In People of the Way, Renewing Episcopal Identity, Dwight Zscheile writes, “So where does the Episcopal Church stand in relationship to its surrounding society in America today? Domestic Episcopal Church membership is now down below two million, out of a U.S. population of over three hundred million. In 2010, there were around 650,000 people in worship in the whole domestic Episcopal Church on an average Sunday. This represents about two-tenths of a percent of the U.S. population. Moreover, the Episcopal Church is significantly older than the U.S. population (30 percent of Episcopal members are age 65 or older, versus only 13 percent of the U.S.). The demographics of America are rapidly changing, and the Episcopal Church is struggling to keep up.”
There are many reasons for a unicameral system. The first it age and economic diversity. A two-week General Convention has a chilling effect on age and economic diversity in the House of Deputies. A young person with children and a job outside the home – even clergy – may have to choose between a vacation with his or her family and serving as a deputy to General Convention. A unicameral house should reduce the time needed to do the work of the General Convention. Everything could be voted on at the same time, instead of waiting for the inevitable delays that occur when the houses take up resolutions at different times. If we want more young people and more diversity in our church, those young and economically diverse people must be part of the discussion at the church-wide level.
It will also allow us to spend more of the money on local mission. Many dioceses struggle financially to send their deputies and alternates to General Convention. Some of those dollars could be better used for local mission. Seminaries and other groups that send representatives to General Convention also feel this pinch. A shorter General Convention will reduce this cost.
Finally, why can’t we all meet together? We are all called into ministry together, laity and clergy, and we should form that ministry together. Meeting together allows us all to hear first-hand the tenor and emotion of speakers. In the proposal submitted by the Task Force to Re-imagine the Episcopal Church, voting by orders can be requested on any matter to be voted upon.
A unicameral house reinforces the idea that the laity, clergy, and bishops all have a particular role to play in our polity. In addition, it does not remove the opportunity for the groups to meet separately if that is desired.
The Episcopal Church’s current bicameral design mirrors the bicameral model of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. This is historical, but not theological. We should be looking to the future, thinking about what changes are needed to help us spread the Good News to an increasingly unbelieving culture. After all, that’s our mission, not to be a historical preservation society.