Thursday, December 11, 2008

A "Father Brown" Mystery: Strangled by Her Own Canons

(NEW YORK, N.Y.) In a bizarre incident this afternoon at Episcopal Church headquarters at 815 Second Avenue, the Presiding Bishop was strangled in her office by two large Canon-snakes that entered through a heating duct after they dislodged the grate covering it. Officials were at a loss to describe how such a tragedy could occur. After finishing their deed, the two Canon-snakes apparently slithered away again through the duct before anyhone could stop them.

"We were powerless to help her," said one official who did not give his name. "We heard her cry out, and rushed in to find these two huge snakes wrapping themselves around her. There was nothing we could do. It was all over in a minute or so."

Asked how he could identify the snakes, the official responded: "Oh, they were Canon-snakes, all right. One of the secretaries fortunately had been reading G.K. Chesterton, and immediately called in Father Brown to investigate. He told us that's what they were. He was even able to identify them by the marks they left on her collar. One was a 'Canon IV'-snake, and the other a 'Canon III'-snake."

The official was initially unable to supply us with any more information than that. Later, however, he forwarded to us the following report of the tragic event made by Father Brown:

I was called in to New York earlier today to consult on a most unusual incident. A high official in the Episcopal Church had been strangled in her office. Witnesses reported seeing two large snakes do the deed, and then disappear through the heating duct. Because of the high office held by the individual, I immediately suspected abuse of the Canons, since from the description given it sounded like an attack of Canon-snakes.

I was able to verify my hypothesis from a close examination of the clerical collar worn by the victim. On one side there were three fang marks, and on the other side I found four. I called for the latest edition of the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons. They gave me the victim's own personal desk copy, which had a number of revealing interlineations and marginal notes that eventually helped me solve the case.

I asked to see the Bishop's Parliamentarian. On inquiring of him, I learned that the victim had most recently invoked Canon III.12.7 in the case of a Bishop from a diocese in the State of Texas which had, a few weeks earlier, canceled its affiliation with the Episcopal Church in order to affiliate with another Anglican church. He told me that she apparently had taken a press release issued by that Bishop and read it as a "letter of renunciation" within the meaning of that Canon, which says:

"If any Bishop of this Church not subject to the provisions of Canon IV.8 shall declare, in writing, to the Presiding Bishop a renunciation of the ordained Ministry of this Church, and a desire to be removed therefrom, it shall be the duty of the Presiding Bishop to record the declaration and request so made . . ."

I consulted the victim's copy of the Canons again, and asked the Parliamentarian if the victim had previously invoked a different Canon against that same Bishop. He looked surprised, but told me that yes, she had announced his inhibition under Canon IV.9 immediately after the diocese in question voted to withdraw from the Church. "But that is the abandonment canon," I said. "That canon is used only for clerics who join us---the Roman Catholic Church, and not for the ones who stay in the Anglican Communion!"

"Yes," he replied, "but anyone who leaves the Episcopal Church violates its 'discipline' regardless of where they end up, so we use that Canon to depose them quickly, since it can be done without a trial. And the Presiding Bishop and I decided, along with the Chancellor, that depositions can also be done with a bare majority of the Bishops showing up at a meeting, so that made it our favorite Canon."

"But don't you see the abuse you---she--made of the Canons?" I cried. (For the cause of the strangulation was now glaringly evident to me.) "First, she charged him with a violation of the discipline of the Church under Canon IV.9. That is a presentable offense, but as you say, Canon IV.9 conveniently allows you to dispense with a presentment and trial. If the Bishop does not retract, you can remove him forthwith.

"Then, however, before she could get around to deposing him, she made the huge mistake of reading his press release as a 'letter of renunciation' under Canon III.12.7."

"Why was that a mistake?" the Parliamentarian asked. "It saved us having to wait another four months until we could depose him at the next meeting of the House of Bishops."

"It was a mistake---a huge mistake, as you see here before you. That act angered St. Raymond of Peñafort, the patron saint of canon law, and he sent the canon-snakes to remove the cleric who had given such offense to the spirit of the canons."

"But why? I still don't understand."

"Look at the language (which I have quoted above). Canon III.12.7 says by its own terms that it cannot be used in the case of any person who 'is subject to the provisions of Canon IV.8.' The canons in Title IV all deal with punishment for violations of the Canons. The canons in Title III, however, have to do with the ordinary life and ministry of the clergy, not with punishment.

"By first invoking Title IV against the Texas bishop, she charged him with a presentable offense. Then, however, she resorted to Title III so she could get rid of him a little sooner. That was 'a big no-no', as you Americans are wont to say, because by using Title III she exonerated him of the charges she had made under Title IV---without actually announcing that she had done so, and without apologizing for invoking Title IV in the first place.

"And when you manipulate the Canons like that, if you do it once too often---well, let's just say that Raymond has the patience of a Saint, but even a Saint can be tested too far."

The Parliamentarian responded: "What can we do now?"

"There's nothing to be done, now. What's done is done. But as the folks over at the Anglican Communion Institute will tell you, you've handed the withdrawing diocese a huge concession by invoking Title III. In effect, you have conceded that the diocese's withdrawal did not violate any canons of the Church."

At that point the Parliamentarian fainted. After calling for assistance, I left to write up this report.

/Signed/ Father Brown


  1. THANK YOU!!! I'm still laughing (whilst quietly weeping at the same time) and sharing this with all my Anglican, Father-Brown-fan friends.

    I've read several explanations of this faux pas, but now I finally understand the quandary. Canon-snakes indeed!

  2. Dear Curmudgeon,

    Most clever. But have you considered the reaction of Ralph McInerney? I suspect he will be looking over his shoulder for awhile after this. ;-)

    Blessings and regards,
    Keith Toepfer

  3. I missed a citation of the letter Jack Iker wrote asserting that he no longer was under the authority of the Episcopal Church and our Presiding Bishop. Did you know of this letter but hide it from your readers so you could get a few laughs? I can't believe you haven't seen it.

    When Jack Iker and his chancellor alienate property from TEC and lead the passage of illegal legislation declaring that they are independent from TEC and its Constitution and Canons; when Jack Iker publicly rebukes the doctrine and discipline of TEC (thus breaking his ordination and consecration vows by which he has any status in this church) and when he provides a process for his clergy to become affiliated with another church body (and becomes so affiliated, himself -- with all that you are saying that he has not declared that he has abandoned the Episcopal Church or given notice of that?

    Do you really believe that? I find it a lot easier to trust and believe in the Easter Bunny. At least the Easter Bunny does not villify those who provided him a career, lead others to do the same, alienate its property and then argue that he is still a loyal member of that body.

    Fr. Brown, knowing the facts of the matter, would not be laughing at your fantasy piece.

  4. Father Woodward, thank you for coming here to comment. I shall try to respond directly to your charges.

    In the first place, I did not cite any such letter as you mention, because Bishop Iker did not write any such letter, and it does not exist. What you are referring to is this press release put out by the Diocese of Ft. Worth. (Notice that it is not a letter addressed to the PB, as the "renunciation" canon [III.12.7] requires.) In it, Bishop Iker nowhere renounces his orders, as the Presiding Bishop claims. What he does do, quite properly, is observe that because he has removed with his diocese to the jurisdiction of the Southern Cone, he is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of ECUSA. (Or do you claim that ECUSA has "jurisdiction" to depose a bishop who belongs to another Province?)

    As for its Presiding Bishop, she has no jurisdiction over any diocesan bishop---"never has, and never will", as Bishop Iker again properly states. The Presiding Bishop of ECUSA is not a metropolitan, and cannot tell diocesan bishops what to do, because the Constitution does not grant the PB any jurisdiction over diocesan bishops. The most the PB can do is sign a certificate of deposition once a majority of all the Bishops with a vote in the House have consented to that deposition.

    You obviously have not read any of the earlier posts on this site which show that the "illegality" is all on the side of the PB and of the Bishops who support her, in using the abandonment canon for a purpose for which it was never intended---and then in failing to follow its carefully specified procedures, at that. (In the Guide to This Site, you will find all such posts grouped under the heading "The Presiding Bishop Defi[l]es the Canons.")

    If to leave ECUSA for another province of the Anglican Communion constitutes an "abandonment" of its Communion, or a violation of its "doctrine, discipline or worship", would you be so kind as to explain why Rule XXIV of the House of Bishops says, in plain English, that "any Bishop of this Church who removed from the jurisdiction of this Church to the jurisdiction of a Church in the Anglican Communion may be continued in relationship to this House as an honorary member"? Surely the House would not provide "honorary membership" for one whom you claim has "abandoned communion" and violated "doctrine, discipline or worship" by removing himself "to the jurisdiction of a Church in the Anglican Communion"? (But it does; it indisputably does.)

    I do agree with you that Father Brown would probably not laugh at my "fantasy piece." He is probably laughing too hard already at the follies of those who in one breath cry "Abandonment of communion!" at those to whom, in the next breath, they offer honorary membership in their House.

    The Episcopal Church (USA) is hopelessly confused and conflicted, and thus appears incoherent and inconsistent to outside observers. For one like you who is on the inside, the danger is that in trying to defend what is at bottom indefensible, your "defense" will come across as just as inconsistent and incoherent as they themselves do. I suggest you take stock of what is going on, and reevaluate your position.

  5. Martial Artist---sorry, I meant to get back to your comment, but the current global warming crisis sent us 24 inches of snow, and we've been without power.

    I hadn't thought of McInerny's Father Dowling being the investigator, but maybe I should have. He's more of a pragmatic sort, though, and somehow the fantasy of canon-snakes seemed a bit more up Chesterton's alley. Anyway, thank you for your encouragement.