What to do about the breakdown in relationship between a bishop and the diocese is not new; there have been such conflicts from the very beginning of the Episcopal Church. Here’s a series of examples, just from the 1800s: a disputed episcopal election led to a schism in the diocese of Maryland; a disgruntled loser in an episcopal election contested the winner’s election and eventually a former retired bishop tried to step in and reclaim the see; one bishop was indefinitely suspended from the episcopal ministry; the House of Bishops changed its disciplinary procedures solely to deal with one particular bishop, tried him, convicted him, and then changed their procedures again; and they had to add in the right for the PB to inhibit/suspend a bishop when one went rogue and consecrated another bishop who in turn had already been deposed from the ministry by his own diocesan bishop.
We have had some conflicts in recent years as well, some very public, some on the down-low. Bitter disputes in the diocese of New Jersey led to the bishop accepting a buyout. More recently, we have the situation in the diocese of Pennsylvania, which warrants some elaboration here. A long and acrimonious series of conflicts between Bishop Bennison and the diocese of Philadelphia resulted in charges being brought against him for conduct unbecoming of a member of the clergy – not for anything pertaining to his time as bishop, but for covering up his brother’s truly egregious sexual misconduct thirty years earlier when he was a rector and his brother served as youth minister. Problem: conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy had a statute of limitations, which had long since expired in Bishop Bennison’s case (not his brother; his charges do not have a statute of limitations). Nonetheless, those bringing charges made the argument that since his brother’s sexual misconduct do not have a statute of limitations, and because the Bishop’s unbecoming conduct was directly related to something which did not have a statute of limitations, he could still be tried. Bennison was convicted and deposed in an ecclesial trial and sentence was pronounced by the Presiding Bishop. However, upon appeal, the verdict was thrown out, with the appeals court rejecting the argument to extend the definition of statute of limitations to Bishop Bennison’s conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy from his brother’s offenses. This bears elaboration because it shows how we are impacted by not having any way to mediate an intractable dispute between a bishop and a diocese; the diocese of Pennsylvania and initial trial court resorted to stretching the definitions of the canonical process in an effort to try to depose their bishop because they had no other options to resolve the impasse.
Disputes between a rector and a parish can also get acrimonious and ugly. Rectors more or less have tenure: a rector may not resign without the consent of the Vestry, and the Vestry cannot demand the Rector’s resignation. We have a process for meditating disputes between a rector and a congregation (current Title III, Canon 9, Sections 12-13). Either side can appeal to the bishop to mediate the dispute. The bishop makes every effort to reconcile the parties involved and to find a resolution but, if unable to do so, may render a “godly judgment” which can be sweeping and which is not contestable or appealable. COD was a member of a parish where the bishop, under this canon, ordered the rector and the vestry to resign, reduced the church to mission status, and appointed a priest-in-charge. In his class on Constitution and Canons, COD refers to this as the “vampire bishop” canon. While bishops do not have the kind of direct and sweeping authority in the Episcopal Church as they do in the Catholic Church or most Methodist churches, they can have enormous authority if you invite them in, like a vampire has to be invited into a household to gain entry. Once asking a bishop to mediate, parishes and clergy are then bound by any godly judgment which may be issued.
There has been discussion on and off about dissolution of episcopal relationships, and a resolution was brought forward to the 2009 General Convention asking that this be studied. Axios! Axios! to the SCMD for presenting a thorough and thought-out process to try to handle such situations thoughtfully, pastorally, and carefully. It proposes the establishment of a Reconciliation Council involving the Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies, Vice President of the House of Deputies, and Vice President of the House of Bishops. The Reconciliation Council, if invited in by either the Bishop, Standing Committee, or diocesan Convention, can mediate the dispute, try to bring about a resolution, and, if unable to bring about a resolution of the conflict, take certain actions, including rendering binding judgment on all parties.
Despite his Axios! as usual, though, COD has a couple of thoughts.
In his usual bury-the-lede style (done solely to irritate COD’s journalist friends), you may wonder what the ghost of Samuel Seabury has to do with this proposed reconciliation process. Well, in part it has to due with Seabury’s reluctance to join up with the group that was forming the Episcopal Church in 1780s, the William White and William Smith cool kids group. Several General Conventions met in the 1780s, drawing up a Prayer Book and governing documents. Seabury, bishop in Connecticut, objected to what these early Conventions were doing and no one from his state attended. One of his concerns, among several, was that bishops should only be judged by other bishops. A staunch loyalist who had served as a chaplain to the British Army during the Revolution and was receiving a pension from the Crown, he was concerned that the same republican spirit which had thrown off a divinely appointed monarch would likewise rise up and throw out any bishop they took a disliking to. The notion that bishops would be subjected to the votes of clergy and lay people was anathema to him. (This is an oversimplification of his objection, to be sure, and Seabury had other concerns as well – COD can recommend a number of fine books, the classics being “The Critical Years: The Reconstitution of the Anglican Church in the United States” by Clara Loveland and “Bishops By Ballot” by Fredrick Mills, along with Paul Marshall’s excellent recent work “One, Catholic, and Apostolic: Samuel Seabury and the Early Episcopal Church.”)
One thing which concerns COD in this resolution is that it places a disciplinary option in place outside of the Title IV canonical process, perhaps leading the ghost of Seabury, were he to be summoned Witch of Endor style, to say that he told us all so – are bishops be thrown out by grumpy diocesan conventions and having sentence placed on them outside a disciplinary process judged by bishops? Bishop Bennison, after all, had his conviction overturned on appeal when judged by nine other bishops, whereas lower ecclesial courts have clergy, laity, and bishops serving.
It comes down to the words “removal” and “restrict” and how those possible judgments are to be imposed.
In the process for the ending of a pastoral relationship between a Rector and a parish, dissolving the relationship is the strongest measure the bishop can take. Restricting the Rector (in the language of that canon, “suspend”) is not an option, unless s/he fails to comply with the judgment. Yet in the proposed canon for bishops, there are other options possible as part of the judgment of the Reconciliation Council: “removal” and “restrict.”
--What is “removal”? This needs to be clarified. In the proposed resolution, the same word is used for the potential “removal” of members of the Standing Commission and “removal” of the bishop, leading one to think that maybe this means “resign”. However, “removal” has technical definitions for clergy. It can mean removing the name of a clergy person who has renounced the ordained ministry of this church. Or, is this the sense of “removal” as outlined in the proposed canonical revisions to the renunciation of the ordained ministry (in which case it means, more or less, what we used to call renunciation of orders) which are proposed by a different Standing Commission not yet adopted (see Resolution A30)? How are we to read this with regards to a bishop when the same word is used in regards to possibility of “removal” of members of the Standing Commission? This needs clarification. For instance, “removal” in the revised renunciation canons is initiated by someone seeking to be released from the ordained ministry of this church, which is profoundly different from a Reconciliation Council removing someone who has not initiated a renunciation process. And if it is resignation, it needs to be consistent with the stipulation in the proposed canon that says any resignation negotiated as part of a settlement must be in compliance with Article II.6 of the Constitution and Canon III.12.8 (d), (e)
--What is “restrict” the ministry of the bishop? In the revised Title IV, “restrict” is the new “inhibit”, where a bishop may place restrictions on the exercise of a clergy person or the PB may put restrictions on the exercise of ministry by a bishop. If this is possible as part of judgment of the Reconciliation Council, then is this being done outside of the Title IV disciplinary process? If sufficient ground has been found to inhibit a bishop’s ministry, what is the rationale for not going through that process?
Coming back to the ghost of Samuel Seabury: we regard to removal and restricting bishops, how is the sentence pronounced by the Reconciliation Council? Is sentence being pronounced on a bishop by another bishop, as Samuel Seabury insisted as a condition for joining up with what would become the Episcopal Church and which has been part of our polity? The judgment of the Council must be ratified by both a diocesan convention and the House of Bishops, but does this fulfill the canonical requirement that a bishop pronounce sentence on a bishop?
In addition to fearing Samuel Seabury’s ghost (COD did attend Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and has seen the relic of Bishop Seabury’s mitre, which looks more like an old time leather football helmet than a mitre), COD is perplexed by something which is left out of the proposed process:
--There is no compulsory compliance with the Reconciliation Committee. For instance, in the disciplinary procedures, failure to comply with the disciplinary process is itself grounds for discipline. There is no similar clause here; what would prevent a bishop or Standing Committee from simply refusing to participate in this process, refuse to meet with the Reconciliation Committee, refuse to complete any of the interviews or assessments? One could argue that means you skip directly to the godly judgment, but part of me wonders if the consequences of lack of compliance might be more clearly laid out.
And last, but not least, COD has one other observation from the SCMD report: the fact that the Commission had to set aside some resolutions of Convention simply because they did not have budget or staff adequately to address them. General Convention must seriously look at the work it lays on Standing Commissions and staff. After all, the SCLM felt the need to apply for outside grant funding in order to fulfill the mandate it had been given by the General Convention. The SCMD simply did not act on some resolutions because it could not. Convention must wake up to the reality of the unfunded mandates it routinely lays on Commissions and staff members.