What’s really wrong with B033Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention surely has its faults. I have before addressed the fact that it can at most be taken as a strongly worded recommendation, since to do otherwise would be unconstitutional, and violate the principle of collegiality upheld in the Windsor Report, “What touches all must be approved by all.” Consent by bishops and standing committees is within their right, and no legislation short of a Canon to that effect can coerce them to act otherwise than they are free to do.
However, there are two moral problems and one canonical fault with B033, even as it stands, on which it falls short. First of all, it clearly had to be written in such a way as to avoid the suggestion that there was anything wrong with the election and consecration of Bishop Robinson. This church has made its position abundantly clear that though we may regret the consequences of that action, the action itself was proper. And so this resolution takes up a consequentialist ethic — a position of moral weaknesses. For to refrain from an act one believes to be good out of fear of negative consequences — especially consequences as relatively mild as presenting “a challenge” to the wider church — brings us into the ethically muddy world of utilitarianism — the principle of Caiaphas that weighs morality in pounds of flesh.
The second moral flaw is similar to the first: it is an extrinsic ethic — it is not about the goodness or evil of the act of consent, but what others might think about it. This surely falls well below the standards of Christian morality.
However, the more serious problem with B033 lies elsewhere, in its canonical form.
Our canons expect dioceses to elect persons of godly character, sufficient learning, and sound faith as bishops. Participants in the electing diocese’s convention sign a testimonial to that effect, which in addition assures the church at large that the election took place in due and lawful form.
However, the standing committees of consenting dioceses are expected to have neither direct knowledge of the election procedures, nor of the bishop-elect’s manner of life and learning. Rather, all that the canons expect them, as laid out in the testimonial they sign, is an attestation that they “know of no impediment” to the ordination. This is, essentially, an agnostic statement; it does not designate approval as such, merely lack of knowledge of an impediment.
Now, impediment is a quite precise canonical word; and it means something which renders an act impossible — so impossible that if one were to proceed with the act it would be null and void. This is why marriages contracted in spite of impediments (such as insufficient age, existant spouses, or defective intent) can be and are annulled — no marriage took place because the conditions necessary for it were not present.
A very few people have claimed that a noncelibate gay or lesbian bishop can’t really be a bishop because they cannot be “received by the whole church.” These few believe that the sexual practice of a person is an impediment in the strict sense. This is, however, Donatism in almost crystalline form — not a heresy exactly, but an error that leads to schism. For if a failure in the moral character of a minister rendered the ministry null, who could amongst us sinners, after all, be a minister? Donatism was rejected by the church because it was destructive of an orderly exercise of ministry among and by people all of whom are sinners. No, a moral failing is not an impediment.
Nor were consenting dioceses asked to make such a moral judgment — until B033. And that is where the problem lies: it places this discernment of the character of the ordinand not in the hands of the electors (as the canons expect) but in the hands of the consenters, forcing them to discern qualities that might challenge the wider church, rather than remaining focused on their own personal lack of knowledge of any impediments to the ordination.
Which brings me to the recent election in South Carolina.
Intentional neglect?An impediment, say, in marriage, could be any of a number of things: lack of canonical age, existence of another spouse, and so on, as I noted above. I also mentioned another impediment, “defective intent.” If a person preparing for marriage were to say to the priest doing the pre-marriage counseling, “I of course remain free to terminate this marriage if my spouse gives me cause; and intend to do so,” or “I reserve the right to have relationships with others if I am really strongly attracted to them,” the priest would quite rightly say, “Then you do not have the proper intent for marriage.”
A priest who is about to become bishop takes an Oath, in the same manner as at priestly ordination but in a different context, stating, “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, disciple, and worship of The Episcopal Church.”
South Carolina, in preparation for its election, developed a survey instrument on an assortment of topics for the candidates to submit as part of their review. Here is how bishop-elect Lawrence answered some of the questions.
19. The church should not divide over this [homosexual conduct] issue. Strongly disagree.Bishop-elect Lawrence’s responses are troubling. He appears to say (I will stand corrected if the double negative of question 19 confused him) that the church should divide over the issue of the rightness or wrongness of homosexual conduct. This in itself would appear to be countenancing schism, the technical name for division in the church. The bishop-elect is “unsure” as to whether he would remain in orders if his diocese does not separate from the Episcopal Church — and such insecurity is incompatible with an Oath. Finally, he intends not to remain with the Episcopal Church if South Carolina separates from it. That is, at least, how his answers appear. He surely deserves an opportunity to correct any misapprehensions, or wrong conclusions one might draw from a survey such as the one to which he responded.
20. If the Diocese of South Carolina does not become separate in some formal way from ECUSA, I intend to resign my orders as an Episcopal priest. Unsure.
21. If the Diocese of South Carolina separates in some formal way from ECUSA, I intend to transfer from this diocese to an ECUSA diocese. Strongly disagree.
Whether these survey responses by bishop-elect Lawrence constitute an impediment — and if he stands by them — thus remains to be seen — and needs to be seen — and will have to be judged by those preparing to give — or withhold — consent. Surely his statements are troubling on the surface. But I served on a committee with him at this last General Convention, and he seemed to me to be a man of high principle and conscience. I would pray that he would carefully examine his conscience and his principles in this present instant, and if there is any defect in his intent, mend it, or otherwise not place himself in the perilous position of taking an Oath he may not be prepared to maintain.
— Tobias S Haller BSG