Canons — why bother?

As I’ve written here before, I find it frustrating when people can’t be bothered to follow canons. If we’re not following them, why bother having them? I’d like to see us, especially those of us in Holy Orders, held accountable for following our common, ordered life as a church, expressed in our canons. If I don’t like the rules, we have open processes for changing our canons.

Here are my two examples d’jour: one from the right, and one from the left. First, from the right, we have a press release from Forward in Faith. It seems that retired Bishop of Quincy Edward MacBurney has been charged with “canonical violations.” This is the bit that got me going: “Attorneys for MacBurney state that the charges raise the theoretical question as to whether an Episcopal bishop exercises total control over a certain geographical territory or whether a Bishop merely exercises control over the Episcopal churches within that territory.”

Theoretical question? What could that question possibly be? “If the Episcopal Church were created in a parallel universe, with completely different canons, and a different understanding of time and space, might the definition of ‘diocese’ differ?” I can’t fathom a theoretical question that might redefine diocese as anything other than geographic territory. Take, for example, the canon that requires bishop to live in their dioceses. Is MacBurney’s lawyer suggesting that bishops should live in church buildings? There is no possible canonical justification — or in Christian tradition, for that matter — for suggesting that a bishop exercises control over church buildings only, and not territories. Who does Forward in Faith think we are?

OK, now my example from the left. We’ve been told by 815 again and again that “dioceses can’t leave; only people can leave the church.” So if that’s the case, I’m puzzled by the agenda for the upcoming special convention of the Diocese of San Joaquin. It looks to me like an organizing convention, as if a diocese is being newly constituted. If the diocese didn’t leave — hewing to our earlier party line — then why is there a need to elect a treasurer, et cetera? That diocese elected Deputies to General Convention in December 2007. What’s happened to them? Were vacancies created through due process, or are we just having a “do over”?

I understand the need to reorganize the Episcopal Church in the wake of chaos created by former Bishop John-David Schofield. I can understand that perhaps our canons did not envisage this situation. I might understand if our national leadership explained to us why they’re following this or that canon, but not this or that canon — with some solid applied reasoning. What I cannot fathom is the fiction that we can willy-nilly replace elected officials wholesale, apart from any kind of due process. What we’re doing has the appearance of sanctioning the belief that an entire diocese just departed from ECUSA, and I don’t think that’s a precedent we want to set.

Let’s apply Kant’s reversibility test. Would we stay quiet of a conservative bishop removed a liberal vestry for failing to “well and faithfully” perform their duties? If, in the wake of B033, would we have stayed quiet if the Presiding Bishop had removed, say, the Standing Committee of one of the dioceses who put forward an openly gay or lesbian candidate for election as bishop? No, of course not. We would have cited canons, pointing out that a Presiding Bishop has no power to swoop in and remove elected Standing Committees, especially when there’s a sitting bishop.

Power is seductive, and the reigning liberal establishment in ECUSA is making some serious errors, I believe. What is disappointing to me, especially, is the disconnect between the language of justice that progressives so often use and the application of justice in matters of church disagreement. Sure, Bishop Schofield behaved very badly. He was rightly deposed. The Standing Committee of that diocese may (or may not) have behaved badly. But everyone, yes everyone, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. In a church with democratic principals, people are entitled to due process. Always. Not sometimes. Always.

So, I’ll kick the proverbial dead horse one more time. I hope folks, both right and left, will start reading their canons. And I hope we’ll all be willing to be held accountable to the ordered life of the church, even when it isn’t convenient for our particular cause.

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2 Responses

  1. in principle, i agree with you. but i think that this tells us that we have a need for a canon which basically permits the PB to act as she has in any future case. i assume that, if there were clear canonical authority, you wouldn’t be complaining: the issue is about the canonical authority, and not the wisdom of the procedure itself.

    at least, it seems to me that it is the only plausible procedure.

    a diocese is free to redesignate a parish as a mission, at which point the bishop becomes free to order all that church’s affairs, including appointing its new bishop’s committee and a vicar. in most dioceses this authority rests in the convention, but a diocese could rest that authority where it chooses.

    we need a national canon which permits extraordinary interventions in cases like the one in San Joaquin. it needs to be pretty general, because we cannot anticipate the various extraordinary things which can happen. certainly it could provide that the presiding bishop should have the authority (perhaps require the consent of the council of advice, say) to require a diocese to have a diocesan convention, which convention would have the power to establish itself anew, replacing any diocesan officers except the bishops at its will.

  2. John-Julian, OJN says:

    I enthusiastically second Fr. Scott’s questioning and applaud Br. Thomas’s solution — and I think some work on that solution ought to begin immediately (or yesterday) among our canon lawyers.

    Also, in fact, the real horrors of the San Joaquin situation is the two-decades’ long degeneration, Schofield’s loading of the clergy list with cronies, the total administrative break with the national Church, etc., etc. It seems that under present canons, nothing can be done until the horse has left the stable, and by then immeasurable damage has been done.

    I’m not a canon lawyer, and I don’t know the exact canonical modes, but Br. Thomas is right on target. Some way is needed both to keep a finger on the pulse and to provide canonical machinery for appropriate interventions.

    I wonder about something like the periodical accreditation process required of our seminaries?

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