July 24, 2007

Doing Consents Right Redux

The odd story of how consents are actually obtained for consecrations in The Episcopal Church that I wrote about yesterday saw further developments today. The Living Church posted a story by reporter Steve Waring, “Canonically Defective Testimonial Alleged in Virginia Coadjutor Request,” on its Web site today.

Based on remarks by the Rev. Jan Nunley, it appeared that “canonically defective” wording of consent testimonials has been in regular use for quite some time. Clearly, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori could not be responsible for this situation, as she has been in office less than a year. According to Waring, the canon to the Presiding Bishop, the Rev. Canon Carl Gerdau, sees no problem in using the “short form” recently used by the Diocese of Virginia for consents, rather than the one prescribed in Canon III.11.4(b). Presumably, Canon Gerdau has been regularly and intimately involved with the consent process. He is about to retire, but he served in his current position under former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold since 1998.

In my previous post, I quoted only as much of Canon III.11.4(b) as was quoted in the San Joaquin standing committee’s letter. Here is Canon III.11.4(b) in its entirety:
Evidence of the consent of each Standing Committee shall be a testimonial in the following words, signed by a majority of all the members of the Committee:

We, being a majority of all the members of the Standing Committee of ______________, and having been duly convened at ______________, fully sensible how important it is that the Sacred Order and Office of a Bishop should not be unworthily conferred, and firmly persuaded that it is our duty to bear testimony on this solemn occasion without partiality, do, in the presence of Almighty God, testify that we know of no impediment on account of which the Reverend A.B. ought not to be ordained to that Holy Order. In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands this _____ day of _________in the year of our Lord _________.
(Signed) _______________
Contrast this with the version sent out by the Diocese of Virginia to standing committees, as reported by the Rev. Dan Martins:
Having been duly elected on January 26, 2007, at the Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia.

We, being a majority of all the ____ members of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of ____, having been duly convened at ____, give our consent to the ordination and consecration of the Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnston as Bishop Coadjutor for the Diocese of Virginia.

In witness whereof, we have here unto set our hands this ___ day of ___, 2007.
(I rendered the above in boldface for easy comparison.) Although this “short form” lacks an explicit signature line, it, like the canonical version, is intended to be followed by signatures of a majority of standing committee members.

A clarification should be made at this point. The electing diocese sends requests for consent to the standing committees of all the dioceses of the church. Apparently, these requests invariably contain wording for what the canons call a “testimonial,” which the standing committees use to communicate their consent to the proposed consecration. (The canons are vague about what a standing is supposed to do if it does not consent. Some send a letter to the electing diocese, but others simply do not reply.) If an electing diocese sends a “defective” version of the testimonial, standing committees are, of course, free to use the canonical form. Their members can read the canons as well as anyone else.

Some observations:
  1. The first “sentence” of the “short form” makes no sense. There is no verb.
  2. The “short form,” unlike the canonical form, requires the recording of the number of members on the standing committee. Although this information is, in a sense, inessential, it does help prevent the misunderstanding that any majority vote of a standing committee with a quorum present is sufficient to render consent. It would not be surprising to learn that the origin of the “short form” is somehow related to this feature.
  3. The “short form” omits boilerplate presumably intended to impress on standing committee members that they should take their role seriously: “fully sensible how important it is that the Sacred Order and Office of a Bishop should not be unworthily conferred, and firmly persuaded that it is our duty to bear testimony on this solemn occasion without partiality, do, in the presence of Almighty God… .” This isn’t exactly 21st-century language, but the meaning is clear and, as they say, it can’t hurt. The words “without partiality” emphasize that the decision should be an objective one, which, in these times, may need to be said.
  4. The real difference, of course, is that the canonical form has standing committee members declaring that they “know of no impediment” to the proposed consecration, whereas, in the “short form,” members merely “consent” to the consecration, irrespective of what they may know or not know.
Are these differences significant? I think so. To begin with, there can be a real difference between assenting to a consecration and testifying that you know of no reason why it should not take place. In the case of South Carolina’s quest to consecrate the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, one has to doubt that any standing committee member did not know of impediments to his consecration. Clearly, however, some people voted for him anyway. The “short form” would have made that even easier to do.

Steve Waring’s story, however, makes it clear that South Carolina, contrary to Nunley’s assertion, did use the proper form, although it was only at the urging of the Rt. Rev. F. Clayton Matthews, Bishop for the Office of Pastoral Development, that its standing committee did so. (Nunley has updated her post and corrected her original statement, which seems to have been based on a David Beers letter. It is unclear as to where Beers got his information. Perhaps it was from Canon Gerdau.)

Following the constitution and canons also matters because we have agreed that we will do so, and we seek (I presume) to be people of integrity. Moreover, if everyone retains a right to follow the rules only when, to him or her, it seems important, then no one can ever call anyone else to account; in essence, there will be no rules.

What is so hard to understand in this case is why anyone would feel the need to substitute a “short form” for the canonical testimonial. In actual practice, one almost never expects an episcopal election to be invalidated by a failure to achieve the necessary consents, so that subtle differences in wording are unlikely to change the outcome of the consent process. Have dioceses been using the “short form” because it involves typing fewer keystrokes?

The difference in attitude between Gerdau and Matthews, both of whom work directly under the Presiding Bishop is striking. Whereas Waring reports that Matthews “cautioned the diocese about the language in its consent request,” Gerdau is quoted as saying, of the “short form,” that it has been “used for a long time and no one has ever objected to it before.” Gerdau’s statement sounds like something a policeman accused of having conducted an illegal search might say: “No one objected to the lack of a search warrant before.”

Clearly, the Presiding Bishop needs to communicate to everyone working at or for the Episcopal Church Center that adherence to the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church is not optional, just as it is not optional for bishops, clergy, and laypeople outside of New York City. That the consent process is cumbersome and opaque to most of the people in the church is unfortunate. A more open process would, among other things, expose quickly deviations from canonical procedures. Had Virginia posted its requests for consents on its Web site, for example, I doubt that 24 hours would have passed before bloggers noted its inconsistency with Canon III.11.4(b). The church should develop carefully written procedures to guide standing committees through requesting consents, and those procedures should be posted on the Web, along with—as I suggested in my previous post—a PDF version of a proper consent testimonial. A church with millions of members and a multi-million-dollar budget should not act like a bunch of kids who decided to put on a musical in someone’s back yard.

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