April 13, 2005

Connecticut Yankees in Ecclesiastical Court — Or Not!

It seems to me we need greater precision on exactly what “communion” is before we can legitimately talk about people “abandoning” it. Canon IV.10 offers only the barest help: one abandons communion “by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church, or by a formal admission into any religious body not in communion with this Church,” and then adds unhelpfully “or in any other way...” which opens a Pandora’s box of litigious possibilities.

It seems at present that the criterion for determining abandonment of communion is a bit like Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it.” When the penalty for abandonment is as serious as deposition, should there not be a clearer definition, at least, somewhere enshrined in the law? The new Title IV, with its pages of definitions, doesn’t touch on either communion or abandon. Also undefined is renunciation. We know (or think we know) what it means when a priest “renounces the ministry” — but just what does it mean to renounce the Doctrine, Disciple or Worship of this Church? Is renunciation the same as denunciation? How harsh does a critique have to be before renunciation is involved? Or does the renunciation only become a formal renunciation when it declares itself explicitly as such — rather like papal infallibility?

At present the confusion is exacerbated by people tossing around terms like “broken” or “impaired” communion, and declaring themselves in one state or the other. Is the Anglican Church of Rwanda a “religious body not in communion with this Church”? Legally speaking? This also affects letters dimissory, doesn’t it? And what is “formal admission” — what about an Episcopal cleric who is also a member of the Ethical Culture Society — or the Society of Friends? (I think there was a bishop from the Antipodes who was also a registered Quaker, but my memory may be faulty on that.) Some years prior to my ordination I was a dues-paying member of the Roman Catholic National Assembly of Religious Brothers: would that constitute “formal admission” or “a religious body”?

In the meantime, I will continue to pray for all in the current dispute in Connecticut, and hope that perhaps some greater clarity in terms of the nature of the charge can be worked into Title IV. I am glad to see that the proposed revision puts this charge on an equal footing with all of the other things clergy are supposed to “refrain from” — meaning a uniform mechanism for response to the charge, and a capacity for trial and appeal. Short of clarity or due process (which is IMHO very much lacking in this present Canon), I would suggest the excision of this troublesome category altogether.


Anonymous said...

Seems to me that the current canon deputes this question to the Bishop and the Standing Committee. If they say, "hey, being in the NARB is formal admission to a religious body", then it is. You can always simply leave and then that would end the matter. What this could mean in extrema is that the bishop and standing committee have the right to order you not to join particular religious bodies simply on their say-so. But I'm not sure that's such a bad thing; being part of a religious body that the bishop thinks is inimical to one's office is a bad thing, isn't it?

I'm no fan of the current canon, as is perhaps well known. I think these cases should be handled by the ecclesiastical court. If we want a summary process for cases which are unchallenged, I'm all for it, of course. But this doesn't really change the question you're asking; it just puts the question on to the ecclesiastical court. Right now the court already has discretion to decide what constitutes "Immorality" or "Conduct Unbecoming" or whether a particular crime is malum in se or not.

But still, the basic procedure of the current canon is very clear, if open to abuse. (And if it's clear, then that ends the matter, as a legal question.) If the standing committee and the bishop say you've violated it, then you have; but you can always end that determination, by simply retracting whatever it is they say you did.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

My concern is that the wording of the canon absent a procedure that guarantees due process puts too much power into the hands of the Bishop and SC. As I note, this part of the problem is corrected in the proposed revision; but I would still welcome a definition of "communion" "abandonment" and "renunciation" in the glossary of terms the canon provides, since these form the basis for action. This is why we have (in the proposed revision of Title IV) carefully distinct definitions of "sexual abuse" "behavior" "exploitation" "harassment" and "misconduct." If sex is going to be parsed so fine, surely "communion" could at least be defined!

Anonymous said...

"If sex is going to be parsed so fine, surely "communion" could at least be defined!"

LOL! (Some ribald comparison suggests itself---fortunately for y'all's sake, it just doesn't come to *me* at present *g*)