Sunday, February 17, 2008

Paul Ambos on the Standing Committee of San Joaquin

Today's guest blogger is Paul Ambos (Paul A.) who is an attorney residing in the Diocese of New Jersey and considered by many to have some expertise in canon law. Paul also happens to be a "real life" friend of mine.

Dan Martins provided Paul with a copy of the Diocese of San Joaquin's Constitution and Canons, which I have hosted on a little parking place that I keep on the net. To my knowledge, neither Dan nor anyone else has yet to offer commentary regarding the current situation in San Joaquin in relation to the contents of the Diocesan Constitution and Canons. Paul has now provided us with such a commentary, arguing that it is these documents (and not just the national canon cited by our Presiding Bishop) that shows the grounds for disqualification of the Standing Committee members. I invite you to study the documents referred to in this essay, and judge for yourselves.



Jake has written about the Standing Committee of the Diocese of San Joaquin (here and here and here and here) and several commenters have attempted to analyze the situation in light of the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. Some have noted that the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of San Joaquin should be looked at, but the diocesan website had never to my knowledge posted those for general reference.

(As a footnote, every diocese today should include their current Constitution and Canons on their website as a matter of transparency. Most do; at least two have done so as soon as the idea was presented to their web administrators. And make them findable, not just buried under a link for diocesan convention deputies.)

Through the courtesy of former DSJ Standing Committee member Fr. Dan Martins, Jake has been able to post the Diocese of San Joaquin's
Constitution and Canons for general reference. This version was the last posted internally in the diocese as of January 2008, although it appears that it may not include the latest amendments in other areas. But the sections affecting the Standing Committee appear to be those that were in effect when the diocese purported to separate itself from TEC in December 2007.

For those unfamiliar with why the status of a Standing Committee is a relevant question for DSJ, some background may be useful. Article IV of the
Constitution of The Episcopal Church mandates the election of Standing Committees in every diocese:

In every Diocese a Standing Committee shall be elected by the Convention thereof, except that provision for filling vacancies between meetings of the Convention may be prescribed by the Canons of the respective Dioceses. When there is a Bishop in charge of the Diocese, the Standing Committee shall be the Bishop's Council of Advice. If there be no Bishop or Bishop Coadjutor or Suffragan Bishop canonically authorized to act, the Standing Committee shall be the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese for all purposes declared by the General Convention. The rights and duties of the Standing Committee, except as provided in the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention, may be prescribed by the Canons of the respective Dioceses.
In addition to being primarily the "Bishop's Council of Advice," Standing Committees are given other tasks by the national canons, ranging from involvement in admission of candidates for holy orders to consenting to the election of bishops between General Conventions. The only qualification for office set nationally is that the members be elected by their diocesan convention.

The departure of DSJ Bp. John-David Schofield from TEC has thrown the DSJ Standing Committee into the limelight because under the national constitution, if the office of the Bishop is vacant and if the Standing Committee is continuing, it administratively steps into the shoes of the Bishop (other than for sacramental acts) by becoming the Ecclesiastical Authority of the diocese.

Article VII of the DSJ Constitution provides:

Sec. 1. The Standing Committee shall consist of four Presbyters and/or Deacons who shall be canonically resident and domiciled in the Diocese and four Lay members who shall be communicants in good standing in this Diocese.

Sec. 2. Members of the Standing Committee shall be elected at each Annual Convention. Their manner of election and their duties shall be those described by the Canons of the General Convention and of this Diocese.

Sec. 3. The Standing Committee itself shall have the authority to fill its own vacancies.
Canon VIII of the diocese provides in relevant part:

Sec. 8.02 The Standing Committee shall meet at the call of the Bishop as soon as practicable after the adjournment of the Annual Convention and shall organize by the election of a President and Secretary from among its members and thereafter shall meet at the call of the President or the Secretary.

Sec. 8.03 The powers, functions, and duties of the Standing Committee shall be those prescribed by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and of this Diocese.
It has been reported that at the DSJ December Convention, following the convention's vote to separate itself from TEC and affiliate itself with the Province of the Southern Cone, Bp. Schofield declared that all clergy of the diocese automatically became Southern Cone clergy and all congregations with the diocese became Southern Cone members. He announced some sort of opt-out procedure, but the situation is murky because there are no rules for this sort of thing, just as there are no rules allowing TEC dioceses to remove themselves from TEC.

If, however, the clergy members of the Standing Committee became Southern Cone clergy in December rather than Episcopal clergy, then from the standpoint of TEC they are no longer "Presbyters and/or Deacons . . .canonically resident and domiciled in the [Episcopal] Diocese" and thus are no longer qualified to serve in the office. The lay members, similarly, are not "communicants in good standing in this [Episcopal] Diocese" (Canon 20.04 defers to the national definition of "communicant" in Canon I.17.2-3). If all members of the Standing Committee are disqualified from acting, then there is no remaining member who is qualified to act to fill the vacancies, and so a new election by a new diocesan convention is required.

I believe that Fr. Martins and others have claimed that the DSJ Standing Committee met at least twice after the December Convention and acted as if they were an Episcopal Standing Committee rather than a Southern Cone Standing Committee. This is a difficult claim to evaluate because the Province of the Southern Cone does not provide for Standing Committees. A rough English
translation of their constitution and canons has been posted by the Diocese of Fort Worth. The PSC C&C do not require Standing Committees but only a Council (which DSJ already had) that should advise the bishop. But they also require that any new diocese elect a new bishop, which Bp. Schofield is not allowing. Any application in practice of these constitution and canons to DSJ is speculative.

Fr. Martins further claims that the practice of the DSJ SC was to meet regardless of the bishop, who might or might not appear as a visitor to their meetings. This may appear a bit disingenuous if the body constituted (per TEC C&C) to be a council of advice meets for purposes of ignoring the person they are supposed to be advising, but the ways of the Diocese of San Joaquin are indeed strange ways.

But assuming that the DSJ SC followed their canons, their initial meeting after convention, at least, would have been "at the call of" Bishop Schofield. Assuming that he had at that time abandoned The Episcopal Church for another church (an adjudication of which appears rather likely to be made at the next meeting of the TEC House of Bishops), then they were meeting to advise a bishop of the Southern Cone and were not at least in that instance acting as a TEC Standing Committee.

The situation is murkier yet because at a later meeting Bp. Schofield either received the resignation of or else removed six of the eight members of the Standing Committee because they had not sufficiently (in his mind) committed themselves to the Southern Cone, even though he had already declared them to be such.

Separately, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has written to the DSJ SC that based on their actions she does not recognize them as the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. The response of the six hedging members continued to hedge and failed to affirm that they were indeed members in good standing of The Episcopal Church and should be qualified to run the diocese once the deposition of Bp. Schofield is effective.

My own opinion is that once a new Episcopal diocesan convention is called for San Joaquin, the formerly elected members of the Standing Committee should present themselves for reelection, affirming that they will serve as Episcopalians rather than as Southern Conians, because this is the only way that they can be recognized as legitimate diocesan officers in the wake of their actions or inactions that led up to the events of the December 2007 convention. But in their hearts they know this.

Accusations that the Presiding Bishop has no canonical authority to "derecognize" diocesan officers are similar to the silence in the face of Bp. Schofield's noncanonical dismissal of elected Standing Committee members. But this all stems from the fact that the TEC Constitution and Canons do not permit dioceses to vote themselves out of the church; yet one has purported to do so and others are contemplating following. Some day all this will be behind us and Episcopalians in the territory of the Diocese of San Joaquin will again have a functioning diocesan administration with a bishop loyal to The Episcopal Church. In the meantime, while we may have to improvise some procedures in order to respond to actions that also improvised procedures, we should pay attention to the principles on which the existing rules governing the church are premised: Those who are to serve as officers of an Episcopal Diocese should be loyal Episcopalians.

Schismatics need not apply; they have their calling elsewhere.

Paul Ambos

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