House of Deputies’ presidential candidates share their visions for the church, air differences in forum

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jun 21, 2024

Incumbent House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, former Executive Council member Zena Link and incumbent Vice President the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton participated in an 80-minute forum on June 21 held at the Louisville Marriott Downtown Hotel. Photo: Randall A. Gornowich

[Episcopal News Service – Louisville, Kentucky] Three women of color who are running for president of the House of Deputies shared their presiding officer qualifications, hopes for The Episcopal Church and some leadership differences in an 80-minute forum on June 21.

The three are incumbent President Julia Ayala Harris, incumbent Vice President the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton and Zena Link, an educator and union and community organizer.

This is only the second time since 1964, when the House of Deputies first expanded the role of president beyond presiding at General Convention, that an incumbent president has faced a contested election; the other was in 2003.

The election is scheduled for June 25.

Each candidate offered an opening statement and then took turns answering questions posed by a five-member panel that not only elicited answers but areas of disagreement. The Rev. Michael Barlowe, General Convention’s executive officer, moderated the forum.

When asked, if elected, what they would do during their first 30 days in office, Link, who is African American, said she would survey deputies’ experiences and desires. She said she would seek input about who should serve on her Council of Advice and not make it just a circle of friends. She said she’d appoint people who didn’t vote for her as well as members of the Official Youth Presence.

Taber-Hamilton, who is Shackan First Nation, said dialogue with the new presiding bishop, who will be elected by the House of Bishops on June 26, would be key, as well as creating a transition committee that would bring broader engagement into the president’s office. She said currently “people are excluded intentionally.”

The processes for transition for a new presiding bishop and president of the House of Deputies are very different, Ayala Harris, the first Latina to hold the office, said. When she was elected at the 80th General Convention in July 2022, there was no transition committee or orientation to help her get started; instead, “you just serve.” She said that church canons dictate who is on the presiding bishop’s Council of Advice, but there is nothing specified for the president of the House of Deputies’ council. Her plan for an 18-member council had to be reduced to 12 people because of budget cuts.

A question about the disparity of leadership and financial resources available to people and dioceses outside the United States led all three to describe ways the church can be more inclusive.

“We can’t make decisions for people without them,” Taber-Hamilton said, adding that she would establish a fund from which grants could help these dioceses better participate in church gatherings. Where the church decides to hold General Convention, usually with an eye toward keeping costs down, is a moral issue and should include traveling to where some of the  least-resourced people live.

Ayala Harris said that there were deputies to General Convention from countries outside the United States, many of them younger people, who could not get international travel visas necessary to attend. Offering legislative committees online, which is a post-pandemic practice, with simultaneous interpretation was one way to include more diverse voices, but she said more creative ideas will be needed going forward if the U.S. doesn’t change its visa-granting process.

How the church decides to share the money it has impacts under-resourced dioceses, Link said. Rather than requiring them to ask for grants, the church should change the way it allocates money. And while online meetings can be helpful, she said in-person meetings are necessary. Making that happens means the church would have to decide to differently share the resources it has.

Disagreement between Ayala Harris and the other two candidates emerged when asked how the next House of Deputies president could create an effective collaboration with the new presiding bishop. Ayala Harris said that she and Presiding Bishop Michael Curry have worked well as a team and that there is a sense of trust between the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops, something that hadn’t always been the case.

Link disagreed, saying that she has not seen a strengthened relationship between the two houses but a strained one. That can be repaired, she said, with “a little more communication, transparency, accountability and competency.”

Taber-Hamilton said a greater sense of trust and mutuality is needed between the two houses, and the new president would need to work to find common ground with the new presiding bishop.

After the event concluded, Eastern Oregon deputy David Kosar told Episcopal News Service he found it very helpful to see the three candidates in person and that his initial impressions of them had changed somewhat as a result. “I think it teaches us that the Spirit works in different ways as we are hearing the voice and the heart versus just reading and seeing it online,” he said.

New York alternate lay deputy Nick Gordon said he could feel a sense of tension in the room as the candidates spoke, but that it was helpful to see the three of them together. The House of Deputies is facing an interesting election, he said, as the church needs to “think about the kind of leadership we want that is going to lift up a variety of voices.”

In addition to chairing the House of Deputies during convention, the president also is canonically required to serve as vice chair of Executive Council and vice president of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, or DFMS, the nonprofit corporate entity through which The Episcopal Church owns property and does business.  The House of Deputies president is responsible for appointing hundreds of people to interim bodies and legislative committees. The president also travels around the church, speaking at conferences and other gatherings and meeting with deputies and other Episcopalians.

This year will mark the first time an incumbent president has sought re-election since the role became a paid position. In 2018, General Convention adopted a plan to pay the president as a contractor “for specific services rendered in order to fulfill duties required by the church’s Constitution and Canons.” The president’s base pay in 2024 is $236,756, plus reimbursement for health, retirement and other benefits. The vice president remains an unpaid position.

A video of the forum is available on the General Convention Media Hub here.

—Melodie Woerman is a freelance reporter based in Kansas.