Sunday, July 1, 2012

An Early GC WTF Moment: Christmas in July, Title IV Style

Yesterday, as Crusty Old Dean was writing his General Convention preview, one thing he left out was trying to predict the WTF moments for Convention.  At each Convention, there are always several things that seem to kind of come out of the blue.  Sometimes small, like in 2003 when the House of Bishops spent half an our discussing a routine resolution to not confirm Lutherans joining the Episcopal Church; sometimes big, like the entire B033 situation in 2006 and the budget in 2009 (sadly, those are not the only WTF moments at each of those Conventions, but just one example for each).  COD refrained from trying to predict anything, because inherent to a good WTF situation is not being able to see it coming.

Well, looks like we're getting started early.  Over at Anglican Ink, George Conger is reporting that nine bishops are being charged with misconduct for endorsing legal briefs in the lawsuits involving the former Episcopal dioceses of Quincy and Forth Worth.  These bishops endorsed legal briefs filed that challenged the Episcopal Church's efforts to request "summary judgment," more or less the effort to have the judge find in the Episcopal Church's favor and dismiss everything before even going to trial (in the Quincy case) or for endorsing a friend of the court brief in the Forth Worth case.  The bishops involved seem to be: (COD will be using "thinks" and "seems" and "appears" a lot in this post since all we have right now as of this writing is Conger's reporting and we have no real first-hand accounts):

1.  Rt Rev Maurice M. Benitez, retired Bishop of Texas,
2.  Rt Rev John W. Howe, retired Bishop of Central Florida
3.  Rt Rev Paul E. Lambert. Suffragan Bishop of Dallas
4.  Rt Rev William H. Love, Bishop of Albany
5.  Rt Rev D. Bruce MacPherson, Bishop of Western Louisiana
6.  Rt Rev Daniel H. Martins, Bishop of Springfield
7.  Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton, Bishop of Dallas,
8.  Rt. Rev. Edward L. Salmon, Jr., former Bishop of South Carolina and Dean of Nashotah House
9.  Rt. Rev. Peter H. Beckwith, former Bishop of Springfield

Seven bishops had disciplinary charges filed against them in the Forth Worth case and three in the Quincy case; Bishop MacPherson is on both lists -- so while "seven bishops" are reported in the Forth Worth case and "three bishops" in the Quincy case, it's nine actual bodies since Bishop MacPherson is apparently charged in both cases.

Here's the apparent quotation from the email from Bishop Clay Matthews:

"As the Intake Officer for the Church, I am obliged to inform you that a complaint has been received against you for your action in  [COD editing: relevant actions in the Quincy and Forth Worth situations depending on ]. In the next few weeks, I will initiate a disciplinary process according to Title IV Canon 6 Sec. 3 & 4 of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church."

OK, couple of thoughts here.

1.  COD finds it very interesting that this information is released just before 10,000 Episcopalians, including most of the elected leadership and many of the bishops, arrive in Indianapolis.  The only reason we even know about these charges is that someone connected to this, someone who received the email from Bishop Matthews, has leaked this information.  There is a pattern here; after all, the only reason we knew about charges filed against Bishop Mark Lawrence in the fall is because the diocese of South Carolina made the decision to release the information.  Seem to be clearly an effort to don a mantle of persecution.   In case you think COD is exaggerating, Conger's website reporting this information has a photo of someone wielding the kind of paddle used to strike children back in the bad old days with "DISCIPLINE" in the caption accompanying this release.

2.  This is how the process works:  a potential "offense" gets reported.  The first step -- Title 4, Canon 6, Sections 3 & 4 referenced in the email -- is to determine whether the information, even if true,  constitutes something which is legitimately an Offense under the Constitution and Canons.  Charges get filed against bishops and clergy; first thing is to determine if it's even a legitimate charge.  A bishop once told me had had been charged with misconduct because a member of the diocese thought the bishop's decision to grow a beard was an effort to make fun of his own beard.  Many of the potential offenses reported under Title IV are dismissed without ever going forward.

3.  Which begs a question:  what is the ground for accountability [the Title IV language] in question for endorsing the legal opinions of those representing the former diocese of Quincy and Forth Worth?  That is, what are they violating which would warrant reporting an offense?

There's always the two catch-alls:

--conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy
--violating the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of The Episcopal Church

COD is not a canon lawyer but he can't imagine endorsing someone else's opinion in a legal case in a secular court somehow rises to the level of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy or violating the doctrine, discipline, or worship. 

--It would not seem to be a charge of abandonment of communion, since that process is different and is governed by Title IV, Canon 16.

--COD thinks the most likely ground for accountability is Title IV, Canon 4, Section 1(e).  A member of the clergy is required to "safeguard the property and funds of the Church and Community."

Perhaps the argument is being made that by endorsing these legal efforts by the former dioceses of Forth Worth and Quincy to retain title to property and assets, these bishops are in violation of this requirement by supporting those who would seem to be in clear violation.

4.  If so, Crusty Old Dean certainly hopes these charges will be dismissed by the Intake Officer.  These bishops are third parties expressing opinions in cases that do not directly relate to them.  The majority are retired (or soon to be -- four are retired and MacPherson will soon join them) bishops and one is a suffragan.  This would seem to be a bit of a stretch that they are not safeguarding the property and funds of the church, since the retired bishops and the suffragans are not directly involved in oversight of property or funds at all, and the diocesans in questions are expressing an opinion which does not [currently] involve their diocese.  If any of these bishops were actually to be intimately involved with any property or funds directly under their oversight, that would be a different matter, and disciplinary charges would be certainly appropriate.

One could argue that these bishops in question are joining this legal argument so that, in the eventuality that the opinion they are supporting prevails -- that the Episcopal Church is not a hierarchical organization and dioceses have control over their own assets and property -- they could then, if that is indeed the ruling, move to take control of the property and assets that they do have oversight of.  But proving a conspiracy is different from proving actual failure to safeguard property.

5.  It could be that this is another chapter in this Church's long history of using the disciplinary process as a weapon against others with whom we disagree, or as a way to end episcopal pastoral relationships that aren't working.  The Onderdonks, George Cummins, Stephen Tyng, Walter Righter, and so on.  This is something liberals and conservatives, evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, are both guilty of.  Just as the disciplinary process was stretched in an effort to dissolve the pastoral relationship between the bishop and the diocese of Philadelphia, it smacks to COD that the disciplinary process may being stretched here as well.  If those bishops who have actual involvement in the church's property or assets make a real move to violation Section 1 (e), by all means bring the hammer down.  But the ones listed here haven't, other than express an opinion.  And why go after retired bishops?  One of things that was so distasteful about the Righter heresy trial was that he was a retired bishop only acting on the request of the bishop diocesan and performing an ordination authorized by the bishop diocesan and Standing Committee.

6.  Keep in mind recent efforts and let's tone down the histrionics.  The over-reach in the Bennison case was struck down by a court of review, and the charges against Righter were dismissed.  Those bishops who have actually tried to take control of assets and take their dioceses out of the church have been deposed.  The charges against Bishop Lawrence were dismissed.   The system has been working, in COD's opinion.

7.  And again, this is all hypothetical since we have no clue what the actual charges are -- because the leakers haven't leaked that information yet.

3 comments:

  1. COD, the "leakers haven't leaked that information yet" because they don't have it from Bishop Matthews yet. They have no right to see the complaints, or to know the identity of their accuser(s), unless and until the proceedings advance to the Conference Panel stage. Canon IV.6.10 provides: "All communications and deliberations during the intake and referral stages shall be confidential except as the Bishop Diocesan [the PB, in this case] deems to be pastorally appropriate or as required by law."

    It was premature of Bishop Matthews, in my opinion, to notify the bishops that charges had been filed against them until he had first determined whether or not the charges, if true, could constitute an offense under Title IV. In this case, it seems, he could have made that determination easily, without ever having to trouble the nine bishops, and that would have been the end of the matter. There is something about the timing of these notifications, on the eve of General Convention and the gathering of the HoB, that just does not sit right.

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  2. Hey A.S. -- that's sounds like the likely breakdown of the situation if there's only one set of leakers involved, which appears to be the case so far. We really only have one report printed by Conger, which has information that was communicated to the bishops in question. The only people who know the offense for sure are the ones who made it and the Intake Officer (+CM).

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  3. This is going to be a non-starter. Trust me...

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