July 23, 2007

Doing Consents Right

Not every church has the formal legal structure of The Episcopal Church. Its ultimate governing authority, a triennial gathering of bishops, priests, deacons, and laypeople, is called the General Convention. The church overall has a constitution and canons (church laws), and its constituent dioceses are similarly governed by conventions, constitutions, and canons. The nominal leader of the church is the Presiding Bishop, who might properly be described as an extremely weak executive. Dioceses, on the other hand, are led by bishops, who are quite powerful.

If I were inventing The Episcopal Church today, I would change some of the details of its organization, but I certainly would preserve its democratic ethos and, particularly, its rule by law, which acts as a bulwark against the goofiness and cultism to which Christianity seems especially susceptible.

Unfortunately, legal systems, whether secular or ecclesiastical, necessarily create tensions and require constant attention. How literally should laws be interpreted? What should be done when the spirit of the law and the letter of the law appear to be in conflict? What is the proper threshold for invoking disciplinary action? The United States has always had to deal with such issues, and it even has an institution, the Supreme Court, that might be viewed as a body whose major concern is dealing with them. By comparison, The Episcopal Church has been less contentious, legally speaking, and it has fewer structures and precedents to guide it when the inevitably messy issues of law present themselves.

When the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence failed to achieve sufficient consents from standing committees to be consecrated the next bishop of South Carolina, two canonical issues made the outcome of the consent process controversial. First, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori allowed, apparently in clear violation of the canons, 123 days, rather than 120 days, for consents to be received. By no one’s reckoning were sufficient consents received within 120 days. Three days later, however, a sufficient numbers of reputed testimonies that standing committees had consented to the consecration had been received. The Presiding Bishop declared that Lawrence’s bid to become a bishop had failed, however, because some of the consents were improperly executed, lacking, for example, signatures of standing committee members. (See the ENS story here.)

The Rev. Dan Martins, a Stockton, California, priest from the same diocese as Mark Lawrence (San Joaquin) and a former member of his diocese’s standing committee has raised a troubling issue on his blog. It seems that, when the Diocese of Virginia requested consents for the Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnston to be consecrated bishop coadjutor, the wording of the testimonials requested by the Diocese of Virginia differed from that prescribed by canon. Martins reports that the San Joaquin standing committee has raised this issue with the Presiding Bishop and her chancellor in three separate letters and has received no answer. The letter suggests that the Presiding Bishop is applying the canons of the church selectively, and, perhaps, prejudicially. In what follows, I will assume that what the standing committee asserts was done by Virginia is true; its members are in a position to know, whereas I am not, and I believe that Martins is an honorable priest.

It is, I think, incumbent upon the Presiding Bishop to provide an explanation for her decisions. She should do so promptly. I would expect her to say that she extended the consent period for the Lawrence consents out of Christian charity, and that the defective consents raised questions as to whether certain standing committees had, in fact, validly consented as required by canon. This explanation necessarily raises the question as to why, having already bent the canons to allow more standing committees time to respond, she did not take the extra time to query the standing committees that submitted defective testimonies and give them the opportunity to correct any “technical” errors they may have made.

As to the Virginia consents, I would expect Jefferts Schori to explain that we all know what consents are all about, and sufficient testimonials with valid signatures were received to allow Johnston’s consecration. Perhaps, with the help of David Booth Beers, her chancellor, she will offer a better explanation. She needs one. The wording required by canon includes the following:
[We,] 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… .
The wording of the Virginia declaration was much shorter and to the point:
[We] give our consent to the ordination and consecration of the Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnston as Bishop Coadjutor for the Diocese of Virginia.
What should we make of this difference? One can certainly argue that the flowery language about standing committee members being persuaded as to what their duty is is really just so much fluff. It is difficult to overlook the difference of substance here, however. Whereas standing committee members are supposed to certify that they “know of no impediment on account of which [the Very Rev. Shannon S. Johnson] ought not to be ordained” a bishop, Virginia only asked for “consent to the ordination and consecration” of Johnston. In principle, one could know of an “impediment” to Johnson’s consecration that would impel a vote against consecration if one had to sign a document containing the wording in the canons. Virginia’s wording would allow a signature, however, in spite of such an impediment.

I have the greatest respect and affection for Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, but I do think that she has gotten herself into a muddle of her own making. I do not suspect that she acted out of any but the best of motives, but, like many new executives, I believe that she stumbled on her way up the learning curve. Here is what she should do:
  1. Admit that allowing 123 days for consents to be received was a mistake, for which she begs forgiveness. The canons are clear that the proper number is 120, and the wording makes it clear that the General Convention intended the starting date to be unambiguous. The time period is arbitrary, but its length and beginning point is intended to be fixed. The Presiding Bishop should declare that, in the future, only 120 days will be allowed and, within 7 days of the start of the consent period, the day on which the clock started with be announced publicly, so that everyone knows when the deadline is.
  2. Explain again that sufficient valid consents for Lawrence’s consecration were not received within 120 days. Whether or not sufficient consents were received in 123 days is moot. (This declaration will likely be criticized, and a public relations expert might question my advice. I cannot see a viable alternative, however.)
  3. Admit that the Virginia consent form was defective, but that the consent process cannot really be undone. Beg for forgiveness again. Declare that, in the future, the Office of the Presiding Bishop will work more closely with standing committees to assure them that the steps in the consent process for which they are responsible are carried out properly. Promise that, within 30 days, The Episcopal Church will have a downloadable, fillable PDF form on its Web site for standing committees to use in the future. All consents should be required to be executed using this form. (Actual signatures, of course, will still be needed.) Additional clarifications as to how consents may be submitted might need to be made. By canon, consents from standing committees are sent to the Presiding Bishop only after a sufficient number has been received. The Presiding Bishop should offer to pre-certify consents for a standing committee as they are received, however.
  4. Apologize in writing to the San Joaquin standing committee for failure to reply to its correspondence, and thank its members for their contribution to improving important church procedures.
  5. Beg for forgiveness again and promise to do better in the future.


A few hours after I posted the foregoing, the Rev. Jan Nunley reported on EpiScope that both South Carolina and Virginia used the same form. Moreover, she says that this short form, whose wording differs from that specified in Canon III.11.4(b), has been in general use for 10 years or more. If indeed this is the case—I presume that she has checked, something I would have difficulty doing—then the Office of the Presiding Bishop is almost assuredly the source of the wrongly worded consent form. In this case, the current Presiding Bishop (and perhaps even the previous Presiding Bishop) may not be responsible for the church’s having run off the rails here. It does seem incumbent upon Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori to fix the problem, however, and to fix it quickly. My advice as to what she should do still stands, but at least part of her apology must be for past church administration, rather than for her own mistakes.

If you want to read the canons for yourself, you can find the latest version of the church’s constitution and canons here.

Note: More developments in this story led me to write another essay on the subject the next day. You can read “Doing Consents Right Redux” here.

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