Sunday, December 4, 2011

De Tocqueville, South Carolina, and Historical Myopia

As the preternaturally prescient Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his Democracy in America, "in America, virtually every dispute seems to end up in court."

Crusty Old Dean just received his copy of the December 18 issue of The Living Church -- and, as usual, wonders why he keeps his subscription. The unsigned editorial in this issue lambasted the "Kafkaesque" disciplinary process with regards to South Carolina bishop Mark Lawrence. The bias and historical myopia present here is so staggering COD can only assume The Living Church has once again retreated from its periodic efforts to attempt to be more middle of the road.

Because, as de Tocqueville noted, in the Episcopal Church, virtually every dispute ends up in a canonical dispute. Always has. And everyone has used it against everyone else: liberals against liberals, conservatives against conservatives, liberals against conservatives.

First of all, an effort to provide some perspective to the Lawrence matter. Newsflash: charges are filed against bishops, investigated, and dismissed ALL THE TIME. COD once had a bishop relay the story about how a parishioner at a church where the bishop was making a visitation filed ecclesial charges against the bishop, saying the bishop's new beard was an effort to make fun of his own beard. Another bishop once related the story of a particularly difficult disciplinary process with a priest, whereby the priest and parish had the defense strategy of hiring a private investigator and filing as many presentments against the bishop and his predecessor as they possibly could, in an effort to get them to drop the case. When none stuck, the priest submitted to discipline.

The reality is
it was the diocese of South Carolina which chose to go public, release details, try this in the court of public opinion, all in order claim the mantle of victimhood and persecution. The charges were investigated and dismissed, as they should have been. Ho-hum, the process worked.

The historical myopia here is just staggering, as is the pervasive hypocrisy. Was it not conservatives who, in the 1990s, chose to single Walter Righter? Was it not Kafkaesque that a retired old man was charged with heresy and dragged into an extended ecclesial trial, not the diocesan bishop or Standing Committee at whose direction he was functioning?

And, of course, we could go back and back in history. What about Albert Chambers who consecrated bishops for schismatics in 1978? He was but censured. And was it not liberals who violated church polity with their illegal ordinations in 1974? And so it goes.

Or even further: Bishop John Paul Jones, forced to resign from the House of Bishops for opposing World War I due to the fact that he was a missionary bishop, not a diocesan? Or on to the 1800s -- Stephen Tyng, suddenly charged with violating a geographic understanding of parish boundaries? Or Bishop Onderdonk, who had an ecclesial process designed and approved so as to apply only to him, and later changed after he was deposed? Or the General Convention acting as High Inquisitors of General Theological Seminary because Bishop McIlvaine of Ohio detested the Oxford Movement?

The culture of victimhood is a destructive, corrosive force that sadly makes efforts at reconciliation increasingly difficult, let alone any effort focus on mission and discipleship. The stark reality is this:

First point: Many bishops, clergy, and parishes simply ignore any canons or regulations they disagree with, while self-righteously holding others account for violating ones they agree with. Thus the deposed bishop of Pittsburgh once licensed Reformed Episcopal bishops with whom we are not in communion, an action decried by many who practice the clearly uncanonical practice of communing the unbaptized. And so on. As Michael said to Senator Geary, "We're all part of the same hypocrisy, Senator." Unlike Michael's comments, however, this hypocrisy sadly applies to all aspects of our ecclesial family.

Second: The particularities of our canonical process can be used, and are used, as much to cover things up than to persecute others. As noted previously in this blog, former PB Ed Browning covered up the sexual misconduct reported to him about one of his brother bishops, even when it apparently included a minor. The former chaplain of St Stephen's Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, was shuffled from place to place, even though authorities knew he was a serial sexual abuser (check it out here). And these are just the ones we know about. How many dozens, if not hundreds, claims of misconduct have been dismissed as one person's word against another?

Third: All sides and parties in our church manipulate the canonical process for their own ends. The diocese of Pennsylvania, for instance, has been trying to dissolve a pastoral relationship with its bishop through deposition for some time now. The reality is the pastoral relationship between the bishop and diocese is broken, and the choice of action has been an effort to manipulate the canonical process to get rid of the bishop.

Disclaimer: this is in no way to excuse many of the actions involved here. For example, Bishop Bennison's actions in covering up his own brother's sexual misconduct thirty years ago is reprehensible. But it was not an action for which he was liable under our current canonical structure -- frankly COD was stunned that the blatant effort to stretch the canons to depose Bishop Bennison was not more roundly condemned. That effort to manipulate the canons is far, far more troubling than the Lawrence case. [In a nutshell: Bennison was charged with conduct unbecoming of a member of the clergy. Unfortunately in this case, unbecoming conduct has a statute of limitations. However, since sexual misconduct is not liable to statute of limitations, it was argued the conduct unbecoming of a member of the clergy should also not be subject to statute of limitations because it was covering up an action by someone else which was not subject to statute of limitations. This interpretation was summarily overturned on appeal.]

The point is the way in which our canonical process is being warped on all sides. And this should not make us lose sight of a fourth point,

Four: the process can and does work. It's not perfect, but then again, neither for the old Title IV, or the disciplinary process before that, or the disciplinary process before that. Heck, this church devised a disciplinary process only to apply to a single situation with a single bishop. The charges against Bishop Lawrence were dismissed. The heresy charge against Bishop Righter was thrown out. The deposition of Bishop Bennison was overturned on appeal.

COD doesn't think much of moratoria, given the PTSD he still has from the 2006 General Convention and being sacked from the international Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue because of a moartorium the Episcopal Church didn't violate as that moratorium was defined. However, until we take any steps to break this cycle of dysfunction in our ecclesial legal system, COD would definitely be in favor of a moratorium against claiming victimhood and canonical manipulation.

And shame on The Living Church for uncritically staking sides.


  1. Hey, maybe you can get this post published in The Living Church!

  2. Our canons will never be perfect, but we seem to be finding more and more situations in which they are conspicuously inadequate. What can we do about South Carolina, where both diocese and bishop have run off the rails, or about Pennsylvania, where the relationship between bishop and diocese is irretrievably broken?

    One way to minimize bending the canons is to improve the canons to deal with bad and predictable situations.

  3. In COD's opinion, the fault is not with the canons: but with us, and either our inability or unwillingness to do what needs to be done. The canons are inadequate because we have shown ourselves incapable of thorough canonical overhaul.


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