December 8, 2007

Now what?

This weekend, I watched the convention of the Diocese of San Joaquin on Anglican TV, as, with some jubilation, it changed its constitution and canons and declared itself free of The Episcopal Church. At the same time, the diocese declared that it had joined the Southern Cone, a small, South American province of the Anglican Communion. Now what?

The ENS story on the convention repeated the now-familiar message:
If Schofield is considered to have abandoned the communion of the church, he would have two months to recant his position. Failing to do so, the matter would be referred to the full House of Bishops. If the House were to concur, the Presiding Bishop would depose the bishops and declare the episcopates of those dioceses vacant. [There seems to be a lapse in editing here, as the story is supposed about only the Diocese of San Joaquin.] Those remaining in the Episcopal Church would be gathered to organize a new diocesan convention and elect a replacement Standing Committee, if necessary.

An assisting bishop would be appointed to provide episcopal ministry until a new diocesan bishop search process could be initiated and a new bishop elected and consecrated.

A lawsuit would be filed against the departed leadership and a representative sample of departing congregations if they attempted to retain Episcopal Church property.
This all sounds so cleverly well thought-out and straightforward, but is it really?

Consider Step 1: if someone thinks Bishop Schofield has abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church—am I the only person who concluded hours ago, without an iota of doubt, that this has certainly happened now, if not years go?—charges could be brought against the bishop and, if the three senior bishops of the church and the Presiding Bishop agree on the matter, Schofield could be inhibited, which prevents him from performing episcopal acts, such as confirmations, but does not prevent him from administrative actions, such as moving trust funds offshore. Inhibition is not necessary for the House of Bishops to consider whether Schofield is guilty as charged, and one might ask if it really even does any good. If charges are pressed, the church is likely to hear from the likes of Archbishops Venables, Akinola, et al., and their words are likely to be—how shall I put it?—unkind. Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Canterbury can be relied upon to make another of his now-famous ill-conceived statements guaranteed, likely inadvertently, to make the situation markedly worse.

And Bishop John-David Schofield will, I assure you, say that he is beyond the reach of the discipline of The Episcopal Church because he is a bishop in good standing in the province of the Southern Cone. He is not going to pay the slightest attention to the Presiding Bishop, Title IV Review Committee, or any vote of the House of Bishops.

The Episcopal Church has only one recourse: sue. It will, and the case will likely drag on for a long time. The outcome, irrespective of which side is in the right—I have no doubt that The Episcopal Church is right here—will, for years, perhaps, be in doubt. The publicity will not be especially good for evangelism.

Step 2 is interesting: organize a new diocesan convention to reconstitute a Standing Committee. (The Standing Committee of the Diocese of San Joaquin will, presumably, be running the diocese that continues to be headed by Bishop Schofield.) In this step, the church will be winging it, constitutionally speaking. By organizing a new convention, will the church be admitting that the diocese has (or, even, could) leave the church? Under whose rules will the convention operate: under those of the departed diocese or under some other rules? The church must argue, I think, that the real Diocese of San Joaquin has been hijacked and must, somehow, be returned to its rightful stewards. Meanwhile, we are likely to have what might best be described as “Dueling Dioceses of San Joaquin.”

Step 3, appointing an assisting bishop, presumably with the concurrence of the newly constituted Standing Committee, should be easy enough, but the appointed bishop seems unlikely to have much of a flock. The convention votes were, to put it delicately, overwhelming.

Step 4, suing, as noted above, should probably be Step 1 or, to provide more rationale for the action, Step 2.

The question that must be asked is why has the church not acted against Bishop Schofield before now. Charges against the bishop, before today, could not so easily have been ignored. Of course, abandonment of the communion charges were brought against Schofield last year and were dismissed. A presentment could have been brought against the bishop, which, though it involves rather messier procedures, also allows greater latitude in the charges. In any case, The Episcopal Church has a bigger mess to clean up today than it did yesterday.

Of course, I am especially interested in the situation in San Joaquin, as the Diocese of Pittsburgh is planning to do exactly as San Joaquin has done. The Presiding Bishop threatened Bishop Duncan—as, in fact, she did Bishop Schofield—about moving forward with constitutional changes just before the 2007 diocesan convention. He was unmoved, and the diocese, on November 2, did what Duncan asked it to do. It is now December 8, and the Presiding Bishop has not acted. Is the church going to wait until Pittsburgh follows San Joaquin into the South American sunset?

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