Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Will General Convention Be Able to Approve Same-Sex Blessings?

At its meeting last October, the General Convention's Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music agreed to present at the 2012 session of General Convention a resolution to authorize the trial use, over a three-year period, of a rite for the blessing in a church ceremony of same-gender relationships. The rite proposed is the result of a three-year study by the Standing Commission of materials which have already been used in local ceremonies authorized by individual bishops in their dioceses, pursuant to the "generous pastoral response" language of Resolution 2009-C056 adopted at Anaheim.

In contrast to those locally approved rites, what is now being proposed is a church-wide standard rite that would have the imprimatur of General Convention itself. To adopt such a rite for trial use by the whole Church, General Convention must follow the requirements of Article X of the Church's Constitution. In relevant part, those requirements are as follows:
But notwithstanding anything herein above contained, the General Convention may at any one meeting, by a majority of the whole number of the Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops, and by a majority of the Clerical and Lay Deputies of all the Dioceses entitled to representation in the House of Deputies, voting by orders as previously set forth in this Article:
. . .
(b) Authorize for trial use throughout this Church, as an alternative at any time or times to the established Book of Common Prayer or to any section or Office thereof, a proposed revision of the whole Book or of any portion thereof, duly undertaken by the General Convention.
Do you see those words " . . . by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops"? Where have we run into those exact same words before?

-- Oh, yes: it was in connection with the votes taken by the House of Bishops on resolutions to depose various of its members back in 2008, namely, Bishops Cox, Schofield and Duncan, for so-called "abandonment of communion." Those same words appeared in the version of the Abandonment Canon then in effect. It is now Canon IV.16 of the newly revised Title IV, and the words in question were not changed in its 2009 revision:

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 . . .

Early in the history of this blog, I wrote a series of posts about the background and history of this Canon, and explained that the language "whole number of Bishops entitled to vote" had always before been read so as to include all Bishops who had resigned (retired from) their diocesan jurisdictions -- whether they were present for the vote or not.

It was Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori and her chancellor, David Booth Beers, who altered this tradition all of a sudden, in 2008.  No one made objection to the votes to depose Bishops Cox and Schofield by less than the required minimum number of Bishops in March 2008, because a quorum of the House was (barely) present, and that seemed to suffice. Objections to the procedure were raised afterwards, however, and rejected by the Presiding Bishop on the ground that no objection was made before the votes (as though an illegal vote could be legitimized by a failure to object to it).

In anticipation of the same objection being raised in advance of the vote on Bishop Duncan in September 2008, however, the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor made a preemptive strike. They saw that they could not muster enough votes to constitute a majority of the whole number of bishops in the House of Bishops (about 151 were required, and as matters turned out, there were only 123 Bishops present and voting, of whom only 88 actually consented to deposition). So in preparation for the deposition of Bishop Duncan, she simply ruled in advance, as Presiding Bishop, that the language "entitled to vote" meant not only on account of their membership in the House of Bishops, but also on account of their being present on the floor.

Notice that in her ruling, the Presiding Bishop cited the ambiguity of the language in question (and illegally resolved that ambiguity herself, instead of following Robert's Rules of Order and allowing the House of Bishops to resolve it as a body). Despite her ruling that the language in question was "ambiguous", the comprehensive Title IV revisions approved in 2009 made no proposal to clear it up!

However, in dealing with the language as it appears in Article X of the Constitution, the Presiding Bishop will not have the same opportunity to rule that it is ambiguous. For Article X itself has very clear and unambiguous language immediately before the words quoted above, which leaves no question as to what the drafters could have meant by it. This language concerns the vote required to make an amendment or alteration to the Book of Common Prayer, and says (with my emphasis added):

The Book of Common Prayer, as now established or hereafter amended by the authority of this Church, shall be in use in all the Dioceses of this Church. No alteration thereof or addition thereto shall be made unless the same shall be first proposed in one regular meeting of the General Convention and by a resolve thereof be sent within six months to the Secretary of the Convention of every Diocese, to be made known to the Diocesan Convention at its next meeting, and be adopted by the General Convention at its next succeeding regular meeting by a majority of all Bishops, excluding retired Bishops not present, of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops . . . .

The drafters of Article X knew precisely how to direct that retired Bishops absent from the meeting not be counted in determining the "majority . . . of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote in the House of Bishops . . ." -- they said so, in just those words.  So when they used the very same language again, in the very next sentence of the Article, and this time omitted the words "excluding retired Bishops not present", they must have intended for all Bishops in the House of Bishops -- diocesan, co-adjutor, suffragan, assisting and resigned, and whether present at the meeting or not -- to be counted in determining the required majority for approval of a trial rite for church-wide use in just one session of General Convention.

And that makes a considerable procedural hurdle for the House of Bishops to approve any trial rite at this upcoming 2012 Convention. If past records are any guide, only a handful of retired Bishops will bother to attend, but their total number is almost double the number of Bishops currently serving and who may be expected to attend. According to ECUSA's official website, "the House of Bishops has nearly 300 active members" -- so it would take an affirmative vote by, say, at least 150 Bishops to allow the trial rite to be put into church-wide use. That number of Bishops has never attended any recorded meeting of the House.

I know there are many who will predict, out of cynicism, that the Presiding Bishop will simply ignore the Constitution's requirements, and declare the measure passed with the requisite number of votes. It is this very lawlessness, however, which is eroding the foundations which have thus far held the Church together. If no one is entitled to ask that the Church's leaders follow their own governing documents, then the Church might as well throw out those documents, and succumb to the Presiding Bishop's rule by fiat. At least then her Bishops would be honest about what they are allowing to happen.

UPDATE 02/23/2012: As you may read from the comments left below, no reader of this blog expects Bishop Jefferts Schori to let a Constitutional requirement get in the way of her agenda.

But she still has to be called out on it. Bishops who voted against Resolution 2009-C056 should raise a point of order before the vote, questioning the lack of a sufficient number of Bishops to approve the trial service. When she and the Parliamentarian overrule the point of order, they should appeal to the full House of Bishops, citing chapter and verse from Article X, and begging their colleagues not to follow the Presiding Bishop into lawlessness. And when that appeal fails, they should walk out of the meeting and refuse to take part in the vote.

Afterward, when she declares that the HoB approved the measure, a complaint should be filed against her with the Disciplinary Board for violating her Constitutional (and not just canonical) responsibilities as Presiding Bishop. And those Dioceses which are still Windsor-compliant should denounce the vote as illegitimate, and refuse to implement any such rites within their boundaries.

If none is to be found willing to undertake these minimum steps, then God save the Episcopal Church (USA).


  1. We have recently a SCOTUS justice who told an international group that they should not look to the US Constitution as a model, a president who has complained about the limitations imposed on him by it, and a year ago a senior congressman who said that all the talk about rules was pointless since they made it up as they went along. Why, exactly, is there any reason to hope that TEC will be any better?

  2. I have faced these problems of "what constitutes a quorum," "members entitled to vote," as well as "numbers needed to pass changes in bylaws" in secular organizations and local parish bylaws before. The problems for these organizations is that until you can muster enough people to be present at a meeting, you can't change the bylaws to mean a simple majority of those present.

    For organizations that have a hard time getting people to come to meetings, that is a challenge.

    I doubt TEc cares about the rules enough to live up to them.

    Schori's rules trump Robert's whenever it is most convenient.

  3. They will do whatever they want to do and pay no attention to the constitution and canons. I doubt if many who attend GC have even read them.


  4. Ah, dear Curmudgeon, you are arguing from reason and compliance with rules and justice - TEC demonstrated its lack of the former and disinterest in the latter years ago. 815 will do what it wants; IMHO, not soon enough. I want to see TEC crumble in my lifetime so that it can harass the faithful no more.

  5. No doubt, it will happen at GC this summer. SO what... when has the current leadership in TEC ever played by the rules. It will be fun to have a Diocesan convention just to say-- nope we ain't buying it.

  6. Curmudgeon,
    How can you possibly expect bishops to walk out of an HOB meeting on a point of order!?!

    They would hardly do so over a point of doctrine - remember the 2003 approval of Vicki Gene's election to Bishop of New Hampshire?

    TEC is completely lawless and the Presiding Bishop is even worse.

  7. Allen Lewis, I do not argue with your low expectations. But I was not talking of expectations; I was laying out what dissenting bishops ought to do, so that there could be no question about the matter afterwards.

    Also, they would not be walking out on a mere "point of order" -- they would be leaving so that they could not be counted as taking part in the vote. Those who stay and vote "No" suffer from the ambiguity of people not knowing whether they were simply against same-sex blessings as such, but had no problem with the parliamentary ruling, or whether they considered the vote itself illegal. The only way to convey a clear message to your colleagues about what they are doing is to walk out.

    Let's say that no one gets up and walks out. Then a precedent has been set for Article X -- a bad one -- and saying that you voted "no" will get you the worst of both worlds. In other words, you were not with the "majority" on SSB's, but you had no problem with the PB's ramming it through, either.

    Lawlessness feeds on the lack of opposition; indeed, it grows bolder and bolder. Not to hit it with everything you have as early as you can makes it that much easier for you to be one of its later victims, after it is really running amok. Just ask Robespierre.

  8. Curmudgeon,

    Thanks for your extended comments. I see I misunderstood your intent.

    Yes, that is what the Bishops who appreciate the Rule of Law should do. The problem is, they have already allowed the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor run roughshod over the meaning of who is elligible to vote when they allowed the deposition of +Duncan to go through.

    That has just made things worse.

  9. DId ECUSA follow this canon when they produced all those trial liturgies leading up to the BCP 1976/9?
    If not, there would be a good precedent for ignoring the constitution this time too.