October 11, 2009

Is Pittsburgh Treating ‘Realigned’ Clergy Properly?

Loose ends from the October 4, 2008, split in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh are gradually being tied up. A judge recently declared that diocesan property belongs to the Episcopal Church diocese. On October 16 and 17, that diocese will hold its first regular convention. At that convention, the regency of the Standing Committee will end when the convention approves the Rt. Rev. Kenneth L. Price, Jr., as its provisional bishop.

It was therefore no surprise when the Standing Committee announced October 5 how it had decided to treat priests and deacons claiming to be denizens of a Southern Cone diocese headed by deposed bishop Robert Duncan. What was surprising was that it took so long to get around to dealing with the problem of “realigned” clergy. The Standing Committee had apparently been working on a strategy for some time.

What the Standing Committee decided to do was to send a letter to all priests and deacons canonically resident in the Diocese of Pittsburgh as of October 4, 2008. The letter explained that the “letters of transfer” to the Southern Cone distributed after the “realignment” vote did not, in fact, remove recipients from the roll of Episcopal clergy. It went on to say that members of the Standing Committee were “seeking to release those clergy who so desire under the provisions of Canon III.9.8.” Recipients were given three choices:
  1. Those participating in the Episcopal Church diocese and already recognized as clergy of that diocese need do nothing and will remain Episcopal clergy.
  2. Those who have not been participating in the diocese can reply by October 19, i.e., within two weeks, to retain their standing in The Episcopal Church.
  3. Clergy who do not fall into either of the above categories—presumably those who currently imagine themselves canonically resident in the Southern Cone—and who “wish to be ‘released from the obligations of the Ministerial office [as a Priest or Deacon in the Episcopal Church] and deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred at Ordination [in the Episcopal Church]’” are requested to let the diocese know in writing by October 19. Whether or not they do so, however, their names will be sent to the the Recorder of Ordinations for removal from the roll of Episcopal Church clergy.
According to the letter, “This does not affect your ordination, which you may register with whatever entity you choose. This is simply a way for us to gain clarity around the issue of who is licensed to practice ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.”

Surprising Development

The strategy of the Standing Committee is notably different from that employed in San Joaquin. Here is a brief chronology of what happened there:
  • 12/8/2007: San Joaquin convention votes to leave Episcopal Church
  • 3/29/2008: The Rt. Rev. Jerry Lamb becomes provisional bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin
  • 7/10/2008: Bishop Lamb writes to clergy asking for clarification of status; gives 8/5/2008 deadline for reply
  • 10/17/2008: San Joaquin Standing Committee charges 36 priests and 16 deacons with abandonment; notification of inhibition and potential deposition to be sent
  • 5/22/2009 and 5/26/2009: Notice of deposition sent to 61 clergy members (I cannot account for the fact that 61 is greater than 36+16.)
There are similarities between Bishop Lamb’s July 10, 2008, letter and the recent letter of the Pittsburgh Standing Committee. Each provided recipients with three options. Because Lamb required a reply, his first option—staying in The Episcopal Church—covered both the first and second options offered to Pittsburgh clergy. His second option, apparently also based on the use of Canon III.9.8 (but see below), roughly corresponds to the third option given Pittsburghers: “I no longer wish to exercise my ordained ministry in of the Episcopal Church, and desire to be removed therefrom for reasons not affecting my moral character.” Lamb offered no extended discourse on this option. His third choice—no doubt, in both senses—was: “I do not consider myself a clergy member of the of the Episcopal Church, nor do I believe I am obligated to conform to the doctrine, discipline, or worship of the Episcopal Church.”

Apparently, Lamb’s intention was to remove clergy under Canon III.9.8 if respondents chose the second option and to depose clergy under Canon IV.10 if the third option were chosen. According to The Living Church, the letter was Lamb’s fourth attempt to reach out to “alienated” clergy. Although clergy already declared to be in the Episcopal Church diocese all responded to their bishop by selecting the first option, Lamb described the response by others as “not very good.”

An ostensible difference between letters sent to former San Joaquin clergy and those sent to former Pittsburgh clergy is that the former, despite Lamb’s bootless attempts at reconciliation, have been seen as punitive. The Pittsburgh letters, on the other hand, led to headlines such as “Clergy who left Episcopal Church won’t be defrocked” and “Diocese offers to release, not depose, clergy.” An editorial, “Amen, Pittsburgh,” from The Living Church, spoke of the “grace” shown by the Pittsburgh Standing Committee (and suggested, somewhat gratuitously, how Canon III.9.8 could be made “more pastoral”). Indeed, the diocese’s explanation of its action included this:
“We’re doing this for pastoral reasons,” says the Rev. Dr. James Simons, the Standing Committee president. “We do not want to see our priestly brothers and sisters deposed.”

Not So Fast

Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh approach to what Bishop Lamb called “alienated” clergy is problematic in a multitude of ways. I believe that the Standing Committee was indeed trying to be gracious—something it has seen little of from the other Pittsburgh “diocese.” It also was likely trying to put a painful past behind it and to do so with as little paperwork and personal discomfort for all concerned as possible.

Just as Bishop Lamb elicited an anemic response from departed clergy, the Pittsburgh effort is likely to receive few, if any, responses. Three days after the Standing Committee sent out its letters, the Rev. David Wilson, one of the most militant supporters of the Pittsburgh “realignment” reproduced this letter from the Anglican group’s chancellor, Bob Devlin, in a comment on TitusOneNine:
To the Clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican):

We have been informed that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (TEC) has sent a letter to you “seeking to release those clergy who so desire under the provisions of Canon III.9.8.” The stated purpose of this action is to update TEC’s records in a way that “does not involve deposition.” While we are very much in favor of avoiding further discord among our respective organizations, we cannot recommend that you accept this option. Canon III.9.8, entitled “Renunciation of Ordained Ministry”, has the effect of removing you from ministerial office and depriving you of “the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordination.” The letter indicates that this action is only effective with respect to TEC. The plain language of the Canon is not so clearly limited.

If this is solely a matter of record keeping, we encourage the two diocesan standing committees to come together to find a solution that involves neither deposition nor renunciation of ministry. The Standing Committee of the Anglican Diocese is ready to propose at least one way that this might easily be accomplished.

Mr. Robert Devlin
Chancellor
I cannot think of a time I have ever agreed with one of Bob Devlin’s opinions as chancellor, but I do believe his point here is well taken. Here is the complete text of Canon III.9.8 (taken from the Episcopal Church’s constitution and canons found here):
Sec. 8. Renunciation of the Ordained Ministry

If any Priest of this Church not subject to the provisions of Canon IV.8 shall declare, in writing, to the Bishop of the Diocese in which such Priest is canonically resident, a renunciation of the ordained Ministry of this Church, and a desire to be removed therefrom, it shall be the duty of the Bishop to record the declaration and request so made. The Bishop, being satisfied that the person so declaring is not subject to the provision of Canon IV.8 but is acting voluntarily and for causes, assigned or known, which do not affect the Priest’s moral character, shall lay the matter before the clerical members of the Standing Committee, and with the advice and consent of a majority of such members the Bishop may pronounce that such renunciation is accepted, and that the Priest is released from the obligations of the Ministerial office, and is deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordination. The Bishop shall also declare in pronouncing and recording such action that it was for causes which do not affect the person’s moral character, and shall, if desired, give a certificate to this effect to the person so removed from the ordained Ministry.
Since the canon says nothing specifically about The Episcopal Church in the second sentence, Devlin seems to have a point in saying that the process described in Canon III.9.8 effectively undoes ordination, even though the first sentence speaks of “a renunciation of the ordained Ministry of this Church [emphasis added].” What this means in practice is unclear, and no assertion that ordination is some irreversible sacramental event can change the fact. Canon III.9.11 describes the final action that begins with Canon III.9.8. It is described not as a “deposition,” but as a “removal.” (See my post on Canon III.9.11 here.) The Episcopal Church has no control over whether some other church would consider a priest so removed to be ordained or not. Certainly, if a priest “is deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordination,” it seems disingenuous for the Standing Committee to say to such a priest that such a deprivation “does not affect your ordination, which you may register with whatever entity you choose.” This pollyannaish attitude on the part of the Standing Committee is also apparent in its third option offered to letter recipients:
If you have done none of the above and wish to be “released from the obligations of the Ministerial office [as a Priest or Deacon in the Episcopal Church] and deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred at Ordination [in the Episcopal Church]” and you do not instruct us to the contrary in writing, we will notify the Recorder of Ordinations to remove you from the list of clergy licensed to exercise ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church. However, we prefer that you notify us in writing of your request for this release, or send us a copy of your “transfer” documentation for our records.
Notice that the Standing Committee is quoting, sort of, from Canon III.9.8. The interpolation “[in the Episcopal Church]” is not expressed and possibly not implied in the canon. Even the other interpolation, “[as a Priest or Deacon in the Episcopal Church],” is, at best, a misleading shorthand. Canon III.9.8 applies only to priests. Canon III.7.8, which has nearly identical wording, applies to deacons. (This may not be deceptive, but it is confusing.)

But there is another problem here. Members of the Standing Committee no doubt realized when they sent these letters that the probability of getting responses from “inactive” priests or deacons was slim to none. Therefore, they made their third alternative an opt-out option. Non-responding “inactive” clergy will be automatically removed from the ranks of the ordained. Surely, however, this violates the requirement of Canon III.9.8 (and III.7.8) to the effect that a member of the clergy must “declare, in writing, to the Bishop of the Diocese” his or her desire to make a “renunciation of the ordained Ministry of this Church, and a desire to be removed therefrom.” A bishop pronouncing a declaration of removal, as specified in Canon III.9.11, for a priest who declared his or her desire to be removed by means of not making such a request would, I suggest, be subject to presentment under Canon IV.1.1(e), i.e., “Violation of the Constitution or Canons of the General Convention.” Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in its attempt to be graceful and generous, the Standing Committee (1) removed no one from the clergy of The Episcopal Church and caused the new provisional bishop (and perhaps the clerical members of the Standing Committee) to be subjected to presentment?

Culpability and Timing

It was about time that the Standing Committee got around to dealing with departed Pittsburgh clergy. Why did they do it now and give so little time for people to respond? Bishop Lamb wrote his clergy less than four months after becoming provisional bishop and allowed nearly four weeks for reply. The article about the letter on the diocese’s Web site provides the answer:
Next month, many of these inactive clergy may be asked to join the Anglican Church in North America, an entity newly created by the group’s leaders. Unlike the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, this new religious body is not in communion with the Episcopal Church.

As long as they remain priests and deacons of the Episcopal Church and seek formal admission into a religious body that is not in communion with the Episcopal Church, the clergy could be deposed or otherwise disciplined for having “abandoned the communion.”
The convention of the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican)” will be held November 6–7, 2009. At that convention, the following canonical change will be made in Canon 1 (proposed constitutional and canonical changes are listed here):
The Diocese of Pittsburgh shall be a member of that Province of the Anglican Communion known as the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone the Anglican Church in North America.
In other words, Pittsburgh clergy who have left The Episcopal Church to go to the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone are about to transfer to the Anglican Church in North America, which is not now, and may never be, a member of the Anglican Communion. The statement by the diocese is an admission that, after November 7, it would be impossible not to depose such clergy under Canon IV.10. Here is Section 1 of Canon IV.10:
Sec. 1. If it is reported to the Standing Committee of the Diocese in which a Priest or Deacon is canonically resident that the Priest or Deacon, without using the provisions of Canon IV.8 or III.7.8-10 and III.9.8-11, has abandoned the Communion of this Church, then the Standing Committee shall ascertain and consider the facts, and if it shall determine by a vote of three-fourths of All the Members that the Priest or Deacon has abandoned the Communion of this Church by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church, or by a formal admission into any religious body not in communion with this Church, or in any other way, it shall be the duty of the Standing Committee of the Diocese to transmit in writing to the Bishop of such Diocese, or if there be no such Bishop, to the Bishop of an adjacent Diocese, its determination, together with a statement setting out in reasonable detail the acts or declarations relied upon in making its determination. If the Bishop affirms the determination, the Bishop shall then inhibit the Priest or Deacon from officiating in the Diocese for six months and shall send to the Priest or Deacon a copy of the determination and statement, together with a notice that the Priest or Deacon has the rights specified in Section 2 and at the end of the six-months period the Bishop will consider deposing the Priest or Deacon in accordance with the provisions of Section 2.
Clearly, the Standing Committee has concluded that the departed clergy have not “abandoned the Communion of this Church by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church,” although they are about to liable for their “formal admission into any religious body not in communion with this Church.” This is curious, in that, in San Joaquin and elsewhere, clergy who have left The Episcopal Church and taken their congregation to other Anglican provinces have indeed be judged guilty of having “abandoned the Communion of this Church by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church.” Why has only Pittsburgh decided that one has not abandoned the communion of this Church until one has left the Anglican Communion? The diocesan office would have no trouble documenting the open renunciation of the discipline of The Episcopal Church by those clergy now reputedly in the Southern Cone.

The answer, of course, is found in Jim Simons’ statement that the Standing Committee did not want to depose their “priestly brothers and sisters,” in other words, their friends. It is clear from statements made by the Standing Committee that the decision was made to let the “realigners” off without deposition. The next job was to figure out some interpretation of the canons to allow this. Frankly, this looks more like favoritism than it does generosity. Moreover, the timing is cynical. Elsewhere I described what what is going here as giving out GET OUT OF JAIL FREE cards to guilty friends now because we know they are about to commit even greater infractions that will make it embarrassing or impossible to distribute them a few weeks later. Also, both depositions and removals must be pronounced by a bishop with jurisdiction, so it is especially convenient that the Standing Committee’s deadline comes two days after Bishop Price will be given jurisdiction in Pittsburgh.

Whereas I believe that all priests who left the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh for the “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican)” are guilty of abandonment, additional charges could be leveled against at least some clergy—violation of diocesan and church canons, conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, etc. The fact is that some priests simply took the path of least resistance, whereas others were every bit as deeply involved in the subversion of The Episcopal Church as was their deposed bishop. Even were the Standing Committee to deal “pastorally” with some clergy, is not someone like the Rev. Geoff Chapman, author of the infamous “Chapman letter,” culpable enough to deserve deposition under Title IV? Apparently not in the eyes of the Pittsburgh Standing Committee.

Consequences

After hours of study, I can find little substantive difference between removing a priest or deacon from the body of Episcopal Church clergy using the removal of Title III or the deposition of Title IV. Clearly, deposition implies that the person deposed is guilty of some bad behavior. If any Pittsburgh clergy are “removed” under Title III, however, everyone will know it was not for their good behavior. According to Canon IV.15, “Deposition shall mean a Sentence by which a Member of the Clergy is deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God's word and sacraments conferred at ordination.” How is this really different from being “released from the obligations of the Ministerial office, and … deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority as a Minister of God’s Word and Sacraments conferred in Ordination,” as it is stated in Canon III.9.8? (Actually, Canons III.7.8–10, III.9.8–11, IV.8, and IV.10 cross-reference one another in ways that make my head spin. The line between discharging a member of the Episcopal clergy for bad behavior or not is broad and gray.)

In an ideal world, a priest or deacon deposed by The Episcopal Church would not automatically be eligible to be received as clergy in another church, certainly not one of the Anglican Communion. The (Universal) Church, and even the Anglican Communion, is fragmented, however, and what The Episcopal Church does probably only has real significance within The Episcopal Church. This is a reason for not creating the perception that departed Pittsburgh clergy are getting off easy. Clergy in South Carolina, Albany, or elsewhere may get the impression that trying to remove a diocese from The Episcopal Church is not such a big deal. In fact, it is.

In a church in which dissidents are forever accusing the Presiding Bishop and other bishops of cutting corners in the application of church canons, and in a church where we expect our canons to preserve good order—not to mention ownership of property—it is incumbent upon church leaders to follow canons with diligence and sincerity. I do not believe the Pittsburgh Standing committee has done that, however loving and pastoral their motives might be. Taking a non-response to be the equivalent of a written request to a bishop takes unreasonable—and perhaps presentable—liberties with Episcopal Church canons.

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