Saturday, June 14, 2008

Thoroughly Modern Ecclesiastical Discipline

The Executive Council of the Episcopal Church received a briefing Saturday from the Title IV Task Force. (Title IV is that section of the canons having to do with clergy discipline). The team has prepared a profound revision of Title IV--and, for good measure, throwing in some additional material to Title I ("Of Regulations Respecting the Laity"). What they will most likely submit to Bishops and Deputies in Anaheim next summer may be viewed here and here.

There is much in the proposed Title IV (and Title I) revisions that is commendable--particularly the expressed intent that outcomes of disciplinary processes not be automatically punitive, but that those in authority have enough tools at their disposal to respond with some degree of discretion--even creativity--in a way that bears witness to our theological commitment to grace, repentance, amendment of life, forgiveness, and restoration. This is good, and I hope we can adopt something that moves us in that direction.

Unfortunately, there are several poison pills is the draft, any one of which is worth scuttling the whole thing over; they are that toxic. A relatively cursory read yields these:

From I.17.8: "...or with cause for material disregard of the preceding sentence, or for a stated intention to disregard it [the 'perform well and faithfully' requirement] in the future ..."

Shades of the movie Minority Report. This is chilling in is potential scope and subject to a wide range of abuse by those who hold power and are interested in consolidating their hold. There are any number of things that can be twisted to be construed as a "stated intention" to do something in the future.

From IV.2: "Conduct Unbecoming a Member of the Clergy shall mean any disorder or neglect that prejudices the reputation, good order and discipline of the Church, or any conduct of a nature to bring material discredit upon the Church or the Holy Orders conferred by the Church."

It is difficult to imagine a more sweeping damper on the free exchange of ideas and debate in the Church. Only an institution in doubt of its own integrity and living in fear for its own collapse from within would find it necessary to enact such a canon. And if the canon were to be adopted as proposed, would I even be free to voice such an opinion?

From the same canon: "Sexual Misconduct shall mean (a) Sexual Abuse, or (b) Sexual Behavior at the request of, acquiesced to, or by a Member of the Clergy and a person, other than his or her spouse or same-sex partner, with whom the Member of the Clergy has a Pastoral Relationship..."

Where to begin? Is Christian morality now being defined by whether or not the Church can be sued? Under this canon, I could be held accountable for having any version of a sexual relationship with a parishioner or staff member--as well I should be--but if I were to have an affair with my next-door neighbor who is not a parishioner, there's nothing to prosecute? How ludicrous. If the canon had stopped with "his or her spouse," it would have my enthusiastic support. The part about "pastoral relationship" spoils it. Of course, the addition of "or same-sex partner" is also a deal-breaker. To enact that language would raise C051 to canonical status, and would be a back-door mechanism for settling an issue that remains under debate.

From IV.4.1: "(i) Refrain from exerting undue influence on or taking unfair advantage of any person..."

What exactly is 'undue' influence? Talk about a broad brush! And is there such a thing as taking 'fair' advantage? What's the purpose of employing the language of adversarial proceedings? I thought we were trying to get away from such things. Once again, this is a blank check for anybody on a power trip.

What if the Intake Officer is also the Respondent? (Maybe there's a provision for that eventuality and I missed it.)

From III.6.3: "Any person other than the Intake Officer who receives information regarding an Offense shall promptly forward the information to the Intake Officer."

Does this mean that any Episcopalian who finds an open invitation to Communion for unbaptized persons, or notices an emendation in a service bulletin that claims to be a BCP service changing "It is right to give him thanks and praise" to "It is right to give God thanks and praise" has a canonical duty to report the same to the Intake Officer? To quote Thomas Hardy, "So fair a fancy few would weave in these days."

From III.13.6(5): "The president [of a Hearing Panel] ... may not exclude evidence solely because it is hearsay..."


And then there's everybody's favorite--the Abandonment Canon (III.16). In addition to the specific definitions of abandonment that we're all so familiar with from the present canon, we get the additional "or {iv) in any other way." It looks like a bishop who is late to a visitation because of speeding ticket is liable to deposition for abandonment. (To say nothing of being tried for Conduct Unbecoming by jeopardizing the reputation of TEC for getting a ticket.

These are just a few tidbits. I'm sure there are more.


Anonymous said...

Quite apart from the serious points noted above, what seems to be missing is a sense of proportion and a sense of humor. Reading portions of the proposed amendments aloud in the company of a few people who know how to laugh quickly demonstrates just how legally "geeky" so much of this is.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Dan. I'm looking forward to a workshop on the Title IV material at the NNECA Annual Conference next week. I think your concerns (and Tony's, above) are right on track.

Bruce Robison

Anonymous said...

We sat through a presentation of the proposed Title IV revisions at the Province IV synod earlier this month, and I had a similar reaction to the vagueness of some of the language. Also, the process as described to us seemed absurdly complicated -- the presenter should've provided us with a flowchart.

I wish I had seen your analysis first, you raise some additional concerns that had escaped my notice.

One bishop, bless him, stood up at the mike and said grumpily,(paraphrasing) "This is the most rediculous thing I have ever seen."

us300 said...

Very interesting. What is really going on?

Unknown said...

Just 1984,...and change.

Ben said...

Absolute power. . . TEC will continue to crush any and all oposition regardless of the cost. Bishop Katherine has already crossed over into Spielbergdom in her promise to begin deposition proceedings against Bishop Duncan in September because of his stated intent to remove his diocese from TEC at their convention in November.
While on the subject of legalgeek, Has anyone noted the inherent conflict of interest in Bishop Sauls' memorandum on the depositions of Schofield and Cox?

Stu Howe said...

Yes, but are we surprised.....

Craig Goodrich said...

When you've been criticized for abuse of the Canons, what you do of course is create Canons that can't possibly be abused because they allow you to do anything you want. It's all so basically simple, really...

Canon Neal said...

Seems to me, the problem with the Title IV canons as currently written is not that they allow too much abuse that goes unprosecuted. Enforcement of the canons, even under the best of circumstances, is expensive, time-consuming, and debilitating to all persons involved, both diocesan structures and local congregation alike.

An organization in decline tends to look inwardly rather than outwardly. The organization, rather than focusing our attention on ways to grow our church, is spending its time and energy on these "administrative" solutions to spiritual problems.

Neal Michell