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Can a consecration train be stopped?

Can a consecration train be stopped?

By now you know that Bishop Sutton informed the Presiding Bishop that he suspected Bishop-Elect Cook was drunk at the couples dinner that the Presiding Bishop and Sutton attended with their spouses and Cook’s steady companion. Perhaps many a bishop-elect has over-inbibed, but the PB (or her office) and Sutton were both aware of Cook’s DUI conviction although neither seems to have been aware of the publicly available details of that conviction, or its disturbing nature.

Are there examples where information came to light that derailed the consecration of a bishop-elect? The internet wayback machine turns up this article in the Episcopal News Service from 2003:

Process not perfect
What happens when background checks failEpiscopal News Service


Candidates in every diocese of the Episcopal Church must submit to physical and psychological examinations, plus background checks. Still, some background checks and exams do not reveal problems that would prevent a bishop-elect from serving effectively. Consider two examples from three years ago:

  • In March 2000, the Diocese of Atlanta’s Standing Committee canceled the consecration of the Rev. Robert G. Trache a week before it was to occur. The committee had learned of his impending separation from his wife and of his credit-card indebtedness. “The Standing Committee is no longer confident in Trache’s ability to function as bishop of Atlanta,” a press release said.
  • In January 2000, the Rev. James MacKenzie resigned as bishop-elect for the Diocese of Oregon. MacKenzie wrote to his parishioners and the diocese that he had “engaged in inappropriate e-mail exchanges with four women over the past two years.”

Most dioceses rely on Oxford Documents, a Minneapolis-based company founded by Sally Johnson, an Episcopalian and former chancellor for the Diocese of Minnesota, to perform a paper-based background check.*

Oxford Documents performs a credit check, searches criminal records and explores employment history. Bishop F. Clay Matthews of the Office of Pastoral Development said he considers the Oxford Documents survey extensive, but he also recommends that nominating committees do supplemental background checks.

Cary Patrick, communications officer for the Diocese of Atlanta, said some people felt the Standing Committee overstepped its authority in canceling Trache’s consecration. Nevertheless, he said, the Standing Committee, Bishop Frank Allen and interim Bishop Robert Tharp all explained the problem thoroughly.

“The big learning — and I think this is something the whole church learned — is that the people who scrutinize financial records need to do it differently,” Patrick said. Matthews agreed, saying that a credit check should include both total indebtedness and the nature of indebtedness.

One observer of many episcopal elections believes standing committees must avoid “falling in love” with the candidates they consider and ultimately nominate. There is no reason why search committees cannot uncover cases of adultery, predatory behavior or other scandals in a candidate’s background. It’s a matter of digging — not for dirt, but for character.

Jean Marani of the Diocese of Florida said her committee handled background checks vigorously. “We asked each candidate, ‘Is there anything in your life that would be an embarrassment to you or to this diocese?’ We didn’t pussyfoot around.”

 There’s at least one way a consecration could be stopped: refusal of three bishops to lay hands on the bishop-elect. Bishop Cook had a record-breaking 10 co-consecrators. How many knew of Sutton’s last-minute concerns? Alternatively, why didn’t Sutton inform his Standing Committee of his concerns and give them the chance to act as the Atlanta Standing Committee did? Finally, was Bishop Clay Matthews (as in 2003, he is head of the Office of Pastoral Development of bishops, including discipline) told in a timely fashion Sutton’s concerns? Even if the Presiding Bishop did not know of the Atlanta precedent, Matthews would have.

Book of Common Prayer, p. 514
Book of Common Prayer, p. 514

Posted by John B. Chilton

UPDATE: See Sally Johnson’s comment immediately below correcting the ENS story quoted.


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Sara Dorsey

i think the “insider effect”, is the cause; General Seminary is The seminary, where the principals,, attended, very Insider.

Jay Croft

Huh? Virginia Theological Seminary refers itself as THE seminary.

Disclaimer–I graduated from Union Theological Seminary, so I have no dog in this fight.

Richard Hicks

Canon law is written by & set-up to benefit those who are currently in power who will always be insiders. The person in question here is female, a legacy, and probably spouts the current politically correction insider message of inclusion while excluding as many as possible to enforce central command and control over the serfs (The pew sitters.) There is probably nothing she could have done to stop her fellow insiders from the making her one of the bosses. That’s the way the mob does it as in “He’s a made-man.” Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

Marc A Cooper

With a secular eye, this discussion is maddening.

Most people would not hesitate to terminate an employee for committing and admitting to a felony, especially one this visible and heinous. Throw in damage to corporate reputation (not hard to describe here) and an inability to show up to do the job, and it’s not ambiguous. Her behavior is anathema to the mission of her employer, and outrageously so. Many employment contracts and company operating agreements are clear on this, including every one I have ever signed.

That such provisions appear not to exist, given the claimed moral high ground, is a very significant organizational issue.

Please note that the above commentary is deliberately absent notions of faith. I share it to try to shed light on the appearance of this to the secular world. These ongoing machinations are deeply damaging to the reputation of the church, and that has far-reaching implications.

As for me personally, I remain deeply shaken by the notion that my church would continue to behave in such a manner.

Ann Fontaine

The canons exist to protect those who are accused unjustly. I agree it is maddening in this case but we do try to follow innocent until proven guilty. There are many cases in the church where allegations were made and proven unfounded. The canons exist to provide justice if possible.

Dave Paisley

The canons protect the old boys (and girls) club to the exclusion of all common sense. You can’t get rid of a bad priest or bishop with dynamite, yet they can just up an leave any time they feel like it because of “a call”.

Ann Fontaine

Rectors and Bishops. The rest of us are not so protected.

Jim Frodge

I understand the notion of protecting those falsely accused and I strongly support that notion. However I also strongly support the notion of being accountable to those that you serve.

I am a retired police officer and the police department that I served in had firm substance abuse policies. All officers up to and including the Chief of Police were subject to mandatory drug and alcohol testing. Any supervisor could at any time order an officer to submit to a drug and alcohol test. Any officer involved in a traffic crash or a shooting incident was immediately tested for drugs and alcohol.

Any officer arrested and convicted of DUI was suspended for thirty days without pay, required to enter an employee assistance Program for substance abuse and was subjected to enhanced drug and alcohol testing . Any officer arrested for a second DUI arrest was immediately suspended without pay and if convicted was immediately terminated and his or her license to function as a police officer in the state was suspended. In the event that the officer was exonerated the officer received back pay but all conditions imposed as a result of the first DUI remained in effect.

We deliberately put these policies in effect even though many might find them to be harsh and punitive. However it was important for us to demonstrate to the people that we served how serious we were about the proper conduct of our officers.

Do you suppose if the church had applied similar policies in Heather Cook’s case things might have turned out differently?

Jay Croft

I suppose the diocese could retain her on payroll, put her on extended leave of absence, and cut her salary to one dollar a year.

John Rabb

As the bishop suffragan (retired) of Maryland I will not comment on the specifics of the case against Heather Cook. There are some matters of the Constitution and the Canons as well as the Church Pension Fund that can be clarified. First all bishops for whatever reason (even retirement) must resign to the House of Bishops, through the office of the Presiding Bishop. This is resignation of position, not of the order. The Standing Committee of any diocese has the full right to request such, but it is the House of Bishops which must accept it. This is in the Constitution. Any resignation that is not for reasons of “advanced age,” or “mission strategy (elected in another diocese, taking a position which would be appropriate for a bishop) will affect his/her status in the House of Bishops (at minimum loss of vote). Any member of the clergy who is under investigation under the conditions of any canons of Title IV cannot resign his/her orders as provided in Title III (which is for reasons that do not reflect moral character). The reason one cannot resign is that they must remain under the judgment of the process of the Disciplinary Board until it is complete. There is not a consistent “policy” as to continuing salary and benefits to clergy who are under any inhibition as provided in Title IV. This is left to each diocese. If a bishop, priest or deacon is deposed under the conditions set forth in the canons of Title IV she/he is not “deprived” of his/her pension. They will receive as calculated by the CPF a portion. I have chosen this word because they may not be fully vested nor have accumulated the necessary years of service. I share these because there are, appropriately, many questions about the constitutional, canonical and pension processes.

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