The Café, from time to time, publishes editorials concerning stories published on our site. In this letter, John B. Chilton draws on the recent history of dioceses attempting to leave the church to frame questions that bishops-elect need to be asked prior to granting consents.
The Diocese of Dallas last week elected George Sumner to be their next bishop, effective with his consecration. As with all bishops-elect, consecration cannot take place without consent. Given recent history of some dioceses asserting the right to leave the Episcopal Church, it is imperative that those taking part in the consent process ask Sumner his views on the polity of the Episcopal Church. Specifically, what is his stand on whether dioceses have the unilateral power to leave the Episcopal Church? The reasons Sumner and the Diocese of Dallas are of particular concern are laid out below.
Regarding consent, the 2012 Constitution of the Episcopal Church states:
ARTICLE II Sec. 2. No one shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop until the attainment of thirty years of age; nor without the consent of a majority of the Standing Committees of all the Dioceses, and the consent of a majority of the Bishops of this Church exercising jurisdiction. No one shall be ordained and consecrated Bishop by fewer than three Bishops.
(For those wondering, the alternative of consent via General Convention no longer exists.)
Traditionally, Standing Committees and Bishops avoid substituting their judgment for the will of the diocese expressed in the election (but not without exception). Nevertheless, bishops cannot be consecrated without the consent of a majority of both the Standing Committees and Bishops. This feature of the Constitution and Canons is one of many expressions of the subsidiary nature of bishops and dioceses to the Episcopal Church as a whole.
In Fort Worth, South Carolina, and elsewhere, dioceses have asserted that they are autonomous, voluntary members of the Episcopal Church and have said they have left the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church and local continuing members of the dioceses dispute these claims. South Carolina is an example where the bishop-elect Mark Lawrence denied he would ever lead the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. See: (1) his answers to specific questions, and (2) news of his failure to gain sufficient consents. Lawrence gained sufficient consents on his second election. As bishop of South Carolina he lead the diocese out of the Episcopal Church. As in Fort Worth, the South Carolina case remains in the courts. The consent process worked the first time, but not the second.
Bishop-elect Sumner is principal of Wycliffe College, home to Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz of the Anglican Communion Institute, Inc. The ACI was party to a 2012 friend of the court brief in the Fort Worth case. The bishop-retired of Dallas serves on the ACI board of trustees. Other signatories included Communion Partner bishops, among them the current bishop suffragan of Dallas and the now retired Bishop of Dallas. The brief reads in part,
…As is well known, these bishops and ACI oppose the decision by the Diocese of Fort Worth to leave The Episcopal Church. They have no intention of withdrawing from the Church, but it is precisely because they intend to remain in the Church that they are concerned that the trial court ruling has misunderstood, and thereby damaged, the constitutional structure of The Episcopal Church….Acceptance of TEC’s claim that there are other bodies or offices with hierarchical supremacy over the diocesan bishop would require the Court to become embroiled in a searching historical analysis of difficult questions of church polity without any explicit language in the church’s governing instrument on which to base its conclusion. The First Amendment does not permit such a result.
In short, the brief is not friendly to the Episcopal Church. Whether or not it asserts a claim that dioceses can leave, the effect is the same as if it said they could. (And see the 2009 Bishops’ Statement on Polity below.) It avoids saying they cannot.
News of complaints filed against bishops signing the 2012 ACI friend of the court brief were made public on conservative blogs. The ENS story on this break in confidentiality is here:
In one instance, the complaint apparently concerns the fact that seven bishops endorsed an amicus curiae or “friend of the court” brief prepared by the Anglican Communion Institute, Inc. in the pending appeal of a court ruling involving the Diocese of Fort Worth and the bishop, clergy and laity who broke away from that diocese in November 2008.
Tarrant County District Court Judge John Chupp said that because he found that the Episcopal Church’s governance is hierarchical in nature “the court follows Texas precedent governing hierarchical church property disputes, which holds that in the event of a dispute among its members, a constituent part of a hierarchical church consists of those individuals remaining loyal to the hierarchical church body.”
Those named in the Fort Worth complaint are retired Diocese of Texas Bishop Maurice M. Benitez, retired Diocese of Central Florida Bishop John W. Howe, Diocese of Dallas Bishop Suffragan Paul E. Lambert, Diocese of Albany Bishop William H. Love, Diocese of Western Louisiana Bishop D. Bruce MacPherson, Diocese of Springfield Bishop Daniel H. Martins, and Diocese of Dallas Bishop James M. Stanton.
The Episcopal Church and bishops who signed the 2012 brief subsequently entered into a conciliation accord. One of the bishops, Dan Martins, who signed the brief and entered into the conciliation accord wrote in reaction to the public announcement of the accord, “We feel manipulated and victimized. We are nowhere near happy about this outcome, even though we stand by our decision to accept the Accord.”
He then went on to write that in the Conciliation Accord
- We reaffirmed our belief in the assertions of our amicus brief. We continue to believe that the polity of the Episcopal Church as characterized by the 2009 Bishops’ Statement on Polity is true and correct….
That 2009 Bishops’ Statement on Polity is written by ACI. It concludes,
The Episcopal Church consists of autonomous, but interdependent, dioceses not subject to any metropolitical power or hierarchical control. The Ecclesiastical Authorities in our dioceses are the Bishops and Standing Committees; no one else may act in or speak on behalf of the dioceses or of The Episcopal Church within the dioceses.
During his consent process then bishop-elect Martins did not answer the question of whether he believed dioceses could leave the Episcopal Church. Instead, he wrote:
Let me conclude by reiterating my intention to make my vows when I am consecrated a bishop without crossing my fingers, either physically or mentally. I will neither attempt to lead, nor cooperate with anyone else’s effort, in taking the Diocese of Springfield out of the Episcopal Church. In fact, I will oppose any such effort.
These are the questions that bishop-elect Sumner should be asked:
- Do you believe that as diocesan you would have the authority to remove the Diocese of Dallas from the Episcopal Church? The question is not whether you promise never to lead your diocese out of church.
- Do you believe that it would be a violation of the First Amendment for courts to inquire into whether the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical organization? In other words, do you concur with the 2012 friend of the court brief filed by the bishop suffragan of Dallas, the retired bishop diocesan of Dallas and other Communion Partner bishops in the Fort Worth case?
- Do you concur with Martins’ reaffirmation of the 2009 statement?
- Whether or not you oppose their action, do you agree with Bishop Iker and his followers in Fort Worth that they can leave the Episcopal Church and take the assets of the church with them?
Bishops and Standing Committees ought to ask bishop-elect Sumner these questions before they consider consent to his ordination and consecration. We have seen in South Carolina what happens when a bishop’s actions answer these questions only after consecration.
John B. Chilton is an economist and occasional contributor to Episcopal Café