"Good rules, good organization": Committee invites input as diocesan constitution and canons review gets underway

A comprehensive review of the diocese's constitution and canons is underway, and the committee charged with the task wants to hear from anyone and everyone who has an interest in any eventual revisions.  

Working closely with the bishops and chancellor of the diocese, members of the Committee on Constitution and Canons have been consulting and meeting over the past several months with diocesan governance groups and staff, deanery assemblies and clergy groups to get initial input, and they continue to welcome additional questions and suggestions through June 15, by e-mail to cccommittee@diomass.org.

Why?  Most in the diocesan community haven't read through these governing documents recently--if ever--so why ask for their suggestions?  Why are the constitution and canons important?  Why revise them?

"The mission strategy adopted in 2016 asked our diocese to take a look at its governance to see where it works and where it needs changes to make it much more responsive to the needs of the church going forward," the Rev. Christine Whittaker, the committee's chairperson, said in an interview.

Four of the committee's five members are lawyers and all have expertise in Episcopal Church structure and governance.  Still, they see responsibility for the task at hand as one they share with the entire diocesan community, they said in interviews.

"In doing this, we really want to consult as widely as possible," Whittaker said.  "We're not aiming to go away in a corner and come back with what we as a committee think would be the perfect constitution and canons, and then say to everyone, 'Here you are.'  We see ourselves really as the people who will put into effect what our diocese wants and needs."

The committee's task includes identifying areas where changes to the constitution and canons would make them more accessible and relevant to diocesan life now and in the future, as well as a "clean-up" of discrepancies that have made their way into these vital governance documents over their many decades of use and revision.

"Our canons provide a system of checks and balances on the different people and organizations in our polity that have different responsibilities, privilege and power, and just as our U.S. Constitution is important to our democracy, our diocesan constitution and canons are just as important, particularly, I think, in our tradition where there is always a delicate balance between laity, bishops, priests and deacons.  Maintaining that in a healthy way is in everybody's interest," the Rev. Luther Zeigler, a member of the committee, said.

For example, Whittaker pointed out, the constitution currently allows for the election of priests and lay persons to the Standing Committee, but not deacons, because that article was written before the vocational diaconate was revived in this diocese.

"These documents set out how we're responsible to each other," the Rev. Mally Lloyd, the committee's vice chairperson, said.  "Who has the right to make decisions?  How do we make decisions?  How are decisions unmade?  For instance, if a parish becomes a mission, how does it become a parish again?  Currently unclear in the canons.  If you lose your vote at Diocesan Convention, how do you get it back?  Unclear in the canons."

What about congregations that may not be keeping up with their assessments?  Congregations that may be dwindling in membership to the point where decisions have to be made about their status?  Or congregations whose governance structures aren't functioning well and need support?

"The issue of vulnerable congregations and the fact that our current canons don't really address with any specificity how our diocese should handle that general topic is, I think, an important question, whether such matters ought to be addressed canonically, and if so, how," Zeigler said.

And what about newly forming worshiping communities that don't fit the traditional parish model?  To use Lloyd's refrain:  Currently unclear in the canons.

"That's one clear reason why the mission strategy said that we need to take a careful look at the governance and see how it needs to be changed to facilitate the sort of brave change that the mission strategy calls for.  How are we going to accommodate and provide for and, indeed, nourish the different sorts of emerging worshiping communities?" Whittaker said.

Committee member Dan Clevenger identified that as an area of possible opportunity that canonical revision could support.  "I think there's an intersection of emerging or nontraditional worshiping communities and the vulnerable parishes, as we're seeing congregations share clergy or otherwise having more formalized relationships with one another where they're trying to pool resources.  Just how does that work, and what are the frameworks that need to be there from a governance point of view?"

At this stage of the review process, there are more questions than answers, so the committee has started its work as early as possible to allow plenty of time and opportunity for research, deliberation and dialogue.  The committee plans to give a report on its preliminary findings at the Diocesan Convention this November, with the goal of bringing a completed revision proposal to the 2020 Diocesan Convention for approval.

"Any time a bunch of humans get together to do something, we need guideposts and guardrails around how we're organizing ourselves," Clevenger said.  "In an organization as spread out and diverse as the Diocese of Massachusetts is, our constitution and canons allow us to understand what are the frameworks that we've all established and agreed to live within.  Good canons and good rules make for a good organization."

--Tracy J. Sukraw

Find the constitution and canons of the Diocese of Massachusetts here.  E-mail feedback to the Committee on Constitution and Canons by June 15:  cccommittee@diomass.org.