Disenfranchising the Baptized

by Edward L. Lee, Jr.

This past Saturday, March 12, the Diocese of Pennsylvania elected a new bishop from a slate of five nominees all of whom were well vetted and qualified. It took four ballots but from the outset the bishop-elect led in all of them. He clearly was the choice of the clergy and the lay delegates who in such elections must vote separately “by orders.” And to be elected the nominee must garner a majority of votes in both orders (clergy and laity) on the same ballot.

So what’s the problem? Certainly not the outcome nor the process. No, it is the voting math as prescribed by Pennsylvania’s peculiar diocesan canon which defines the lay vote as one vote per parish, not one vote per delegate. In this diocese all parishes, small and large, have two delegates, a kind of institutional egalitarianism that seems appropriate for Christian community. But is it in this case?

Let’s do the math. Remember all duly qualified clergy are entitled to vote and on the final ballot this meant 194 individual votes were cast. However, on the same ballot the lay votes totaled only 126. Why? Because that was the number of parishes present, not the total number of delegates. If multiplied by two, there were in fact around 252 baptized lay persons on hand but each had only a half vote with which to negotiate a choice for their parish’s preference. How egalitarian is that!

Truth be told it’s canonical clericalism. It values ordination over baptism. It disenfranchises the laity rather than empowering them. It’s like the early Constitution of our country: women, no vote; slaves, defined as three-fifths of a person. In the Episcopal Church whose membership is about ninety-nine percent laity this discrepancy in power and entitlement is unacceptable. Nothing in the Gospel can justify it.

If the first order of ministers in the church is the baptized laity, and not the ordained  clergy, then let that be consistently evident in its polity, practice and privileges. To be baptized is not a second class status in God’s commonwealth and Christ’s blessed community of disciples. Never.

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