October 10, 2009

What Are the Episcopal Church Canons, Anyway?

In light of the recent offer of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pittsburgh made to departed priests and deacons—“inactive” clergy in the words of the Standing Committee; see diocesan story here—I have been examining Episcopal Church canons invoked by the Standing Committee, those that might have been used, and those entailed by the Standing Committee’s action.

I was having a good deal of trouble understanding Canon III.9.11, which explains how priests who want to be removed from the roll of Episcopal clergy under Canon III.9.8, the canon cited by the Standing Committee, are actually removed. Here his that section, reproduced from the PDF file found at http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/canons/CandC_FINAL_11.29.2006.pdf, a file I reached from the General Convention 2006 page of the Episcopal Church Web site:
Sec. 11. In the case of the renunciation of the ordained Ministry by a Priest as provided in this Canon, shall be pronounced by the Bishop in the presence of two or more Priests, and shall be entered in the official records of the Diocese in which the Priest being removed is canonically resident. The Bishop who pronounces the declaration of removal as provided in this Canon shall give notice thereof in writing to every Member of the Clergy, each Vestry, the Secretary of the Convention and the Standing Committee of the Diocese in which the Priest was canonically resident; and to all Bishops of this Church, the Ecclesiastical Authority of each Diocese of this Church, the Presiding Bishop, the Recorder of Ordinations, the Secretary of the House of Bishops, the Secretary of the House of Deputies, the Church Pension Fund, and the Board for Church Deployment.
A careful reading will show that the first sentence makes no sense; it almost does, but not quite. Initially, I ignored this. I seemed to get the gist of the thing, and, after all, I’m not a canon lawyer.

At some point, however, I wanted more insight into the significance of Canon III.9.11. I checked out my trusty copy of White’s & Dykman’s Annotated Constitution and Canons. It quickly became obvious that the canon of interest had been changed after the edition I was consulting had been published. This sent me to the Archives of the Episcopal Church, where, after a brief search, I discovered several significant revisions of Title III, the latest being from the 2006 General Convention, namely, Resolution A082. Here is how Canon III.9.11 reads there, which, presumably, is what was intended by the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops:
Sec. 11. In the case of the renunciation of the ordained Ministry by a Priest as provided in this Canon, a declaration of removal shall be pronounced by the Bishop in the presence of two or more Priests, and shall be entered in the official records of the Diocese in which the Priest being removed is canonically resident. The Bishop who pronounces the declaration of removal as provided in this Canon shall give notice thereof in writing to every Member of the Clergy, each Vestry, the Secretary of the Convention and the Standing Committee of the Diocese in which the Priest was canonically resident; and to all Bishops of this Church, the Ecclesiastical Authority of each Diocese of this Church, the Presiding Bishop, the Recorder of Ordinations, the Secretary of the House of Bishops, the Secretary of the House of Deputies, The Church Pension Fund, and the Board for Church Deployment.
There are three differences in what the General Convention apparently passed and what is being represented as Canon III.9.11 to the casual observer. First, as passed, “Sec. 11” is not in boldface. Obviously, no one cares about this, and the difference is hardly an error in the PDF file. Whoever was responsible for preparing the revised version of the constitution and canons simply made necessary formatting changes to assure that the resulting document used a consistent layout. The second difference is similar, though perhaps a tad more significant and deserving of being called an error: “The Church Pension Fund” became “the Church Pension Fund” in the PDF version.

Then there is the third difference. The phrase “a declaration of removal,” which was intended to precede “shall be pronounced by the Bishop in the presence of two or more Priests, and shall be entered in the official records of the Diocese in which the Priest being removed is canonically resident,” is missing in the PDF file. This omission was the reason I had difficulty making sense of the first sentence of the section.

This observation sent me back to the Web. I remembered that Title III was available as a separate PDF file on the Church Publishing Web site. That file can be found at http://www.churchpublishing.org/general_convention/pdf_const_2006/Title_III_Ministry.pdf. And guess what I discovered. The same errors occur in that file!

“Good grief!” I exclaimed. If there are two errors in one section of one canon in the Web versions of the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church, how many other errors might there be? In this instance, one error should cause the reader to be suspicious—I proved to be an insufficiently skeptical reader here—and the other error really made no difference. How many significant but less obvious errors might there be in our governing documents?

I’m not sure I want the answer to that last question. I do hope, however, that those people who revise our canons to reflect the work of the 2009 General Convention will not only verify the correctness of canons altered by that Convention but will also do whatever is necessary to assure Episcopalians that the church’s constitution and canons are what we think they are.


Addendum. Mr. Richard Taliaferro assures me that the error in Canon III.9.11 occurs also in the book version of the constitution and canons.

There is no corresponding error in Canon III.7.10, by the way, which is the canon analogous to Canon III.9.11 that applies to deacons.

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