Saturday, September 21, 2013

Taking up the Fiddle While Rome Burns

ECUSA's House of Bishops scheduled its fall meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, starting this Thursday, with a theme of "Transforming Loss into New Possibilities." (As a Christian who strives to meet Lucan standards while still being a faithful chronicler of the Church's foibles and failings, I refrain from the obvious advantage to be gained by citing that title in conjunction with her recent setbacks on the legal front.)

The first day passed uneventfully, but with the second day, the legal machinations of ECUSA's leadership came briefly to the fore -- and it appears, at least upon a preliminary assessment, that they suffered a temporary setback. (The meeting of the HoB is not yet over, and this Presiding Bishop is not known to take "No, you can't" for an answer.)

At the very least, we may record the resistance of the House of Bishops to approving a statement that would have subjugated their individual diocesan authority to a metropolitical scheme of the Presiding Bishop, in order to buttress her stance in ongoing court proceedings.

"What does that mean?" you might well ask. Simply this: ECUSA is, and has been from its inception, a confederation of autonomous dioceses. Its Constitution provides that each diocese shall have an "ecclesiastical authority", which is the diocesan bishop (or in his absence, the standing committee of that diocese). The bishop exercises his ecclesiastical authority only within the confines of his diocese. No bishop may come into another diocese for any ecclesiastical purpose without the consent of that diocese's ecclesiastical authority.

The Presiding Bishop is an anomaly. Her only diocesan authority is over the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, which is not a true diocese, since it overlaps with other Anglican provinces. However, with the enactment by General Convention of the revised Title IV effective in July 2011, the Presiding Bishop (on paper, at least) acquired disciplinary and pastoral authority over other diocesan bishops. Such authority would make her akin to a metropolitan of the Church, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, who exercises full disciplinary and pastoral authority over each diocesan bishop in the province of Canterbury.

Historically, the American Church has never had a metropolitan. Those who organized ECUSA had a healthy suspicion of the powers of bishops, and wanted nothing like their Anglican counterparts. So the 2011 changes made to Title IV have been controversial, to say the least. (They led to the withdrawal, for instance, of the Diocese of South Carolina, which refused to recognize their validity under the Constitution.)

In court cases, ECUSA's legal team has repeatedly argued that it is a "hierarchical"church, meaning that it has an ultimate authority at the very top of its structure. Its opponents, however, have recently had some success by demonstrating the lack of any real power at the top: General Convention, for instance, has no ability to order an individual diocese to do anything, and has no means to enforce its resolutions. The legal team that 815 deploys does not like this situation, and wants to do something about it.

Enter a hitherto unknown Committee of the House of Bishops which styles itself as "The Ecclesiology Committee." It has just three members -- one of whom is the former Provisional Bishop of the erstwhile, and now extinct, Episcopal Diocese of Quincy (n.b.: which never was a real diocese of the Episcopal Church under its canons).

The other members of the Committee -- the second of whom works for the Presiding Bishop and has already committed himself in print on the issue in question, and the third, who also has not exactly distinguished himself as someone who can distance himself from 815's metropolitical goals, may be seen as the rubber stamps that they are, at least (pace, Bishop Whalon) for the present purposes.

So what went on yesterday at the House of Bishops meeting? The official ENS report fails (as usual) to convey the reality:
A report was provided to HOB from the Ecclesiology Committee. Following table discussion, a panel answered questions from HOB – Bishop John Buchanan of Chicago; Bishop Bill Franklin of Western New York; Bishop Bill Gregg of North Carolina; Bishop Pierre Whalon of Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe; and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, President of the House of Deputies. The House discussed the importance of the founding of the church and its past as primer for the conversation about the future of the church.
Observe the ambiguities buried in that last sentence: "The House discussed the importance of the founding of the church and its past as primer for the conversation about the future of the church." Let's dissect it:

The House discussed: Note that word -- the House discussed, instead of "the House decided." 

... the importance of the founding of the church ...

Well, it certainly is important that ECUSA was founded (in 1789), otherwise we would not be here today even to discuss the importance of such matters. I trust, therefore, that the HoB quickly came to agreement that it was indeed important that the Church to which they all belong, and to which they owe their current positions of prestige and remuneration, had at some point been founded.

"and its past as primer for the conversation about the future of the church ..." Now here a real translation is necessary. The past as a "primer" implies that the past is a necessary schooling of those now in authority -- only those who are in school need "primers." But what, pray tell, is that which the article refers to as "the conversation about the future of the church"?

The article itself gives no clue (as is typical for ECUSA's house organ). Indeed, it positively misleads the reader, because as so happens, the Task Force on Re-imagining the Church had just issued its first report on its vision for the future church. The House of Bishops had heard from that Task Force, and discussed its Report, just before it gave the floor to the Ecclesiology Committee.

One informed source who was present is the Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins, the diocesan of Springfield, who has published on his blog this account of the afternoon's proceedings:
... After some opening remarks by committee chair Pierre Whalon, TEC in Europe, we were turned loose for table discussions. When we reconvened and feedback was solicited, there was a consistent theme of discomfort with the notion--whether set forth historically or theologically--that General Convention has metropolitical authority, that we have eschewed having an archbishop, but that General Convention is, in fact, our archbishop. There were several other technical and historical errors that were pointed out as well. So my sense is that this document has effectively been re-referred to the committee that produced it, and that we will probably hear from them again down the road sometime.
Even this account, however, stops short (as it must in this situation -- see below) of giving the full background to this story. For that, we have to rely upon yet other unofficial sources -- but I must regretfully say that I cannot at this point reveal those other sources, as they would be placed in jeopardy.

What I know from these other sources is this (and there is absolutely no reason, as you will determine, for these sources to misrepresent what is going on in the House of Bishops):

The Presiding Bishop's job -- and future reputation -- is, in effect, on the line. She and her personal Chancellor have been so identified with the litigation agenda of ECUSA (because they run that agenda without interference from anyone else in the entire Church) that they are taking a hit, so to speak, on account of the reversals which that agenda has recently suffered in Texas (Fort Worth), Illinois (Quincy), South Carolina, and yes - let it be said -- in San Joaquin (even though there is as yet no final judgment there, ECUSA faces a decidedly uphill battle to convince the California court that its canons allow it to take the property of the withdrawing diocese).

In a (rather desperate, and, some would say) clumsy attempt to protect her prerogatives on the litigation front, the Presiding Bishop (and, as always, her personal Chancellor, whose law firm earns millions each year from the Presiding Bishop's continuing patronage) asked the "Ecclesiology Committee" to deliver a counter  to the "Bishops' Statement on Polity" promulgated by the Anglican Communion Institute and the Communion Partner Bishops within ECUSA. (Note that Bishop Martins is a Communion Partner bishop, who signed the 2009 Statement on Polity, and who -- along with six other bishops and three priests -- faced disciplinary proceedings for having the temerity to repeat what it said to the courts in Illinois and Texas.)

That Committee (with membership as noted above) obediently came forth with just such a "Statement", and presented it to the assembled bishops in Nashville. Wonder of wonders, however -- what seemed likely as a rubber stamp of 815's current litigation claims devolved into a rejection of the Committee's  paper. That rejection was based chiefly on the bishops' reluctance to submit themselves or their dioceses, by a simple resolution, to any claim of metropolitan authority -- but it was also based on their own personal knowledge of the Church's historical polity. As Bishop Martins noted in response to a commenter:
If we look at churches that DO have bishops who have metropolitical authority, and what that authority entails, we see that, in TEC, those functions are widely dispersed: the PB, Standing Committees, those responsible for Title IV processes, etc.
This is exactly right, and it is safe to say that until now, ECUSA collectively has always wanted it that way. And note that the Committee's paper proposed that General Convention, not the Presiding Bishop herself, be regarded as the metropolitical authority of the Church. That dovetails precisely with the arguments that ECUSA's attorneys are making (thus far unconvincingly) to the courts in the cases involving the withdrawal of dioceses. (For an example of how such an argument was cut into ribbons, see the transcript I linked at this post.)

However, as we all know, General Convention exists for a scant two weeks out of every 156 -- and there is zero continuity from one General Convention to the next, in terms of its authority. (Each General Convention may undo the work of a previous one; sometimes it may take two successive ones, but there is no way one General Convention could ever bind any future ones.)

Such a "supreme authority" in the Church needs someone to fill the vacuum it leaves during the other 154 weeks of the triennium. And guess who is ready to function as that authority, if only the bishops will cooperate?

The plain fact is that forces are afoot to turn the Office of the Presiding Bishop into something considerably more than it historically has been. (Those forces are also evident in the recent putsch against the UTO Board.) Given the history of this Presiding Bishop, and the lackluster resistance to her agenda by the House of Bishops, it is safe to predict, along with Bishop Martins, that "we will probably hear from them again down the road sometime."

Meanwhile, we may be grateful for small pockets of resistance along the way, such as they are. Will ECUSA's Bishops draw some measure of resolve from their actions yesterday? Will the Title IV canons be appropriately revised, to bring them into line with the Constitution? Only time will tell.


  1. "The bishop exercises his ecclesiastical authority only within the confines of his diocese. No bishop may come into another diocese for any ecclesiastical purpose without the consent of that diocese's ecclesiastical authority." - Curmudgeon -

    And this is why the aggressive invasion of TEC Dioceses by foreign prelates of the GAFCON variety have been such a problem for the Anglican Communion. Poaching is poaching after all!

    1. "Poaching is poaching after all!"

      I love the "my turf" mentality in the comment above. Such attitudes nearly made me quit the Episcopal church 3 years ago.

    2. You're missing two major points here, I'm afraid. First, the C&C of TEC only applies to TEC, not to "foreign prelates". So while it restricts her highness, the Presiding Bishop, (or I suppose I should say "should restrict" since she appears to pay little attention to them) it does not create similar restrictions on those others your refer to. Second, if memory serves, TEC has been "poaching" on foreign jurisdictions for years. I suppose you would consider this an example of do what I say, not what I do, eh?

    3. ''( always, her personal Chancellor, whose law firm earns millions each year from the Presiding Bishop's continuing patronage)"

      Is this the case? Millions....? Really....? It was my thinking that only a few hundred thousand dollars would have been involved in all of this silly pretentiousness by Her Highness. Are there not highly placed, very competent legal and historical experts who might defend their Queen, at least partially, on a pro bono basis? Millions? I am genuinely stunned.

      And the The Reformed Reinhardt is dryly correct. I was thinking that perhaps the "poaching" remark might have been better applied to the kitchen, as in "Do you want your eggs hard poached or still a bit wiggly?"

      And yes to Mark...the The Episcopal Church of the United States of America poaches on us almost as if it a sport to cause such misery.

      Good to be back for a bit.
      El Gringo Viejo

  2. A good message from Fr. Jeff Marx, my ECUSA rector:

  3. It was business as usual for the Sanhedrin even after the destruction of the Temple. See a parallel?