August 9, 2008

Let’s Get It Over With

On October 4, 2008, the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will vote on “realignment.” In particular, a second vote will be taken on constitutional amendments that eliminate accession to the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church. Adopting a new canon that declares the diocese to be in the Anglican province of the Southern Cone is also on the agenda. (Resolution One of the 2007 convention, which sets out the constitutional changes can be read in the Convention Journal, beginning on page 93. This year’s Resolution One declares the diocese to be in the Southern Cone and can be read here.)

It is a foregone conclusion throughout The Episcopal Church that these measures, so strongly advocated by Bishop of Pittsburgh Robert W. Duncan, will be passed by the convention. In Pittsburgh, neither proponents nor opponents are quite so certain. No one seems to doubt that the clergy will vote for the constitutional changes; the clergy vote favored it on first reading by 109 to 24. Even if some clergy get cold feet this time around, it is difficult to believe that opponents will be able to diminish substantially the more than 4-to-1 ratio of support for the measure achieved last year. The lay vote is less predictable, however. Last year, lay deputies voted in favor by 118 to 58, with 1 abstention. Even though they backed realignment by more that 2-to-1, several factors diminish the predictive value of that statistic. Deputies change from year to year, and even the number of deputies assigned to particular congregations change. More significantly, deputies understand that the vote this year is more than simply a symbolic protest. Finally, the willingness of significant numbers of conservative clergy who have strongly backed Bishop Duncan in the past but are now opposing realignment cannot but have some influence on the lay vote.

Whichever way the vote goes, and despite the bishop’s improbable assurance that “[t]here would be few immediate consequences for parishes” of a decision to realign, Pittsburgh Episcopalians will likely face a period of chaos after the October vote, particularly if realignment passes. In that case, there would be competing claims to diocesan and parish property; the bishop, if not already deposed, would be deposed; in the Calvary lawsuit, the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas might deliver a serious blow to Duncan and to parishes claiming to have left the church; and The Episcopal Church would likely join the existing suit or initiate new litigation against Duncan, his supporters, and departing parishes. If the vote goes the other way, Duncan will be disgraced and might, as he has said he would, step down as bishop. Or he might not. Some of the more rabidly anti-Episcopal-Church parishes might declare their departure, inviting negotiation under terms of the Calvary lawsuit stipulation or lawsuits by The Episcopal Church. Perhaps, however, everyone would accept the status quo for a time, in the expectation that, after a December request, the Primates’ Council announced at GAFCON would recognize the Common Cause Partnership as some sort of Anglican province, with Duncan at its head and the Diocese of Pittsburgh a part of it, whatever that might mean.

The smart money, I am told, is betting that the House of Bishops is most likely going to postpone a vote on deposing Bishop Duncan at its September meeting, as the bishops would prefer the clarity of agreeing that he has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church after he has actually declared that he has left it. Episcopal Church supporters in Pittsburgh are very uneasy over this prospect. If Duncan is not deposed in September, when will he be deposed? Even if he is immediately inhibited after the October vote, postponing the deposition vote until the regular spring House of Bishops meeting would leave Pittsburgh in limbo for a painfully long time.

What will happen if the bishops fail to act in September, and the October realignment vote fails? The bishops will not have the cover of Duncan’s having declared himself to be out of The Episcopal Church to justify their voting for deposition. This question reminded me of part of the answer given by Duncan’s lawyers to item 19 of the supplement filed by the plaintiffs in July (see “Lies and Dodges.”) Item 19 began: “After obtaining passage of Resolution One, Bishop Duncan posted a statement ….” The defendants objected: “Defendants deny that Bishop Duncan ‘obtained’ passage of Resolution One. To the contrary, Resolution One was passed at the November 2007 Annual Convention of the Diocese pursuant to the Constitution of the Diocese by a majority vote of more than 400 lay and clergy voters representing all parishes in the Diocese.”

Technically, of course, the Bishop of Pittsburgh could not have passed Resolution One all by himself. To suggest, however, that he was not responsible for its passage is disingenuous in the extreme. He could, after all, have prevented its passage merely by declaring it to be out of order, which it clearly was. In fact, he lobbied hard for its passage. If this is the case, however, it raises an interesting question. No one imagines that Bishop Duncan will not be deposed if the Pittsburgh convention votes for realignment. The case against him for abandonment will be essentially the same as the case against Schofield—actually, it will be a good deal stronger—and the House of Bishops readily agreed to depose the Bishop of San Joaquin after that diocese’s realignment vote.

Consider this thought experiment. If the House of Bishops is willing to depose Duncan once the Pittsburgh convention votes for realignment, would it also be willing to depose him if the vote goes the other way? If not, why not? Can an abandonment determination against the bishop depend not on what the bishop does, but on what his convention does? Duncan has done what he has done whichever way the vote goes; irrespective of the vote, he would seem to be equally culpable. But, if what happens on October 4 has no bearing on whether Robert Duncan has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, what excuse does the House of Bishops have for not deposing him in September? The Title IV Review Committee made its determination more than half a year ago, and Duncan has only given the church more reason to believe in his abandonment since then. Not only would the House of Bishops avoid uncomfortable situations by acting in September—neither calling a special meeting for the purpose nor waiting until the spring meeting is very attractive—but the bishops would facilitate the prompt reorganization of the diocese after the convention votes for realignment or offer the prospect of electing a less divisive diocesan bishop in a timely fashion if it does not.

A September deposition of Bishop Duncan, it has been said, will anger his supporters and assure a vote favoring realignment. So be it. This bishop has been telling us since 2003 that a split of the diocese is inevitable. By now, practically everyone believes him, and most simply want to get the matter over with, so we can move forward. When everything is considered, there is every reason to depose Duncan in September and no legitimate reason not to do so. Let’s get it over with.

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