Servants of Mission: House of Deputies President, Theologian Talk Theology of Governance

On August 5, 2020, the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings announced the appointment of Dr. Scott MacDougall, CDSP associate professor of theology, as theologian to the House of Deputies. Jennings is president of that branch of General Convention, the Episcopal Church’s governing body. She joined MacDougall and the Rev. Kyle Oliver to speak about the significance of the new appointment and the connection between theology and church governance. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Kyle Oliver: To kick us off, I want to ask President Jennings to give us an overview of the roles and duties of the House of Deputies.

Gay Clark Jennings: At the very beginning of the founding of the Episcopal Church, our founders decided to do something that was actually quite radical around the world. Everyone was going to have a place at the table. We committed to shared governance, and what that means is that we distribute authority so that bishops, clergy, and lay people have an equal role in the governance of the Church. How that plays out is that at General Convention, which is the highest temporal authority of the Episcopal Church, we have two houses. It’s no surprise, given that the Episcopal Church was founded around the same time as the founding of the United States of America. We have the House of Bishops, where every bishop is seated and the Presiding Bishop is the presiding officer. And we have the House of Deputies. In the House of Deputies every diocese has the right to elect up to eight deputies: four lay people and four clergy. Any act of General Convention—the budget, a resolution, a policy, changing or amending our Constitution and Canons—has to be by concurrent action of the two houses.

Kyle Oliver: Is there a story behind your appointment of a theologian to serve the house you lead?

Gay Clark Jennings: Some months ago, I was told that as the president of the House of Deputies, I should stay in my governance lane and leave the mission to others. That’s a false dichotomy, because governance is always the servant of mission. My role as president is to help deputies and alternate deputies to take their appropriate role in the governance of the Church. It’s really important for deputies to understand that their role is far more than attending a meeting once every three years. In order to order to be clear that governance is a servant of mission, we have to understand that governance is fundamentally at its core, a spiritual and a theological act. In a conversation I was having with a colleague, a light bulb went off. I thought, “You know what? The House of Deputies has a chaplain, the Rev. Lester McKenzie from the Diocese of Los Angeles. The House of Deputies needs a theologian too.” I had spent a January term at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2019, and I knew right away who I wanted to serve in that role. I didn’t really know how deputies would respond. I made the announcement, and I didn’t really hear. I had a couple of people say, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” I set up a webinar on the topic of the theology of governance, with Scott as the presenter. More than 300 deputies registered. That has begun a journey of deputies and alternates and the president and my whole team understanding that what we are about is fundamentally spiritual and theological work.

Kyle Oliver: Dr. McDougall, what was it like to get this invitation?

Scott MacDougall: I can’t overstate what an honor it was to be asked to do that. Theology for me is a second career in some ways, and when I decided to stop the trajectory that I was on and go back to graduate school to study this discipline, the very reason I did that was because I had a goal of giving back to the Church. I wanted to steep myself in the theology of my tradition and serve the Church by forming new leaders for that tradition. I hoped to be able to teach in a seminary, which I’ve been blessed to be able to do. I’ve received so much in my own formation from deeply theologically sophisticated clergy who understood that lay people should be equipped with the skills of theological discernment and to contribute to building up the Church for the betterment of the entire body. Theology isn’t something that’s done only by a kind of well-educated class that has custody of that particular capacity. It’s something that should be done by all. That is the genius of the dispersed authority with which the Anglican tradition has understood church governance since its founding. I think that’s a really important component of who we are and our distinct identity. So when I was asked if, as a lay theologian in the Episcopal Church, I would like to serve as an inaugural theologian to the House of Deputies, the answer was a foregone conclusion. Of course I would.

Kyle Oliver: What else attracted you to this opportunity?

Scott MacDougall: I think it’s very important to be a lay theologian empowering the imagination of other lay people about our role in theology. I also think it’s important to model for clergy the importance of building up the theological capacity of the people they serve, rather than acting as a theological delivery system to people in the pews. I think that’s very limiting. I’m encouraged and excited by the opportunity to work with the deputies, to explore the ways in which governance, in the ecclesial context, isn’t done for its own sake. We do it for the sake of furthering the gospel, even when it seems to be about a budget or a resolution or a piece of parliamentary minutia. It’s about the larger work of God in Christ and the salvation of creation. That seems lofty at first, but actually it’s true.

Gay Clark Jennings: I want to echo what Scott just said. He’s written about hope, and this passage was one of the deciding factors for me. He wrote, “Maintaining hope in the eschatological future of God, the promised coming of the kingdom that Jesus preached, empowers us to work now with God to create conditions that look more rather than less like the promised kingdom of liberation, joy, and life.” Isn’t that the choice we’re called to make time and time again, as the baptized members of Christ’s body? To choose hope and not death? That seems particularly poignant right now in our history. Choose hope and be free to live centered in Christ. Choose hope and be part of the coming of the kingdom. That’s what General Convention is. It’s not “Oh, boy, I get to go to Baltimore or wherever for 10 days.” Rather, it’s “I get to go to Baltimore and be part of working to bring hope to the Church and to the world.” It’s no small thing.

Scott Macdougall: Gay, I’m glad that was a component in your decision. I am really committed to shaping an imagination of what we do as Christians that is not afraid. Death is not the thing to be fearful of. It’s inauthenticity and the abandoning of our beliefs that we should be afraid of. When we are governing the Church and doing the work of setting policy, I think sometimes we’ve bought our own narrative of decline such that we’re so afraid we’re going to die that we lose sight of what’s really important. We operate out of a sense of anxiety and fear. Now, it may be a well-founded fear, given numbers and statistics and financial figures and projections. I’m certainly not advocating for us to ignore facts. What I would argue is the work of the Holy Spirit is bigger than those facts. We are a people who believe that life is snatched out of the jaws of death and that we should live that way every day. So we shouldn’t govern the Church out of a sense of fear or scarcity or lack of nerve or pulling back from telling the truth. We should embrace our strength as people who are empowered to share the message of life to the world.

Kyle Oliver: Dr. MacDougall, you’ve given us this picture of work intended to develop deputies’ and alternates’ imagination about the work that they’re doing as connected to the theological imagination of the Church and the mission of the Church. President Jennings, what’s on that agenda in the days ahead?

Gay Clark Jennings: Let me take a contemporary example: The intersection of our faith and political life in the country right now. It’s on everyone’s minds. In the next month or so, I’ve asked Scott to consider putting something together that will help deputies and alternates think about what is happening.

Kyle Oliver: Let me note that we’re speaking on January 11, 2021, less than a week after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Gay Clark Jennings: Yes. This will not be over. How do we as deputies think about this, especially in light of the fact that there are some who say the Episcopal Church should not be involved in social issues? There are others for whom it’s a deep and abiding commitment and passion. Whatever we do, whether we say something or nothing, we are making a public witness. How will our theology influence what we do between now and General Convention and what we do at General Convention? When we enact a bill,
when we adopt a resolution, when we say this is the Episcopal Church’s policy, it’s not just left on the floor of either house when we leave that city. It gets into our system in terms of who we say we are as a Church and what our public witness is to the country and to each other within the confines of the Church. I expect a lot of activity between now and July 2022, when we are finally able, we hope, to gather in person in Baltimore.

Scott MacDougall: One of the things I’ve tried to do in my own work and in my own teaching is to embrace very strongly the present and well-developed thread of Anglican theology that has been socially engaged for a very, very long time. The vision of Anglican political theology is deep and vigorous and concrete and carries a legacy of positive change that has shaped and formed in positive, and sometimes negative, ways the countries in which the Anglican Communion has been present for literally centuries. There’s no reason for us to shy away from that legacy, rather, we should be embracing it. That said, one of the things that’s really important to me is for us to remember why we do that work. One of the things that my students have heard me say over and over again particularly on the first day of class in the introductory theology course, is that social justice language is not Christian language. That usually brings people up short. They get a little huffy, and that’s what I want them to do. But aside from being cheeky and provocative, the reason I say that is because it’s not Christian language. Social justice is a commitment that we have because we’re first committed to the gospel. I would rather we move a little bit away from the shorthand and talk about the real fundamental commitment, as President Jennings has already invoked, to this vision of God’s future, of God’s promise for a creation redeemed and brought to its fulfillment in relational communion over the full flourishing of life. If that’s our gospel vision, human rights language is the wrong language to be using to frame our arguments. It’s not the wrong language to be using in the public sphere to talk to each other. We may have common cause. After all, I also do teach community organizing in its theological dimensions. I understand about strategic allyship with organizations of common concern. But we are also different. The Church offers a way in which we align our entire lives moving through the world in a way that furthers God’s vision for flourishing, and that’s unique. That’s a unique gift that we have to offer. I don’t want us to downplay that gift or to hide that light under a bushel. I want it to be out for the world to see. It’s a way to attract people to the beauty that is the Christian way.

Kyle Oliver: President Jennings, I’m wondering if you could comment on that with respect to some issue that the House has spoken to at some time. Have you seen that dynamic work in how the House of Deputies approaches its work?

Gay Clark Jennings: Yes, it makes sense. Cuba comes to mind immediately. At the last General Convention, the two houses voted, unanimously I believe, to reunify with the Diocese of Cuba, which had been part of the Episcopal Church. Because of the revolution in Cuba, that relationship was almost entirely severed, although there were belowground relationships. One piece of our theological understanding of what it means to be Church is what it means to be one. What does our theology and our faith say about unity, about becoming unified? We’re reading John right now: “that they all may be one just as the Father and I are one.” There was a clear theological reason for the Episcopal Church to be reunified with the Diocese of Cuba. In terms of public opinion, it was divided. There was debate. At the end of all of it, what mattered was our relationship with our Cuban siblings. That’s what drove the reunification, the desire to be one even in spite of some political reasons perhaps not to proceed.

Scott MacDougall: I think that is a good example of the kind of action we need to be considering. Where do we recognize possibilities for other reconciliation? Where do we find other relationships that need repair? Where do we find that grace has been dammed and there’s a place that we can break it open and start the free flow of gifts and exchange again?

Kyle Oliver: Thank you both so much. This conversation has been really rich and interesting.

Scott MacDougall: We’ll be praying for the work of the convention as it moves towards its meeting.

Gay Clark Jennings: Thank you both.