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I DON’T GET IT

If my memory serves me right, the last person to be impeached in Great Britain was Warren Hastings. That occurred in the late 18th. Century. He’d served in India and was accused of corruption and misuse of funds largely by those who disliked him and were perhaps involved in similar corruption.. Parliament showed itself to be incompetent and corrupt. Impeachment and the even the more suspect process of Bills of Attainder used by the Parliamentary regime during the English Civil War eventually disappeared as methods of trying “political” crimes simply because the process was so open to its own forms of corruption. Legislators were neither objective enough nor trained enough to conduct trials. Even the right of Peers of the Realm to be judged by their “cousins” in the House of Lords eventually disappeared along with the right of a convicted Lord to be hanged with a silken rope.

No, I am not addressing the present matter of the Governor of Illinois, apart from my amazement that Impeachment by a legislature remains part of the US system. I was horrified by the attending humbug during the Clinton impeachment process and I wonder whether the legislators in Illinois have the competence, the “clean hands” or the objectivity to conduct an impartial “trial”.

What disturbs me is that the Episcopal Church retains the system which it inherited from the State probably because many of the framers of its original Constitution and Canons were involved in framing the Articles of Confederation and later the American Constitution a few years before Great Britain decided that the secular courts were the appropriate venue for bring corrupt or culpable officials to justice,

I would have hoped that those revising our discipline Canons, so soon after the Clinton debacle would have decided that the business of deciding the culpability of bishops and other clergy would have been the task of properly constituted ecclesiastical courts and not that of the House of Bishops or Bishops and Standing Committees.  Of course the final judgement should be officially pronounced by the appropriate person, whether Primate or Diocesan Bishop but that is not the matter at hand.

Allied to such reform should be the creation of the ecclesiastical version of a Supreme Court, made up of appropriately trained Canon Lawyers. All too often Chancellors in TEC are lawyers with no training in Canon and Ecclesiastical Law. It is merely assumed that a lawyer who is an Episcopalian and ready to serve may immediately assume competence in interpreting Canons. That is an entirely false assumption and has created at every level astounding incompetence on the part of those who are in fact well meaning amateurs. It is similarly assumed that bishops who were trained as lawyers in their previous lives are therefore learned in the principles, precedents and history of Ecclesiastical Law.

There is no need at present for me to rehearse the stories of recent depositions. Whatever is said, it is certainly not abundently clear that depositions handed down by the House of Bishops in recent times have been free from partisanship or an opportunistic approach to Canon Law justified by ecclesiastical peril.

Simply because the Episcopal Church lacks the equivalent of a Supreme Court, General Convention assumes competence to revise or adopt Canons and probably to formulate doctrine and remains its own sovereign reference.

If indeed the present mood of the country is to end partisan politics and bring all segments of public opinion into the political process it may well be that grass roots Episcopalians will begin to press for a similar process among us. Just as the country faces enormous economic and political problems so does our church. No doubt the country’s economic woes will begin to tell within our church. Dwindling income and a continued loss of parishioners are bound to press upon our Establishment that crisis is at hand.

It is a tragedy that at this moment, the traditionalist constituency in TEC has been weakened by defection. I have a mind to suggest that the next General Convention will be occupied by these economic and jurisdictional matters in a pressing manner. The efforts to reform our disciplinary Canons should be a time for a thorough revision of the way we govern ourselves. It is high time we abolished 18th. Century concepts of ecclesiastical impeachment and similarly a time to establish a body entrusted with judging the constitutionality of the interpretations placed upon and the concepts embodied in our Canon Law. Perhaps Bishop Duncan and his fellow “impeached” bishops are our contemporary Warren Hastings? That indeed would be ironic.

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