Convention offers way to help bishops, dioceses reconcile

Canonical process prescribes method for ending episcopal relationship

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 21, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The bishops and deputies who gathered in Indianapolis in July for the 77th meeting of General Convention made a historic statement about the relationship between bishops and dioceses, acknowledging that, on rare occasions, that relationship becomes severely strained, sometimes to the point of breaking.

The statement, made by way of Resolution B021, set up a canonical process for reconciling or dissolving an episcopal relationship.

Resolution B021 was the result of a call (via Resolution B014) from the 2009 meeting of General Convention to how to help dioceses and bishops resolve their differences.

“The Episcopal Church is relatively unique in that there is no pastoral or canonical mechanism for intervention by the church at large to bring reconciliation or dissolution to bear within conflicted dioceses,” Resolution B014 noted in its explanation. The toll of that lack is “enormous,” the explanation said, and comes in the form of “bishops and their families leaving stigmatized and without the gratitude and caring of the dioceses they have served, members of Standing Committees exhausted and ill-used, dioceses being left demoralized and split by factions, and the name of the church often compromised for lack of a more humane process.”

“Several dioceses have experienced sustained enmity between bishops and primary ecclesiastical bodies which has sometimes lasted for years, and sometimes decades,” the explanation also noted.

The process agreed to by this meeting of convention in B021 is akin to the mechanism for a parish that finds itself in serious conflict with its rector (Title III.9.12-13). It will be added to the “Of the Life and Work of a Bishop” canon of Title III, the church’s policies regarding ordained ministry. The addition becomes effective Sept. 1.

It is intended for use, according to what will become Section 9 of that canon, when the relationship between a diocese and its bishop, bishop coadjutor or suffragan is “imperiled by disagreement or dissension” to the point where the bishop, two-thirds of the Standing Committee or a two-thirds majority vote of the Diocesan Convention deem the issues to be serious enough to invoke the process.

“My guess is that the exercise of this canon will be rare, but in cases where it might be necessary, it could help spare undue damage to a diocese and the episcopal relationship,” Diocese of Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth, who proposed B021, told ENS in a recent interview. “Most likely, having the canon will incent a speedier resolution before having to invoke it.”

If a diocese and bishop do decide to invoke the canon, such a decision allows any party to ask the presiding bishop to intervene and assist in resolving the disagreement or dissension. The presiding bishop then begins a process – including the possible use of a consultant or licensed mediator – meant to lead to reconciliation. If the parties agree to reconcile, they must define the “responsibility and accountability for the bishop and the diocese,” according to the new Section 9.

In addition, the bishop, or two-thirds of the Standing Committee or a two-thirds majority vote of the Diocesan Convention can begin a process to dissolve the episcopal relationship. The reasons for the dissolution must be given in writing to the presiding bishop, along with a report of any mediator or consultant who might have been engaged. That notice sets in motion a series of steps that would last a matter of months. The presiding bishop may require further attempts at mediation and reconciliation.

If there is still no resolution, a committee of one bishop (appointed by the presiding bishop) and one priest and one lay person (appointed by the president of the House of Deputies) from outside the diocese is to be convened to recommend a resolution of the matter. The committee could recommend that the episcopal relationship continue or that it should be dissolved.

The recommendation would have to be approved by two-thirds of the members of the House of Bishops present and eligible to vote at the house’s next regularly scheduled or special meeting. If that majority does not agree, the committee would have to recommend another resolution to the same meeting, which would then be voted on at that meeting.

“In terms of church time, this thing moves at lightning speed,” the Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin, a Pennsylvania deputy and chair of the diocese’s Standing Committee, recently told ENS.

Laughlin, who is the rector St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, said he followed the formulation of the eventually approved process “and was invited to participate in some of the conversations as edits were being made along the way.”

The process laid out in the version of B021the convention approved is not the one with which the resolution began and it is also different from the one proposed in A065 by the Standing Commission on Ministry Development, also in response to B014.

Hollingsworth said he and Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk drafted the original version of B021 after a task force from Ministry Development presented its proposed process for reconciling or dissolving an episcopal relationship to the spring 2012 meeting of the House of Bishops. The proposal echoed the existing one for a parish and its rector.

“I think everyone thought it was excellent work,” Hollingsworth said of the task force’s process, but “the concern was that it was a complex process and the worry was that it might take a long time, and be expensive.”

Hollingsworth said he and Sisk came up with a more streamlined process and presented a rough draft to their colleagues during the same meeting. They got the OK to continue their work and so the two refined their proposal. They, along with Diocese of Massachusetts Bishop Thomas Shaw, submitted it to the General Convention.

Once in Indianapolis, Hollingsworth said, the legislative Committee on Ministry asked a group of bishops and “some other interested people” to try to formulate one resolution to stand in for A065 and B021. That group “basically came up with a resolution that we as a group felt accomplished the hopes of everybody involved, it included clergy and lay people [in the process], and it was as expedient and efficient as we could make it,” he said.

The measure went to the House of Bishops on July 10 where the members changed the majority votes needed throughout the process to a two-thirds margin.

“The concern expressed by some bishops was that an issue of this gravity should require a super majority,” Hollingsworth told ENS. “I felt a simple majority was sufficient, but obviously the majority of the house felt that these decisions needed a super majority.”

The House of Deputies concurred with the amended version of B021 on the last day of convention. The action came at a point in that day’s debate when deputies had agreed to limit their comment on resolutions. However, after the house’s vote, Laughlin from the Diocese of Pennsylvania asked for a moment of personal privilege to thank his colleagues for their prayers and “support for us to work through the divisive issues that we have been facing with our bishop.”

The Pennsylvania Standing Committee has been at odds with Bishop Charles Bennison since the mid-2000s over concerns about how he managed the diocese’s assets and other issues.

More than once the Standing Committee has called for Bennison’s resignation, including on the day he returned to work in August 2010 after the church’s Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop overturned a lower church court’s finding that he ought to be removed from ordained ministry because he had engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. The review court agreed with one of the lower court’s two findings of misconduct, but said that Bennison could not be deposed because the charge was barred by the church’s statute of limitations.

In September 2010, the Standing Committee asked the House of Bishops for its “support and assistance” in securing Bennison’s retirement or resignation. The bishops later that month called for Bennison’s “immediate and unconditional resignation.” The next day, Bennison refused. He remains the diocesan bishop.

Hollingsworth noted that the process General Convention added to Title III is not meant to replace the use of the church disciplinary canons for clergy and bishops known as Title IV. That collection of canons lists standards of conduct for clergy and outlines a process for handling accusations of clergy violating those standards. For a number of years, the canons of Title III have recognized that rectors and their parishes may find themselves in conflict for reasons that are not conduct violations. There was no canonical recognition of that possibility arising in the relationship between a bishop and a diocese until the recent action by convention.

“If there are offenses that warrant Title IV then that title ought to be followed,” he said. “In the absence of an effective process for dealing with a compromised relationship between a bishop and a diocese, the only other route might be to find a way to deal with it through Title IV inappropriately, and that doesn’t help the diocese or the church or the bishop.”

Laughlin told ENS that the Standing Committee discussed the new canonical process during a regularly scheduled meeting after General Convention, but that no decisions had been made.

He added that it was clear from his conversations with the developers of the process that they “were careful not to link this too closely with the situation in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.”

The process is focused on “our relationships with one another in the body of Christ and about how we keep that body healthy, and about how we hold one another mutually accountable,” said Laughlin.

“It’s an acknowledgement that sometimes those relationships are broken, or are no longer mutually beneficial and as such no longer serve the mission of the church and the proclamation of the gospel,” he said. “The canon provides a means for the parties to address those issues so that they can get it sorted out and get on with the vital ministry to which we’re called”

Meanwhile, another method suggested to help dioceses and their bishops discern their future together – a method that would have been an even greater departure from the traditional shape of that relationship – never made it out of the same General Convention committee that considered A053 and B021.

The Rev. Alex Dyer, Connecticut, proposed in Resolution D041 to set a diocesan bishop’s term at nine years. The term could have been renewed by a vote of diocesan convention for an unlimited number of times. A bishop would have retained his or her episcopal orders if the diocese decided to end the relationship.

Dyer told ENS that he liked the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s approach, which is to elect bishops to six-year renewable terms, and that his proposal was “not intended solely to get rid of a bishop.” Instead, it would have been a chance to “stop and look, and see if this [relationship] is a good thing.”

“It is truly a mutual discernment,” Dyer said. “It’s not a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.”

He suggested that the last year of a term could have been used for a mutual ministry review that could have ended in a vote to renew or “a graceful way out.”

“We need to constantly reevaluate our effectiveness in serving God’s mission,” he said. “Jesus wasn’t too big on complacency”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (2)

  1. charles daily says:

    The need for conflict resolution is paramount in a Christ-centered environment. It may be that the Office of the Bishop needs to be as subject to review and removal as any lay or other clerical leadership. It would be a check and balance system with a view towards pastoral concern for all involved if deployed with mercy and compassion. Who could object?

  2. The other change that the House of Bishops made, besides the 2/3 majority of standing committee or diocesan convention, was to make the decision to remove or not remove a bishop one the whole House of Bishops would make, not only the bishops with jurisdiction. This reflects the way our particular community of bishops lives and works. In other provinces, it is often only the diocesan bishops who conduct the business of their House.

    While I hope we never need this canon, it was necessary and salutary.

Comments are closed.