Proposals to change and amend the Canons (and Constitution, as well) of ECUSA begin to surface from every direction. Some come, like a debutante confident of her family's status, backed by the full weight of the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons ("SCCC"); others are proposed by Dioceses, or by individuals. All are given a whirl on the dance floor of General Convention. And just as in real life, there is no advantage to actual merit -- instead, politics and influence are the order of the day.
Indeed, the continual willingness of General Convention to tinker with the Canons is one of the Church's greatest weaknesses. Legislatures come together to legislate -- but that does not mean that any, or all, proposals to legislate are worthwhile, or will actually improve things.
Let's take a look at one such proposal, which at least appears to have merit at first blush. Apparently some on the SCCC have actually been reading the Anglican Curmudgeon -- or dare I be so bold? Perhaps it was just that a breath of common sense took hold. Consider Resolution A030, which at last proposes to change the embarrassing language of the current canons dealing with the "voluntary renunciation of orders".
We saw those Canons at work, for example, in the extraordinary case of Bishop Henry A. Scriven, who had transfered from his original Diocese in the Church of England to come to the Diocese of Pittsburgh to assist Bishop Duncan in 2002. As a condition of his acceptance, he was required to become a member of ECUSA's House of Bishops, and under ECUSA's Constitution (Art. VIII), he was required to take the oath by which he submitted to "the doctrine, discipline and worship" of the Episcopal Church (USA).
Then, in 2008, the Presiding Bishop decided to ignore the Canons in order to get rid of Bishop Duncan. Without first obtaining the consent of the three most senior bishops in the HoB, as required by the plain language of then-Canon IV.9, she brought a resolution before the September 2008 meeting of the House of Bishops to depose him. Overriding all protests against her canonical violations, she declared that the vote to "depose" Bishop Duncan had passed -- even though the majority did not even begin to approach the number of affirmative votes required by Canon IV.9 for such a resolution. Continuing her swath through the Canons, she illegally pronounced Bishop Duncan "deposed" and signed a false certificate attesting to her misdeeds.
Illegality piled upon illegality. Because Bishop Duncan was no longer regarded as being in the House of Bishops, and because his Diocese had followed him out of ECUSA the next month, Bishop Scriven could not legally continue to function as an Assistant Bishop in the illegal rump Diocese of Pittsburgh, which some of its clergy conspired with the Presiding Bishop to create in place of the one that had left. (An Assistant Bishop may serve only under a diocesan, and even the illegal rump diocese could not come up with a bishop that fast. Moreover, due to his association with Bishop Duncan, some -- but not all -- of the clergy in the rump diocese would not have welcomed him in their churches.) So Bishop Scriven wrote to Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori to tender his resignation from the House, and to announce his plans to return to the Church of England.
Apparently his simple request for resignation threw the Presiding Bishop -- she who routinely ignores the Canons when it serves her own purposes -- into consternation, because she could not find a Canon which would allow him to leave the Church simply by resigning from the House of Bishops. (Among other things, there was that oath to ECUSA itself taken under Article VIII, remember?)
Pressing the Canons into a use for which they were never intended, she treated his letter as though it were a "voluntary renunciation of [episcopal] ministry" under Canon III.12.7. She signed a certificate under that Canon which declared that Bishop Scriven was "released from the obligations of all Ministerial offices, and is deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God's Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordinations."
In other words, having joined the Episcopal Church (USA) temporarily to assist a diocesan, Bishop Scriven could, in the view of the Presiding Bishop, not leave it unless she declared him permanently removed from the ministry (though only "for causes which do not affect the person's moral character"). Talk about an embarrassment! Bishop Scriven good-naturedly laughed it off, crossed the Atlantic, and immediately assumed his new post under the Bishop of Oxford -- without having to be re-ordained in any shape, way, or form.
Thus, with its proposal of Resolution A030, the SCCC has finally seen what was wrong with such a draconian solution to a non-existent problem. As you can see from reading the proposed revisions to the text of Canons III.7.8-10 (deacons), III.9.8-11 (priests), and III.12.7 (bishops), the member of the clergy who no longer wishes to be in ECUSA, but who does not want to give up the orders theretofore received, signs only a document expressing a desire "to be released and removed from the ordained Ministry of this Church, and from the obligations attendant thereto, including those promises made at ordination in the Declaration required by Article VIII of the Constitution of the General Convention..." [emphasis added; and note that it is referred to as GC's Constitution, not ECUSA's].
The text of the proposed revisions still has mistakes (e.g., at line 61, the words "a renunciation of" should be stricken through), and one hopes that these will be caught and corrected before enactment. Noteworthy, however, is that the revisions do not stop with the voluntary renunciation Canons. They also seek to add a "Release and Removal" option to the Abandonment of Communion Canons (IV.9.16 [A] and [B]). And here is where the SCCC betrays its ignorance as to just what deposition achieves -- because it is apparently ignorant on the limits of what ECUSA, as just one denomination among many in the Church catholic, may actually accomplish with its decrees and pronouncements.
How would this revision work? As mentioned in connection with Bishop Duncan's case, the Presiding Bishop brings a resolution before the HoB to depose a member of that body who allegedly "abandons the Episcopal Church" by an act of open renunciation, or of affiliation with another religious body. (The revisions to Title IV approved in 2009 eliminated the requirement -- which this Presiding Bishop ignored, anyway -- that the three most senior bishops first consent to such bishop's inhibition; the Presiding Bishop now "restricts" the bishop in question upon certification of abandonment received from the Disciplinary Board for Bishops.)
Under the new proposed text of Canon IV.16, however, the HoB has two choices with regard to the abandoning bishop: it may depose him or her as before, or it may "consent to the release and removal of the subject Bishop from the ordained Ministry of The Episcopal Church...". The explanation for the change, as proffered by the SCCC, reads as follows:
... the current abandonment canon for bishops provides only one outcome in the instance of a bishop who has been found to have abandoned The Episcopal Church, which is deposition; by contrast, the abandonment canon for priests and deacons provides the option of removal in addition to deposition. The failure of the abandonment canon for bishops to provide the option of removal forecloses the possibility of a more pastoral response that might be appropriate in some instances. The proposed amendments make removal an option in the abandonment canon for bishops.The problem is that "removal from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church" is no different, in either effect or significance, from deposition from that ministry. Both actions deprive the bishop of (a) membership in the House of Bishops; and (b) the right to function as a bishop (or lesser clergy) in services conducted in the Church.
Deposition, it is true, may cause a bishop to lose his ability to be received as a bishop in other churches in communion with the Episcopal Church (USA) -- but that decision is up to those other churches, and cannot be dictated by ECUSA. Because it was so irregular and uncanonical, the deposition of Bishop Duncan was not recognized by the Archbishop of Canterbury or by other Bishops in the Church of England, who have continued to receive him there as a bishop. Other primates in the Anglican Communion have likewise continued to extend full recognition to Bishop (now Archbishop) Duncan.
Clerical orders received in the apostolic succession are not such as to be valid in only one denomination -- when validly conferred, they are regarded as orders in Christ's church, the church catholic. A given denomination may remove the license of a clergy member to officiate in that church, and it may withhold granting such a license in the first place, but it cannot nullify holy orders without that person's voluntary consent. Just fifty years ago, Powel Mills Dawley could write, in his The Episcopal Church and Its Work (rev. ed. 1961, p. 88, footnote omitted):
The Episcopal Church maintains the ancient principle of the indelibility of holy order -- that is, a minister can never be deprived of the spiritual character of the office conferred upon him by God through the action of ordination. But the right to exercise this ministry may for weighty cause be denied a man by the Church which once clothed him with that privilege and responsibility....Thus the proposal seems to grant a flexibility which is not the Church's to exercise. Call it deposition or removal, its only effect is to deprive a bishop of his license to function as such in the Episcopal Church (USA). The notion that the latter may allow for "a more pastoral response" in a given situation is just so-much liberal-emotional flim-flam, by which those on the left fool themselves into thinking they are being more "humane."
Poor ECUSA -- it apparently thinks that it can unilaterally create a bishop which everyone else in the Communion must recognize perforce, just as it believes it can depose a bishop and have everyone else bow to an illegal act. It still thinks the ABC was wrong to reject Bishop Robinson at Lambeth in 2008, and wrong to receive Bishop Duncan in his palace later that same year. But it is powerless to force upon the Anglican Communion recognition of its acts in either case.
In just fifty years, therefore -- but especially under the lawless approach of its current Presiding Bishop -- the Episcopal Church (and, regretfully, its SCCC) appear to have lost sight of the nature and character of holy orders. They believe that orders come from their Church, and not from God -- thus they conceive that such orders may be "removed" as a milder alternative to their "cancelation," and they think that such orders may be "conferred" on anyone, as long as they observe the proper outward forms. But people who cannot grasp the concept of the sacredness, and consequent indelibility, of holy orders have no business tinkering with the disciplinary canons.