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There has been some controversy lately about the use of Canon Law, or its absence to manage the matter of the schism in the Diocese of San Joachim, the status of the members of its Standing Committee and the appointment of a temporary bishop for the rump TEC diocese. Certainly TEC has never encountered this sort of thing before. When congregations and groups left in the past, as in the Reformed Episcopal Church or the African Orthodox Church secessions, those leaving, aggrieved Evangelicals on the one hand and disenfranchised Black Episcopalians in the second case, departed without diocesan structure.

In perilous times many otherwise sane and liberally minded people are often seduced into surrendering their liberties in the name of corporate peril. Those charged with protecting the endangered body fudge the law, or break it, and get away with it all because the times dictate the measures. Situation ethics triumph.

My older son reminded me that there was a time, as in the English Civil War period when, to destroy an enemy, justice might be side-stepped by getting Parliament to adopt a Bill of Attainder. By so doing a trial was avoided and the wretched business of having to produce evidence or granting the accused their constitutional rights obviated. A majority might vote and then “off with his head”.

May one ever assume that a body empowered to prosecute may be permitted to interpret the law by which an offender or a group of offenders are dealt with? Who interprets the law?

I return again to my theme. Who interprets our ecclesiastical law? It is extraordinary to be told that the Presiding Bishop’s Chancellor assures us that the Canons were observed in the matter of the deposition of two bishops this week. In secular society the equivalent would be for the prosecution to assure the court that all was being done in accordance with the law. I leave aside the undoubtedly canonical business of getting, or not getting, the three longest serving bishops to approve of a bill of attainder or of a committee meeting in private signing off on the alleged guilt of the accused.

That there is an overwhelming desire on the part of our bishops to shoot as many admirals as possible on their quarterdecks “for the encouragement of others” is respectably British but questionably Christian. I am often told nowadays that our doctrine and much of our tradition is the fruit of victory. “Winners write history.” Well it would seem obvious that we are in the hands of “winners” now and the history they are writing -may I become modern and wax anecdotal? – is that we make examples of at least one very old man whose wife is in the grips of a terminal disease, look as if we are after another elderly bishop, all in an attempt to “discipline” a bishop who has attempted to run off with the family silver, and perhaps warn two or more others not to do the same or else?

The “or else” is that without any form of trial or judicial hearing a group of persons will vote to declare that such persons have been deposed from the Sacred Ministry, our canonic version of a Bill of Attainder. The wretched bishops are obviously guilty and so “Off with their heads. ” Ah! we say but that means “our” sacred ministry rather than that of the Church Catholic. Yet we are not prepared to say “from the ministry of
this jurisdiction”. It’s OK to imply it, or merely suggest that we don’t mean that which the language states.

Now all this wouldn’t matter a fig but for two points. The first is that we are doing this in the face of a world and in a nation which prizes due process and a system of justice tilted towards the accused. “But”, I shall hear, “Bishop X did this or that ergo we are justified in doing this or that.” Do two wrongs make a right?

Secondly we are part of a jurisdiction which makes much of justice. What sort of justice may one expect in a body whose laws are solely interpreted by those bringing charges and executing judgment and sentence? What sort of Christian justice may we expect of a jurisdiction for whom turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile,
“seventy times seven”, not going before secular courts are quaint old-fashioned sayings to be ignored when examples must be made or property defended?

No one deplores schism more than I. “I’ve been there, done that” as
the saying goes. Nor do I suggest that there should not be serious consequences if someone, in what ever Order, willfully breaks our discipline. BUT I must say loudly that nothing has offended me more or sickened me -and that includes some actions of GC 2003- more than the activities of our leaders and their use of “law” during the
past few months. There seems to be a ruthlessness, a bloodlessness, and a determination to proceed whatever our Canons may suggest, whether authority is clearly given or not, all because of a present crisis. The nearest parallel I can see is to be found in the post 9/11 activities of the present administration. This will come back to bite us.

2 Responses

  1. Amen, Fr. Tony.

    Fr. Brandon Filbert

  2. Fr. Tony,

    Part of me wants to come into the “official” Anglican Communion Church, by way of ECUSA of course.. and this for theological/historical reasons.

    Another part of me sees these recent misuses of power, and money which you’ve discussed.. and says it would rather stay put in my Continuing Church.

    All I can really say for sure is that I am feeling very conflicted.

    Pray for me,

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