I had hoped the news would not leak out as quickly as it did, mostly because I was away from home and not able to respond at any length as it was breaking. Now I'm home, with about 36 hours before leaving for Indianapolis and the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I am distressed that the convention, which was already going to be a tense time, will be complicated ever further by the fact that nine bishops--four retired, one soon to retire, one suffragan, and three active diocesans--were notified Friday and Saturday by the Title IV Intake Officer of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Clay Matthews, that we (I am, in fact, one of the nine) are potential respondents to a misconduct complaint.
For two of these nine (Beckwith, Salmon), the foundation of the complaint is that they executed affidavits that were filed in civil litigation between the ACNA incarnation of the Diocese of Quincy and the Episcopal Church incarnation of the same. They contested the account given to the court by TEC lawyers that the Episcopal Church is a unitary hierarchical church at every level--i.e. that bishops and dioceses are in hierarchical authority over clergy and people, and that the Presiding Bishop and General Convention are in hierarchical authority over bishops and dioceses. Six others (Benitez, Howe, Lambert, Stanton, Love, and YFNB) are accused because we added our names to an amicus curiae brief that was filed in a similar legal proceeding between the two incarnations the Diocese of Fort Worth, contending here, as did the affidavits in the Quincy case, that the true polity of the Episcopal Church, when one carefully considers our history, theology, and the language of our constitution and canons, is one of a voluntary confederation of dioceses which accede to the constitutional and canonical authority of General Convention for purposes of church order and effective mission, but which retain a measure of autonomy as ecclesiastical integers, the historic fundamental unit of the church. Bishop Bruce McPherson, soon to retire as diocesan of Western Louisiana, enjoys the distinction of being named in both complaints.
I cannot presume to speak for any of the other eight, but I need to be clear that my intention in attaching my name to the amicus brief was in no way to affect the outcome of that case. As the Bishop of Springfield, which is in Illinois, it is no concern of mine how a property dispute in Texas is resolved. If my action has the effect of aiding one side or the other, that is, from my perspective, an immaterial consequence. Rather, I took the action I did with the best interests of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Springfield, as nearly as I can discern them, at heart. My principal concern was to not leave unchallenged the assertion that the Episcopal Church is a unitary hierarchical organism at all levels, and that the dioceses are entirely creatures of General Convention. I viewed signing the amicus brief as consistent with my vow to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church.
I certainly signed on reluctantly and reservedly. As a matter of general principle, I am opposed to litigating church disputes in secular courts. Lots of scripture passages are challenging to interpret, but I don't think I Corinthians 10 is one of them. "Why not rather be defrauded?", St Paul says. Moreover, I realize how my action could be construed as one bishop interfering in the affairs of a fellow bishop's diocese, which is a big No-No. So I had to make a judgment call, and my judgment, after reflection and prayer, was that I had to join the intervention, because to allow such a false read of TEC polity to potentially help form legal precedent constitutes a danger that could bring harm to the church for decades to come, and resisting this outcome trumps my other concerns.
As an illuminating case in point, I would draw your attention to a resolution we will be considering next week in Indianapolis, A101, Convene Consultation on Diocesan Effectiveness. This resolution asks for a study of “the potential for re-aligning dioceses to maximize their effective witness and ministry.” While this may be a relatively small thing in itself, and might actually make good sense, if the top-down (with General Convention as the “top”) hierarchical model is accepted, then it sets in motion a potential chain of events that could end with General Convention imposing redrawn boundaries on dioceses without their consent. At a time when the Episcopal Church is shrinking, especially in more sparsely populated areas of the country, this is not idle speculation. If the interpretation of our polity offered by the attorneys for the Episcopal Church in Quincy and Fort Worth is allowed to prevail, there is nothing at all that could prevent such a scenario. It's one thing if two or more dioceses decide they want to shuffle and re-deal the cards voluntarily. It's quite another for that to be imposed on them. It would not be anything that our forebears in this church would recognize.
I respect those who have a contrary understanding of our polity. While it is always possible that I could be mistaken—it has happened several times—I am at present confident in the correctness of the view I hold. I recognize that taking this discussion into the secular courts certainly escalates tension and raises the stakes, which is regrettable. My chief concern is that a very particular property dispute in Texas not become the vehicle for supporting an erroneous understanding of the polity of the church to which I am committed, the constitution and canons of which I have freely vowed to uphold, and to which my diocese freely accedes.
Now for some important technicalities.
As of this date, all that has happened is that the nine of us have been informed that a complaint has been received, that the complaint is in connection (in my case) to our having signed the amicus brief in Texas, and that the matter is being looked into by the Intake Officer. It is Bishop Matthews' obligation to make a determination whether, if true, the complaint constitutes an offense under Title IV. So it could still be--a consummation devoutly to be wished--that he will dismiss the complaint for lack of merit. Or, if he determines that a misconduct may actually have been committed, he will send the matter to a body called the Reference Panel. This group functions sort of like a grand jury, and it will be their job to determine whether to "indict." If they do so, it then falls to the Conference Panel to hear testimony and issue a judgment. It is then up to the Presiding Bishop either to negotiate an accord with the respondents, or prescribe sentence. The penalty could range from a letter called a Pastoral Directive all the way to deposition (the latter would need to be approved by the House of Bishops).
The Title IV canons protect the anonymity of an accuser. In an instance of something like sexual abuse, this perhaps make sense. In the current matter, it manifestly does not. It is difficult to imagine, however, that the complainants are not from the Diocese of Fort Worth. If this is the case, I quite understand their motivation. They feel wounded by what they perceived as an oppressive majoritarian regime under Bishop Iker, and bereft of much that has been near and dear to them as the institutional and most of the material infrastructure of the diocese was pulled out from under them. And as they seek redress of grievances in the secular courts, here come interlopers who are supposedly from their own church aiding and abetting the cause of their opponent. They are hurt and they are angry, and people who are hurt and angry often take ill-considered actions. I very much regret not personally phoning their provisional bishop, Wallis Ohl, at the time I signed the brief. I truly hate being blind-sided, and now I am guilty of doing it. I intend to apologize to him when I see him in Indianapolis.
My best guess is that this will all go away before it gets out of hand. For what it's worth, I tend to think it's exactly what it appears to be--some hurt and angry people in Forth Worth taking intemperate action. My heart truly goes out to them. But as I and others examine Title IV, even with its very broad categories of misconduct, it is virtually impossible to see how what we did is a canonical offense. I don't think there's a conspiracy here. I don't think the Presiding Bishop is involved. I honestly don't. I could be wrong, of course. Undoubtedly, this will come up in Indianapolis, at least in private conversations among the bishops. But there's plenty of other important stuff to do there for the sake of our church, and I am praying for the grace to not be distracted by this latest bump in the road. Of your charity, pray with me.