Different Accents, One Language; Different Houses, One Body


By the Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, Bishop Suffragan, Episcopal Diocese of Virginia

The Task Force to Re-Imagine the Church (TREC) has proposed a series of resolutions to restructure General Convention and The Episcopal Church. One of those resolutions calls for a unicameral house, combining the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies. Bishop Goff offers the following reflection on how that possibility could affect the identity of GC and the shape of its work.

Who would have guessed that I would end up talking about the American Civil War with a bishop from another part of the world – in Spanish? The Diocese of Virginia was hosting our brother in Christ and I had the pleasure of showing him our see city. He did not speak English and I didn’t speak his native language, so our communication depended on creative hand signals. Soon, though, we discovered that we both spoke passable Spanish. With that, we found a common language in which we could learn from one another. Our accents were significantly different, but our language was the same.

At General Convention, we speak a common language of mission, but our two houses speak that language with significantly different accents. During three successive conventions, I spoke our common language with the accent of the House of Deputies. At the last convention, in 2012, I experienced a transition time when my election as bishop was confirmed and I was seated with voice in the House of Bishops. In this convention, I speak with a new accent as a voting member of the House of Bishops. As part of each house, I have heard and lived the differences. One house experiences sizeable turnover in membership from one convention to the next, while the membership of the other changes slowly.

The first house meets once every three years while the second meets twice each year. One is a huge house in which it is not possible to know every other member, while the other house is small enough that such knowing is the norm. In the larger house, members sit in rows facing forward, while in the other they sit in small groups at round tables. Given these realities, the kinds of relationships that develop in each house are different. The ways debates occur are different. Even the basis for voting is different.

When I was elected a deputy for the first time, I was told that I was not a representative who polled the mind of my diocese in order to mirror the views of its members, but a deputy elected to vote my own conscience. As a bishop, I don’t leave my conscience behind, but I hold firmly in mind my vow to guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church, and to share in the governance of the whole Church, not just my diocese, not just the Episcopal Church.

In all this I have experienced that the House of Deputies goes broad and wide while the House of Bishops goes deep in relationships and in corporate memory. We as a Church need both motivations in our legislative work. We need the distinctive accent of each house. The very differences between the houses have at times made for tension, distrust, even broken relationship – but we need each other. Our common language of mission is clearer, stronger and more beautiful because of the different accents in which it is spoken. I have heard that a unicameral system would still allow for meeting and debate by order, and I will listen prayerfully to the debate on that in the days to come. If it’s clear that these distinctive accents could remain in a unicameral system, I could support it. But if a unicameral legislature would monotonize our voices rather than unite them, I urge us to maintain our bicameral structure so that the distinctive accent of each house may long continue to fortify active accent of each house may long continue to fortify and balance the other.

Categories: TREC

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2 replies »

  1. I believe we need to retain the present bicameral structure in order to preserve the variety of opinions and convictions present among the members of the House of Delegates. There would be many members

    • I apologize…I apparently hit send too soon.
      With the present system, clergy and lay delegates are free to discuss, debate and vote their conscience without fear of disagreeing with their bishop. Although there are bishops who would tolerate disagreement, there are those who would not, and I fear that moving to a unicameral structure would stifle and even silence many voices.