental that our denomination was formed in Philadelphia in 1789, the same year and context as the Constitutional Convention that gave our country its form of government.

The Episcopal Church is neither monarchical nor purely congregational. Instead, we elect representatives from the congregations to make decisions for the diocese, including the election of a bishop, as we did in 2018. These deputies make decisions across the diocese in our Annual Diocesan Convention; decisions are made between Conventions by an elected Diocesan Council. Additionally, those deputies elect representatives to go to the churchwide General Convention every three years and make decisions to guide the whole Episcopal Church.

Our bishops are elected, our Presiding Bishop is elected, our lay leaders both in the diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church are elected (or appointed by those who are elected). We vote to approve policies and budgets. Our liturgies and the texts of our hymns — even the possible translations of Scripture we use in our churches — are voted on by the General Convention.

Each congregation elects a Vestry or Executive Committee to make decisions such as calling a Rector, maintaining property, and overseeing the church’s finances. At each level, we seek the input and consent of those affected. This reflects the American spirit of participation in our decision-making. However, I prefer to think of it as primarily an outcome of our Baptism and the trust that God places in each of us as God’s children.

In our Baptism, we are made one with Christ. We as a community put on Christ. As we seek to order our common lives, to elect representatives and enact budgets and resolutions, even to elect bishops, all of this we do as a spirit-filled people, seeking to discern what God would have us do. This allows all of us to participate in the vocation of God’s people in the world today. When we elect people to positions in the Church, we are committing ourselves to seek God’s best will together through their work and our support.

As we plan to come together at our Convention January 31 and February 1, pray for those nominated, for those to be appointed, for all in leadership and ministry among us, that we may seek God’s good will together and be a blessing to our world.