September 19, 2006

Consenting Adults

What’s really wrong with B033

Resolution 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.
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.
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.

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


Anonymous said...

Very, very clever strategy: using VGR as a precedent, remove any distinction in sin. Note that all men are sinners so who could be validly consecrated? Failure to conform oneself to God?moral failure?cannot be grounds for not consecrating.

However, the standing committee has a legal means of withholding consent by declaring that the bishop-elect has indicated he will not legally conform to TEC.

I must really doff my hat deeply: I would never have thought of that; what a strategy! When the question is put to him, he cannot but help tip his hand.

Good work sifting through his responses. What hypocrisy!

Tobias said...

Dear Anonymous,
I didn't intend to "remove any distinction in sin" -- and I'm not even sure what that means. What I am intending to show is that it is the electing diocese that bears the canonical responsibility for attesting to the overall moral character of the person they elect as bishop. They do not have to attest that person to be free from sin, or "only big sins" or any such distinction.
And again not sure of your intent, but yes it would be hypocrisy to take an oath with fingers crossed behind ones back. As for sifting, I relied on the good Fr Jake who first called this survey to my attention, though I think he went off track by suggesting Lawrence should be denied for his views on sexuality -- a position with which I disagree; I believe there is plenty of room for traditionalists in this church; and if they are willing to abide by the Constitution and Canons, they are even welcome to serve as bishops.

Anonymous said...

Dear Tobias,

I serve on a Standing Committee and the form I received as President of the Standing Committee asked for the "consent" to the election of The Rev'd .... to the Diocese of .....
Consent to me was the same as saying we "approve"
There was nothing stating that we know of no impediment or that is not what we were asked by Diocese.... Where do you get that from? I enjoy reading your Blog, it is very informative. God Bless

obadiahslope said...

I don't know if you think consent should be refused for the bishop elect. I don't even know if you have a vote.
But supposing consent is refused. What then? can the office stay unfilled? Does South Carolina elect a series of candidates who are refused? Does it set the stage for further conflict at the primates meeting?

Tobias said...

Dear Anonymous Standing Committee Member:
Thanks for the comment. According to Canon III.16.4.a the electing diocese is supposed to send an assortment of papers that certify the election, show evidence of the electee's physical and mental health, and a testimonial stating that the electee is "of such sufficiency in learning, of such coundness in the Faith, and of such godly character" to be a bishop -- and that they know of no impediment to the ordination.

The consenting dioceses (you, in this case) are to sign a statement as laid out in III.16.4.b, "We, being a majoirty of all the members of the Standing Committee of ___________, and having been duly convened at ______________, fully sensible how important it is that the Sacred Order and Office of a Bishop should not be unworthily conferred, and firmly persuaded that it is our duty to bear testimony on this solemn occasion without partiality, do, in the presence of Almighty God, testify that we know of no impediment on account of which the Reverend A.B. ought not to be ordained to that Holy Order. In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands this _____ day of _________in the year of our Lord _________. (Signed)_______________ [emphasis mine].

It is this document that forms the "evidence of consent." If a diocese chooses to withhold consent, it is to send "written notice of its refusal to give consent" to the electing diocese's standing committee. (III.16.4.a)

It is the difference in the language between the two testimonials to which I am pointing as an indication of the different expectations.

God bless you in your deliberation.

Tobias said...

Dear Obadiahslope,

I am not serving on a standing committee, and in this case (the election not having taken place in the time leading up to a session of the General Convention, when the Deputies fulfill the function of the standing committees in this regard) I don't have a vote.

As I said at the close of the essay, Fr Lawrence deserves a chance to clarify his position and his thinking on this subject. But the principle I work on is that the Oath of Conformity, most especially the part about the discipline of The Episcopal Church, entails at least a willingness to recognize the Presiding Bishop as such -- even if one disagrees strongly with his or her policies or personal views.

No one, after all, needs to be a bishop or a priest or deacon. And no one needs to offend their conscience -- I have high respect for those who dissent in conscientious objection to the policies of organizations or entities of which they are a part. If the objection remains within the bounds of dissent and working for change -- all is well. But when one begins to cross over into open disobedience I think we begin to have a problem: not with civil disobedience as such, but with appointing one who is so disobedient to a position of leadership in an organization whose legitimate decisions the person refueses to carry out.

As I noted, I met Fr Lawrence at the last General Convention. He served on the committee that reviewed the consent to the election of bishops -- and now finds himself the object of the same kind of scrutiny. The committee was tough in its scrutiny of all the candidates, and asked of them if they were willing to uphold the Oath of Conformity with no equivocation or mental reservation. Fr Lawrence is now being asked the same question.

Now, as to the possible consequences: I simply cannot say what might happen if consent is refused. Given the sense of entitlement evident among some of the reasserter leadership -- evinced in the request for APO and other calls for a separation from The Episcopal Church -- I would not rule some revolutionary act out of question. I would sincerely hope that this would not happen; indeed that all of the dissenters would step back from the brink and renew their commimtment to working in "decent and good order" according to the discipline of this church. I am still open to exploring a way to find peace in the midst of all of this, "but when I speak of it, they are for war." Archbishop Akinola has called for them to secede and join him, to "escape the burning house" and not worry about the furniture. I think that is not their preference at this point, as they really do want to be "The Episcopal Church" in some sense -- even to the point of asserting that they "are."

Great clarity is called for, and that is what I am trying to lay out in my comments. I hope that some sense of good order may yet be preserved or recovered.

In Christ,

J.J. said...

Dear Tobias,

I don't feel this way, but just for the sake of argument and clarification, if you are a conservative, why would a potential Bishop's having a partner of the same sex not be a valid impediment for ordination? In our context, a polygamous marriage would be an impediment, right? I understand that judging the person's character is up to the electing diocese. But I guess my question is, what are valid impediments to ordination? I think I am clear from what you said about what are impediments to marriage.

Fr. Lawrence's schismatic intentions are clearly an impediment. If what he has stated correctly reflects his views, it would be wrong to give consent to his consecration and allow him to take vows he has no intention of keeping.

Marshall said...

obadiah, I would imagine that if consents were withheld, and South Carolina were not bent on some revolutionary act, there would be a new election. They might start from scratch, as Tennessee did after failing to reach an election after three meetings of convention.

I have written on my own blog about what we might mean when we speak of electing bishops for "the whole Church" ( Any reference to "the whole Church" is proleptic and eschatological, and not meaningful in any institutional sense. The only "whole Church" for which we do - for which we can - elect is for the whole Episcopal Church. Any expressed intent of a bishop-elect to lead a diocese out of the Church (and I am not making such an allegation of Fr. Lawrence) would seem to be "defective intent" for the sacramental rite of ordination; and if not addressed by consents withheld might be addressed as such by refusal of bishops to participate as consecrators.

Tobias, I appreciate your tone, and your presumption that Fr. Lawrence is a person of faith and integrity.

Chris Jones said...

Fr Haller,

The difficulty with Robinson was not specifically his "moral character" (of which his sexuality is only a small component, even on the most "traditionalist" reading), but his public teaching. He teaches (both explicitly and by the example of his manner of living) that sexual activity outside of the sacrament of marriage is permissible and to be blessed. This is contrary to the orthodox Christian faith. And he has publicly stated that neither Scripture nor Tradition -- separately or together -- are authoritative. Thus Robinson is a false teacher.

That, not his moral character, is the canonical impediment to his ordination. Thus the charge of Donatism is misplaced.

Tobias said...

Daer J.J.,
I'm writing from a conference in Aliquippa Pennsylvania and don't have access to suitable references, but I can say in general that "impediments" to ordination would be such things as -- if discovered after the ordination took place -- would render it void. Thus, being a false teacher, as alleged by another commenter, is not an impediment strictly speaking -- though it might well be a valid reason not to ordain someone. I think the distinction is being lost.

So an impediment would be not having actually been ordained to the priesthood; or being of insufficient age. In the Roman church one has to be male, and single. Defective intent is also traditionally recognized as an impediment to valid ecclesial acts.

Hope this helps make the distinction clearer.

J.J. said...

Dear Tobias,

Yes, that is helpful. It sounds like impediments have to do with prohibited ontological things, like being too young, and reasons not to elect someone, which are for the electing diocese to decide rather than the aproving dioceses, have to do with behavior or "manner of life." I guess that though Bishop Robinson's being gay has more to do with who he is than what he does, this could not be (and never has been I would think since it is kind of a new situation) a valid impediment for ordination. Thanks for the help with this.

Chris Jones said...

Dear Fr Haller,

I think you are being more subtle than the situation warrants. By your definition, heresy may not be an "impediment" to ordination, since its later discovery does not render the ordination void. It does, however, constitute grounds for deposition.

Just to be clear: is it your position that if a person publicly and consistently teaches contrary to the orthodox Christian faith, no diocese should withhold consent on that basis? (Leaving to one side for the moment whether Bp Robinson is such a person.)

It seems to me that all dioceses are mutually accountable to one another for their faithfulness to the orthodox Christian faith; and that the requirement for consent to episcopal elections is precisely a way in which that mutual accountability is exercised. If a diocese may not consider whether a candidate is substantially orthodox, then I fail to see the utility of the consent requirement.

J.C. Fisher said...

example of his manner of living[:] that sexual activity outside of the sacrament of marriage is permissible

Citation, please?

When has +Gene Robinson EVER made any reference to his "sexual activity"?

He and Mark Andrew, both self-ID'd as homosexual, share a home (which they have had blessed).

That's it.

For someone to say anything of them beyond that, is ill-mannered inference.


Tobias, I appreciate your tutorial, on the difference between "reason for" and "impediment to"!

[God bless Bishop-elect Lawrence, and all Standing Committees, as they discern together the Godly thing to do...]

Tobias said...

Dear Chris Jones,

"Heresy" is also a word with a precise definition, and a wider popular sense. We get into trouble when we speak generically, about such things, as you do, as teaching "contrary to the orthodox Christian faith." This is one of the reasons the Episcopal Church is careful in its ordinal to speak of the doctrine "of the Episcopal Church" or "as this Church has received it." For there any number of points on which the "doctrine, disicpline and worship of the Episcopal Church" is at variance with, for example, the Roman Catholic Church. We Episcopalians would like to think that our essential doctrines of the faith are congruent with the "faith once delivered" but it certainly must be confessed that Rome thinks otherwise than we do on no small number of ecclesiastical and doctrinal points. As even Cardinal Newman noted (prior to his conversion) there are very, very few doctrines that have be believed by everyone, everywhere, at all times.

At the same time, I agree there are certain minimal points that our Church has established; and if someone were to teach (publicly and privately, and advisedly -- circumstances necessary for "heresy" to come into the picture, as opposed to mere "error") for example, that Jesus Christ was not a human being, I would certainly think that a reason for that person not to be a bishop. It is a creedal, biblical doctrine, clearly affirmed by the church. And I would hope that such a person would not be elected, so that the question of consent would never arise. If and when it did, I would think it in every persons conscience to vote as he or she thought best: but the proper place to make such determinations is in the electing, not the consenting diocese.

However, when we get to the real world, and realizing you have set Bishop Robinson apart from the discussion, the problem we face now is not over matters as clear as christological heresy. I have in another post noted that the assemblage of citations which the APO bishops have gathered against Bishop Jefferts Schori nowhere rises to the level of heresy. The Episcopal Church's legal structure has also determined that the issue of the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships does not rise to the level of doctrine, and the General Convention has ruled such relationships to be within our discipline, even if not yet officially authorized. One may disagree with those decisions, but those are the decisions "of this Church."

I will also note that there was a time when the consent document included some additional matters that would have addressed your concern: "we... testify that the Rev A.B. is not, so far as we are informed, justly liable to evil report, either for error in religion or for viciousness of life; and that we know of no impediment &c." But this language, even though it goes back in essentially this form to the first Constitution of 1789, is no longer in the canon.

Anonymous said...

Dear Fr. Haller,

I think your example of a person ordained too young, or in the Roman Catholic case, as married, rendering the sacrament invalid or void is mistaken. It might be irregular or illegal, but not invalid. If ordained priest at 23 instead of 24, I think a person would still be a priest, even if ordained contra canons. Look at the so-called Philadelphia eleven, for example.



rowan said...

Thank you for the careful and thoughtful work you do on this blog.
Linda McMillan
Austin, Texas

Tobias said...

Dear Ethan,

Thanks for the comment, but I believe you are mistaken in extending your examples as far as the "Philadelphia 11," whose ordinations were later declared by the House of Bishops not to be "valid but irregular" as sometimes asserted, but "invalid" in that the conditions necessary for ordination were not present in the form of proper consents. (The point being that ordination is not the private act of a bishop and an ordinand, but the bishop acts on behalf of the church as the final step of a much longer process.)

As to the Roman Catholic question, the precise wording (canon 1040) is that "persons affected by a perpetual impediment, which is called an irregularity, or a simple impediment are prevented from receiving orders..." The canon then goes on to include as irregularities such things as insanity, being a murderer or abortionist or an attempted suicide; the simple impediments (which prevent the reception of orders) include marriage (except for deacons).

Certain dispensations from impediments are provided for in canon 1047. Although the canons don't use the word "invalid" in this regard, such ordinations are "prevented" and clearly "illicit" according to canon 1025. Canon 1024 limits "valid" ordination to baptized males. I am not sure, given the question you rasie, if when one is "prevented from receiving" an order, yet goes through the rite the order will or will not not have been received. I was clearly mistaken on the question of age; minimum age requirements are listed at canon 1031, and though "the presbyterate is not to be conferred" on those too young, no mention of licitness or validity is mentioned.

Thanks for the clarification. As I say, I was writing in a place where I didn't have access to the RCC canons (clearly now in hand!). I was correct about the validity limitation to male persons, and erred on the age and marriage (I was misremembering canon 187, which states that a person in holy orders invalidly attempts marriage.)

Ann D said...

If I understand you correctly, the situation is somewhat akin to Ford motor company extending employment in upper level management to a person who has publically stated he will not support the goals of Ford because he believes that they produce a defective product.

Lawrance, if his answers to the survey are what they appear to be and his articles are stating what they appear to be stating, has declared that he does not find that he can live into the Constitution and Canons of the TEC. This is analagous to thinking that Ford produces a defective product. Bishops are not only entrusted with the pastoral care of priest and parishes, they are also entrusted with the care and direction of the church in cooperation with deputies.

If we elect Bishops who do not think that the church is worth working for then we are shooting ourselves in the foot. It appears that Lawrance does not think that the church is working for when he makes statement such as the ECUSA is taking its last gasp of air before dying(loosly paraphrased.