Friday, February 13, 2009

Admiral Buchanan to the Rescue

How appropriate to follow my last post with news that the Episcopal Church (USA) has decided that it could no longer hold back from the Battle of Three Rivers, and has asked the court for permission to enter the fray ("petitioned to intervene", as the lawyers say). To understand the background for this move, I would ask that you first read this post, at least; those really wanting to dig in could also read this post, as well. 

To return to the nautical analogy I used to explain these proceedings earlier: imagine the Episcopal Church (USA) as a fleet of frigates sailing on the Anglican Sea. Each frigate is analogous to a diocese, and each has her own captain, or bishop. In the wake of each frigate are a number of smaller vessels with their own commanders and lieutenant commanders, analogous to the parishes and missions in a diocese.

Thus we had the frigate Pittsburgh, commanded by Captain Robert Duncan in September 2003, when he was hauled into admiralty court by one of his own escort vessels, ECS Calvary (where the designation "ECS" simply stands for "Episcopal Church (USA) Ship", signifying it as part of the Episcopal Fleet). Calvary's libel (a venerable, and in this case appropriate, term for a complaint in admiralty) was that Captain Duncan and his crews were planning to desert the Fleet in the wake of the election and ratification of V. Gene Robinson as Captain of ECS New Hampshire earlier that summer.

Calvary's libel remained adrift for over two years, and was finally anchored by a stipulation in October 2005. You may follow the link and struggle with the legalese of the first paragraph (which is all that is really at stake here), or you may read the handy-dandy nautical translation of it I gave in this earlier post:

1. The treasure chest currently in the hold of the frigate Pittsburgh, of the Episcopal Fleet, shall remain in her hold and continue to be used by the ship as before, regardless of whether some or even a majority of the vessels in her wake, and forming part of her flotilla, decide to sail off for other waters . . .
So Calvary and her crew thought they had things well battened down in October 2005. However, as we know now, the Captains of the Episcopal Fleet assembled on the Great Salt Lake in September 2008, and led by the Fleet Admiral, voted to strip Captain Duncan of his stripes on charges that he was encompassing the idea of deserting the Fleet. This less than charitable gesture had the effect of bringing about the very act the Fleet feared: Pittsburgh's crew, and the crews of her entire flotilla, assembled without their Captain and voted to depart. They sailed off to join the Fleet of the Southern Cone, and their frigate became (temporarily, at least) SCS Pittsburgh. In a month's time, they had chosen Robert Duncan once more to be their Captain.

I cannot improve on this earlier description of the events that followed, which I shall abridge slightly:

As soon as the vote to sail away from the Episcopal fleet was announced aboard SCS Pittsburgh on October 4, the dissenters left the ship in a longboat, contacted the press, and made a statement announcing they would have nothing further to do with the renegade ship and her crew. They rowed over to ECS Calvary, commanded by their good friend Dr. Harold T. Lewis, and announced that they would reorganize under the shelter of that vessel. In due course, they rechristened their longboat ECS Pittsburgh, to take the place of the frigate that had left the fleet.

Now anybody but a landlubber knows that a longboat does not a frigate make, no matter how much you deck her out. Staying with our nautical analogy here, frigates are commissioned and christened only by the entire fleet, in this case, the Episcopal fleet. And the fleet was not scheduled to assemble until July 2009, when they would all come together in the port of Anaheim, in Southern California. (Yes, Anaheim is a port [in this analogy]. There's even an island in the middle of it, called Tom Sawyer's Island---and the waters abound with pirates---not of the Pittsburgh variety, but Caribbean ones.)
What occurred next, of course, is that led by Commander James Simons, the crew of the longboat returned to admiralty court, and logging in as ECS Pittsburgh, they tried to resume their libel against Captain Duncan. The latter, however, filed papers pointing out to the court that he was still in charge of the original Pittsburgh (now SCS Pittsburgh), and that all the treasure was still in her hold, exactly as the stipulation required. He pointed out that the language of the stipulation (translated above) contemplated individual vessels deciding to leave the Pittsburgh flotilla, but not the departure of the flotilla itself. He also noted that the waters surrounding the Episcopal Fleet had become increasingly toxic, and that as Captain responsible for the health of his crews, he had no choice but to follow them when the flotilla decided to make for open waters.

Now comes the Episcopal Fleet into the court, acting through its Rear Admiral Buchanan, and asks for leave to join ECS Calvary and ECS Pittsburgh (the longboat) in claiming the treasure in the hold of SCS Pittsburgh. Even though the parties stipulated in October 2005 that the treasure would be used only for the benefit of Pittsburgh and her flotilla, and even though she has most of her flotilla still around her, the escort and the longboat, along with a few other vessels of various size who stayed behind when the flotilla sailed, claim the entire prize for themselves.

So what is wrong with this picture? It is that the Episcopal Fleet no longer has a frigate named Pittsburgh. In its place is only a longboat. And in place of Pittsburgh's once mighty flotilla are only a few vessels that are taking on water, but are being bailed out for the time being with assistance from the rest of the Fleet. One of those vessels, the longboat, wants the court to grant it the right to fly the flag of a frigate. And now it is joined in that request by the Fleet's own representative, who is a Rear Admiral. 

You see, neither the Episcopal Fleet nor the crews of and around the longboat want to go to the trouble and effort of building a new frigate to christen. It would take too long---and besides, it would concede that vessels may choose to leave the Fleet. Well, the fact is that vessels can leave, and indeed, have left the Fleet already. No court of any kind, admiralty or otherwise, has the power to order them to sail back, because the crews have free will to sail under whatever Captain they choose. The most it could do would be to order them to leave the treasure chest behind when they sail, or to return it, now that they have already left. 

To get to that point, however, the Fleet Admiral and her minions will have to show the court that a charter for the frigate was entered into at the time she was christened, which says that in the event Pittsburgh chose to join a different fleet, she forfeited all her cargo, including the treasure in her hold. And they don't have a charter which says that in so many words. 

All they have is what can be described at best as a "Fleet tradition"---indeed (judging from the days of the Civil War), one that is "honour'd more in the breach than the observance." For other frigates have left the Fleet before, and without any such consequences as those which now are sought from the court.

Once Captain Duncan pointed out to the court that the longboat claiming to be a frigate was, in fact, only a longboat, the entire strategy of the Episcopal Fleet was placed in jeopardy. Its Admiral ordered her staff to take action, and so we have the libel which Rear Admiral Buchanan is seeking leave to file. The court will probably allow him to file it. But whether it works the magic which the Admiral is certain it will, and transforms a simple longboat into a 44-gun frigate of the line, remains to be seen. Given the confidence of its current High Command, miracles are in short supply around the Fleet these days; they simply are not seen as expected or necessary. 


  1. LOL! For someone whose family has been a) on the water since the early years of the Republic and b) has deep roots in TEC, this is absolutely hilarious! And actually adds to the clarity of the explanation.

  2. Finally, an explanation is floated that even I can understand! Well done!