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INDIANAPOLIS, IN: GC2012 - War of the Bishops

INDIANAPOLIS, IN: GC2012 - War of the Bishops

By Michael Heidt in Indianapolis
Special Correspondent
July 7, 2012

Two very different understandings of the Episcopal Church's polity have been thrown into sharp relief by the war of letters being waged by rival groups of bishops at this year's General Convention.

On July 5, Provisional Bishops Wallis Ohl and John Buchanan, wrote an open letter to the Presiding Bishop accusing nine of their fellow bishops of canonical offences. On July 6, seven of the nine had replied, in an open letter of their own, also addressed to the Presiding Bishop. This exchange of letters reveals a deeper conflict over the nature of the Episcopal Church's authority and hierarchy. Much is at stake over which side wins, not the least of which is TEC's legal platform in its ongoing litigation against dioceses that have left its communion.

The presenting cause of Bishop Ohl and Bishop Buchanan's open letter is Title IV disciplinary proceedings brought against the nine bishops by unspecified persons in an anonymous complaint. The general nature of the complaint is made clear in a letter to the offending bishops issued by TEC's Title IV Intake Officer, Bishop Clayton Matthews. All nine signed onto an amicus brief and affidavits in support of the Dioceses of Fort Worth and Quincy, which TEC is litigating against for leaving its communion. Beyond that, no further detail was given. The open letter of July 5 changes this, supplying detailed allegations, or, depending on your point of view, insult to injury.

The accused bishops are: The Rt. Rev. Maurice M. Benitez (retired, Diocese of Texas); The Rt. Rev. John W. Howe (retired, Diocese of Central Florida); The Rt. Rev. Paul E. Lambert (suffragan, Diocese of Dallas); The Rt. Rev. William H. Love (diocesan, Diocese of Albany); The Rt. Rev. D. Bruce MacPherson (diocesan, Diocese of W. Louisiana); The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins (diocesan, Diocese of Springfield); The Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton (diocesan, Diocese of Dallas); The Rt. Rev. Peter Beckwith (retired, Diocese of Springfield); and The Rt. Rev. Edward L. Salmon (retired, Diocese of South Carolina).

What have Bishops Ohl and Buchanan accused their episcopal colleagues of? In an aggressively phrased introduction to their open letter, the authors allege that the signers of brief and affidavit have given "aid and comfort to breakaway factions who would take title and control of substantially all of the real and personal property of this Church and cripple its mission and ministry."

After awing their readers with the fearsome prospect of Bishop Iker's Diocese of Fort Worth and Bishop Morales' Diocese of Quincy seizing control of all of TEC's property and destroying its mission, Ohl and Buchanan go on to make four specific allegations. The allegation cuts to the heart of the issue, ecclesiastical authority.

According to the provisional Bishops, the disloyal nine, "Represented that Dioceses Can Unilaterally Leave (TEC)" and in doing so "urge a false sense of polity." What is this mistaken view of polity? That diocesan bishops have the authority "to lead his or her diocese and church property in the diocese out of The Episcopal Church." In other words, that ecclesial authority, or power, ultimately resides at diocesan level.

The second allegation is like unto the first. The rebellious nine have apparently, "Denied the Dennis Canon and Failed to Safeguard Church Property." They do so by advocating that "breakaway parties" should "prevail in the litigation against The Episcopal Church" and thereby keep their property and assets, thus stripping "millions of dollars of historic property and funds, lovingly accumulated by generations of Episcopalians, from the mission and ministry of this Church." For Ohl and Buchanan, this "would nullify this Church's trust interest" in congregational and diocesan property, amounting to a failure to safeguard this from a new and predatory "breakaway" church.

The third complaint states that the amicus bishops, in the instance of Fort Worth, and the affidavit bishops in the case of Quincy, failed to recognize the "right bishops," namely Ohl and Buchanan. Instead, they committed the crime of recognizing wrong bishops, Iker and Morales, thus threatening to "inject chaos into core ecclesiastical functions of The Episcopal Church itself."

It's dramatic stuff with more to come. In the fourth and final complaint, TEC's two offended pontiffs accuse the mutinous ecclesiastics of interfering "profoundly in the mission and the very existence of a sister diocese and the jurisdiction of other bishops of this Church." How have the mutineers achieved so drastic a thing? By "inserting themselves in local litigation against the ecclesiastical authority of those dioceses."

In other words, by involving themselves in civil litigation in another diocese's geographical location, the offenders are guilty of illicit "boundary crossing." One has to wonder if bishops MacPherson, Stanton, Salmon, Love et al would draw down such righteous ire for, say, testifying in a moving vehicle offence in downtown Fort Worth.

Leaving aside the strangely paranoid claims that Bishop Iker of Fort Worth and Bishop Morales of Quincy are being aided and abetted by a duplicitous fifth column of traitorous TEC bishops in their scheme to destroy the Episcopal Church, what do these allegations mean?

Most importantly, and this is acknowledged in the order of the allegations, Ohl and Buchanan are claiming that the hierarchy of the Episcopal Church is metro-political in nature; that TEC's ultimate Ecclesiastical Authority is the Office of the Presiding Bishop and General Convention, not the local Diocese and its Ordinary. All else flows from this. With such an understanding in place, individual dioceses do not have unilateral freedom to leave the Episcopal Church nor do they have autonomous control over diocesan property and assets.

In the same vein, expressing a legal opinion in favor of dioceses such as Fort Worth and Quincy, who have exercised local autonomy, becomes an act of grievous, boundary crossing treachery. More than that, this is treachery that threatens to dissolve the top down authority that, in the opinion of Ohl and Buchanan, holds their church together.

Such is the substance of the first open letter's series of allegations. In the second open letter, authored by six of the treasonous nine (bishops Paul E. Lambert, William H. Love, D. Bruce MacPherson, Daniel H. Martins, Edward L. Salmon, and James M. Stanton), the complaint against them is answered point by point. In doing so, the six bishops describe a very different understanding of Episcopal Church polity than that expressed by Ohl and Buchanan.

After an opening assurance of loyalty to the Episcopal Church, the accused bishops describe their belief concerning its governance, as contained in their respective amicus brief and affidavits.

Acknowledging that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical, they state that "hierarchical authority for matters within a diocese is the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese, which according to our Constitution is the diocesan bishop." The Episcopal Church is, for them, a "dispersed hierarchy" as opposed to a metropolitan one in which authority is vested in an Archbishop. Far from being a matter of personal opinion, or invention, the bishops claim a historical "pedigree" for their belief, citing Canon Dawley's work on church polity.

The dispersed nature of the hierarchy in question is then backed up by reference to the Episcopal Church's Constitution, which has no "Supremacy Clause." Likewise, it specifies no "office or body" with "hierarchical authority over the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese for matters within a diocese. And as bishops, we take no vow of obedience to any other office or body." They go on to state that this was a deliberate rejection of the metro-political polity of the Church of England, where bishops swear obedience to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. They state that there is no such oath in the Episcopal Church.

Moving from the Episcopal Church's Constitution to that of the United States, the bishops briefly discuss the First Amendment, which disallows secular courts from making "extensive and searching inquiries into, and thereby interfere with, church doctrine or polity in order to decide secular legal cases."

Having described the governing principles behind their view of the church's governance, the bishops answer the specific allegations made against them, stating that they simply aren't true.

Far from declaring that, "dioceses can unilaterally leave," the bishops argue that they "stated explicitly" in their amicus brief that they opposed the decision by the Diocese of Fort Worth to leave the Episcopal Church. In the same vein, they state that they did not "deny the Dennis Canon" because they did not "address property issues at all." The third accusation, of "recognizing the wrong bishops," is also swiftly dealt with, "We explicitly state in the amicus brief that 'The Episcopal Church clearly has the constitutional right to select a new bishop.' We recognize Bishops Ohl and Buchanan as the bishops of the TEC-recognized dioceses."

The final complaint is seen off in short order." Strangest of all," write the bishops, "is the claim that we have violated episcopal jurisdiction. We have performed no episcopal acts in another diocese. All we have done is exercise our civic-not ecclesiastical-rights to petition the government. To our knowledge, no one has ever before suggested that petitioning the legislatures or courts in Washington or state capitols-our brief was filed in Austin, not Fort Worth-requires the consent of the local bishop."

THERE WE HAVE IT, two radically different understandings of the nature of the Episcopal Church's essential governance. The one, as expressed in the first open letter, is the prevalent view of the church and is deployed by the Presiding Bishop and her legal teams in the Dioceses of Fort Worth and Quincy. On it stands the Episcopal Church's claim to the property and assets of the dioceses lead by bishop Iker and Morales. Given, they argue, that the Ecclesiastical Authority proper to the Episcopal Church resides in the office of the Presiding Bishop and General Convention, dioceses have no freedom to depart with money and property that belongs, ultimately, to these entities.

The other view, held by the bishops currently being investigated under Title IV of TEC's disciplinary canons, argues that the locus of authority in the Episcopal Church rests neither in the Presiding Bishop or the General Convention. On the contrary, they attempt to prove from historical precedent and the church's Constitution, that TEC's hierarchy is dispersed, residing at local level in the church's dioceses and their respective bishops.

That both understandings are radically opposed is readily apparent, with one envisaging church power as distributed, the other as centralized. That such differing conceptions of ecclesial polity would inevitably come into conflict would seem probable; that they have is unquestionable. Who will win the war in this clash of bishops, though even the most sanguine of observers must admit it unlikely that a church which has ceded power to centralized authority in the interest of legal victory will willingly relinquish that power now, regardless of the Constitution.

The House of Bishops is currently debating both letters in closed executive session.


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