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By now it’s generally known that complaints have been brought against nine bishops of the Episcopal Church and that these bishops, including three diocesans and one suffragan are being investigated. It is not clear whether these investigations are being conducted by a person or persons unknown, or by persons selected by the committee charged with reviewing such complaints and making the decision whether the complaints rise to a level where the bishops should be formally accused and brought to trial in an ecclesiastical court. Thus it is not only a matter of nine members of the House of Bishops being complained against. Two other aspects are of note. No one knows for sure who has brought their complaints to the “input officer”, Bishop Clay Matthews. Secondly this is the second time this new process has been invoked and it is obviously therefore a test of the efficacy of the system adopted in 2009 by General Convention in its sweeping reform of  the disciplinary Canons (laws). It is not unreasonable to suggest that in addition to the nine bishops, the very process itself is now brought to the fore and tested.

The level of discretion which may be exercised by the Intake Officer seems unclear. May this officer decide not to investigate complaints, or must he -in this case it is a “he” –  decide to ignore a complaint? The purpose of permitting any Episcopalian to bring a formal complaint against another while covering her or himself under a cloak of anonymity was to provide protection to people who complain that they have been abused in some sense. Obviously in cases of alleged abuse, some protection ought to be afforded. However the nine bishops are not accused of abusing a person or persons unknown. If indeed the Intake Officer has minimal discretion and the complainants protected as to their identity, obvious abuse of the system seems inevitable even in a Christian church! As there seem to be no sanctions available to be brought against malicious or frivolous complaints, nothing prevents the misuse of the system. The ‘accused’ face public exposure of themselves to suspicion while the accusers remain secure in their anonymity unless they go public.

I can only think of two precedents in Anglican history where such a multitude of bishops were singled out for discipline for defying authority, for that is what the nature of the charges seem to imply. Elizabeth I deposed almost all of the sitting diocesan bishops when they refused to consecrate her nominee to be Archbishop of Canterbury. James II attempted to depose seven bishops including the Archbishop of Canterbury because they refused to permit their clergy to read from their pulpits a Declaration of Indulgence permitting Roman Catholics to serve as officers in the army and in the ancient universities. The seven were brought to trial, found not guilty and shortly thereafter the King was deposed. Charging nine bishops with violating  their ordination oaths to uphold the discipline of the Episcopal Church is thus an extraordinary event, unprecedented in the history of the Episcopal Church.

What complaint has been brought? In the territory of two dioceses of this church, where a majority of parishes have sought to withdraw from the church, those who remain loyal to TEC are fighting in the courts to retain the property of those who have departed. The accused bishops signed “friends of the court” briefs in which they stated that they do not believe that the national church is legally competent to possess the real property and assets of the seceding parishes and dioceses. The brief they signed is limited to the matter of whether the Canons of General Convention are able to claim such property. Indeed the bishops opined that these dioceses and parishes should not leave TEC. The complainants seem to be arguing that this is an issue in which dissent is not permitted and if expressed formally, such an expression constitutes what might be termed an act of rebellion against TEC, a violation of the vows taken at ordination.

What is being suggested is that open opposition to the rules adopted by General Convention in the form of canonical amendments is of the same order as an open and formal renunciation, for instance of core doctrine. One of the proposals before General Convention involves persons dissenting from the established doctrine of Christian marriage contained in the Prayer Book and Canons. Thus one may conclude that doctrinal dissent is of a lesser order than structural dissent. Indeed there is a resolution to be debated at General Convention which would require that duly elected bishops be examined as to their doctrinal purity as to the ownership of property. Such bishops are not to be grilled about whether they may break Canon Law about communicating the unbaptized, a clear violation of the canons.

Now mercifully I’m not in a position to have to decide whether I support local ownership of property over national ownership of property. And of course underlying the issue is not a property dispute but the question of what is the appropriate response of a Christian body in which a majority adopts measures that violate the consciences of a minority, a minority which happens to cleave to that which the church has taught up until the time when a majority changes the rules. If it is not permissible for bishops to dissent over the ownership of property on the basis that it was not ever thus, whether their opinion is correct or wrong-headed then surely the right of persons, even bishops to dissent from existing doctrine, discipline or forms of worship should be equally inadmissible?

One may hope, for the sake of all, that an investigation will conclude that the nine bishops have not abandoned their oaths. If these bishops are formally charged and brought to trial any hope of reconciliation will disappear and that at a time when our passions ought to be centered on institutional reform and evangelism. It will be interesting to see in what manner the bishops assembling in Indianapolis this week react to nine of their colleagues being exposed to investigation, their loyalty to this church brought into question. Our bishops and deputies ought to be concerned about the lack of transparency the Title 4 canons invoke. It is all very well to suggest,as some now do, that this is a tempest in a coffee pot because the complaints will fail. I am not so sanguine that we may easily restore things to the status quo ante. The act of taking these complaints forward, of suggesting that there may be a case to be heard, indicates the collapse of comprehension, one of the hallmarks of the Anglican Tradition.

I should make it clear that I do not write this piece as an unaffected person. My bishop is among the accused. Just over a year into his episcopate he is restoring diocesan morale and challenging us to mission. He is greatly admired. I am reminded of something an old Scottish atheist said to me when I was a young cleric. “Beware of principled persons” he said, “They are often unprincipled about their principles” Those involved in these complaints seem so obsessed with what they believe they have suffered that they are quite prepared to permit loyal Episcopalians whose pastors are being dragged into the glare of publicity to undergo months of insecurity in order to make a point. This may be good politics, but it’s wretched Christianity.

5 Responses

  1. Very similar to that which we are seeing in secular liberal politics. Opposing voices are not to be tolerated.

  2. Father Tony,

    You say, ” No opinion is offered about whether these dioceses and parishes should leave TEC.”

    But in fact, their amicus brief to the court states, “The amici [those filing the brief] oppose the decision by the Appellants (“Diocese of Fort Worth”) to leave The Episcopal Church.”

    In other words, they state quite clearly that they oppose leaving the Episcopal Church.


  3. Thanks for that Jason. You are correct.

  4. I find AP Biddle’s comment to be ironic and contradictory. We see far more vicious internal intolerance within the ranks of secular conservative ideology than among liberals. Chief Justice Roberts is being drawn and quartered by his former friends just because he saved the health-care act. Liberals do not have their edeological acts together enough to create a wave of uniformity, or to be aggressively intolerant of conflicting opinion.

  5. You missed one further example of the mass action against bishops. After the flight of James II, the usurpers deposed all those who would not abjure their oaths to James – and this included most of the seven bishops who had defied James on the matter of the Declaration.

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