Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Abandonment Canons

The Legal Follies of ECUSA, Part IV

Since its earliest years, the Episcopal Church (USA) has had a canon dealing with the defrocking, called "degradation", of priests for violations of morals and discipline. In 1815 the canon was used to "degrade" a priest who had left PECUSA (as it was then called, with the "P" standing for "Protestant") to form his own church. Not until 1867, however, was PECUSA faced with the departure of a bishop to join another church, when Bishop Ives of North Carolina became a Roman Catholic. As a result, the Church enacted the first canon dealing with "abandonment of communion" by a bishop. By then the remedy had changed from "degradation" to "deposition", but the process in each case did not require a trial, because the priest or bishop in question left no doubt about his intentions by joining another church. Trials instead were used for cases of disciplinary violations which involved disputed issues of fact.

Until June 30, 2011, the canon for the deposition of a bishop for "abandonment of communion" read as follows:
CANON 9: Of Abandonment of the Communion of This Church by a Bishop

Sec. 1. If a Bishop abandons the communion of this Church (i) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church, or (ii) by formal admission into any religious body not in communion with the same, or (iii) by exercising episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than this Church or another Church in communion with this Church, so as to extend to such body Holy Orders as this Church holds them, or to administer on behalf of such religious body Confirmation without the express consent and commission of the proper authority in this Church; it shall be the duty of the Review Committee, by a majority vote of All the Members, to certify the fact to the Presiding Bishop and with the certificate to send a statement of the acts or declarations which show such abandonment, which certificate and statement shall be recorded by the Presiding Bishop. The Presiding Bishop, with the consent of the three senior Bishops having jurisdiction in this Church, shall then inhibit the said Bishop until such time as the House of Bishops shall investigate the matter and act thereon. During the period of Inhibition, the Bishop shall not perform any episcopal, ministerial or canonical acts, except as relate to the administration of the temporal affairs of the Diocese of which the Bishop holds jurisdiction or in which the Bishop is then serving.

Sec. 2. The Presiding Bishop, or the presiding officer, shall forthwith give notice to the Bishop of the certification and Inhibition. Unless the inhibited Bishop, within two months, makes declaration by a Verified written statement to the Presiding Bishop, that the facts alleged in the certificate are false or utilizes the provisions of Canon IV.8 or Canon III.12.7, as applicable, the Bishop will be liable to Deposition. If the Presiding Bishop is reasonably satisfied that the statement constitutes (i) a good faith retraction of the declarations or acts relied upon in the certification to the Presiding Bishop or (ii) a good faith denial that the Bishop made the declarations or committed the acts relied upon in the certificate, the Presiding Bishop, with the advice and consent of a majority of the three senior Bishops consenting to Inhibition, terminate the Inhibition. Otherwise, it shall be the duty of the Presiding Bishop to present the matter to the House of Bishops at the next regular or special meeting of the House. If the House, by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote, shall give its consent, the Presiding Bishop shall depose the Bishop from the Ministry, and pronounce and record in the presence of two or more Bishops that the Bishop has been so deposed.
The Canon for the deposition of a priest or deacon for abandonment (Canon IV.10) was very similar, except the period of inhibition during which the priest was allowed to recant, if he wished, was six months rather than two. The inhibition was imposed by the Bishop of the Diocese to which the priest belongs, on the certification of charges of abandonment by at least three-fourths of the diocesan  Standing Committee.

Effective July 1, 2011, Canon IV.9 was amended by the changes approved to Title IV (the Church's disciplinary canons) by the General Convention meeting at Anaheim, California in July 2009. The Canon (along with its companion provision for priests and deacons) was also renumbered as Canon IV.16, and currently reads as follows (I have brought out the changes to the previous text by underlining additions and striking through the portions deleted):

CANON 9 16: Of Abandonment of the Communion of This The Episcopal Church  by a Bishop  
(A) By a Bishop
Sec. 1. If a Bishop abandons the communion of this The Episcopal Church (i) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this the Church, or (ii) by formal admission into any religious body not in communion with the same, or (iii) by exercising eEpiscopal acts in and for a religious body other than this the Church or another Church in communion with this the Church, so as to extend to such body Holy Orders as this the Church holds them, or to administer on behalf of such religious body Confirmation without the express consent and commission of the proper authority in this the Church; it shall be the duty of the Review Committee the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, by a majority vote of All the all of its Members, to certify the fact to the Presiding Bishop and with the certificate to send a statement of the acts or declarations which show such abandonment, which certificate and statement shall be recorded by the Presiding Bishop. The Presiding Bishop, with the consent of the three senior Bishops having jurisdiction in this Church, shall then inhibit the place a restriction on the exercise of ministry of said Bishop until such time as the House of Bishops shall investigate the matter and act thereon. During the period of Inhibition such restriction, the Bishop shall not perform any episcopal, ministerial or canonical acts, except as relate to the administration of the temporal affairs of the Diocese of which the Bishop holds jurisdiction or in which the Bishop is then serving. 
Sec. 2. The Presiding Bishop, or the presiding officer, shall forthwith give notice to the Bishop of the certification and Inhibition restriction on ministry. Unless the inhibited  restricted Bishop, within two months sixty days, makes declaration by a Vverified written statement to the Presiding Bishop, that the facts alleged in the certificate are false or utilizes the provisions of Canon IV.8 or Canon III.12.7, as applicable, the Bishop will be liable to Deposition. If the Presiding Bishop is reasonably satisfied that the statement constitutes (i) a good faith retraction of the declarations or acts relied upon in the certification to the Presiding Bishop or (ii) a good faith denial that the Bishop made the declarations or committed the acts relied upon in the certificate, the Presiding Bishop, with the advice and consent of a majority of the three senior Bishops consenting to Inhibition Disciplinary Board for Bishops, terminate the Inhibition restriction. Otherwise, it shall be the duty of the Presiding Bishop to present the matter to the House of Bishops at the next regular or special meeting of the House. If the House, by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote, shall give its consent, the Presiding Bishop shall depose the Bishop from the Mministry, and pronounce and record in the presence of two or more Bishops that the Bishop has been so deposed.
The 2009 changes to the parallel abandonment canon for priests and deacons were similar, except that the six-month period of inhibition / restriction was shortened to sixty days.

With the elimination of the check on charges against a bishop of "abandonment" which had been provided by the "three senior Bishops having jurisdiction [i.e., serving as diocesans] in this Church," the abandonment canon now becomes a much more streamlined tool, easily susceptible of abuse in the wrong hands. Essentially, a majority of the new Disciplinary Board may certify that any violation of "Discipline" by a bishop -- which could be read to mean any canonical violation, no matter how trivial -- constituted "abandonment of The Episcopal Church" under the canon.

Whether or not the bishop in question chooses to fight the charges, he or she could be ousted from the Church (which he did not abandon!) after just sixty days, without any kind of hearing or process in the House of Bishops or under the remaining disciplinary canons. This would happen whenever the Presiding Bishop chose to treat any written defense or response made, or indeed no response at all, as a "voluntary renunciation of episcopal orders" under Canon III.12.7.

These two canons have seen much more use in the last seven years than ever before in the history of the Church. A recent report (see pp. 19-27) documents that the bishops of the church have deposed more than ninety priests under Canon IV.10 (now Canon IV.16 [B]), while the Presiding Bishop herself has signed certificates of deposition for three bishops, and has certified the "renunciation of orders" by six more. And with the recent "deposition" of 61 additional clergy in San Joaquin, plus the impending threat of another 72 in Fort Worth, that total will more than double.

The numbers reflect that the abandonment canons are being grossly misused in ways that were never intended by their drafters. Bishops and priests are deposed for "abandonment" even if the so-called act of abandonment consists of joining another church that is in communion with ECUSA. (See the language in section 1 of Canon IV.16 [A] above, which defines abandonment as the "formal admission into any religious body not in communion with [ECUSA]".)

The following posts document the full history of these canons, chronicle the sorry history of their abuse by the current leadership of ECUSA, and speak to the impossible paradoxes that have come into being as a result:


On the "Abandonment of Communion" Canons












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