Conservatives Accuse Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Misconduct

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The conservative American Anglican news site Anglican Ink reported this week on a claim of misconduct filed in December 2013 against the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori.

The claim was filed by the American Anglican Fellowship (AAF), a group formed in June of 2013 apparently for the purpose of going after Jefferts Schori much like disgruntled GOP legislators after Barack Obama. Through a long series of legal cases related to ownership of property and other assets after a congregation has parted with the national church, American Anglican churches have had roughly the same degree of success as Republican lawmakers have had in overturning the Affordable Care Act: not much.

As previously reported here, the Episcopal Church has prevailed in the majority of cases, with schismatic claimants pressing their cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 2012 declined to hear an appeal to a lower court ruling awarding property from a church in Connecticut to the Episcopal Church. Days before the AAF released the full text of its ecclesiastical complaint, the U.S. Supreme Court again denied an appeal from a breakaway congregation in Falls Church, Virginia. Hard feelings, much?

The complaint, which includes six specific charges against Jefferts Schori, moves beyond property disputes to include alleged violations of Episcopal canon law related to financial irresponsibility in pursuing property claims, “seeking interpretation of [church] canons by secular courts” rather than ecclesiastical ones, and the “harassment” of dissenting bishops, priests, deacons, and laity through false claims of “abandoning communion.”

The AAF was able to bring the charges though what appears to be a bit of a legal and theological subterfuge. The group is a strategic reincarnation of the American Anglican Council of Washington, a chapter of the American Anglican Council (AAC), the national body created in 1996 to oversee congregations that split with the Episcopal Church. As an organization independent of the Episcopal church, the AAC and its affiliates would have not have standing in the church to bring disciplinary charges.

Trustees of the AFF have been active in Washington, D.C. and Maryland churches, some of which have split with the Episcopal church and joined the AAC. The regional group had long opposed evolving church policies related to the ordination of women and the full inclusion of LGBT persons. They had previously coordinated their efforts against these changes through their ACC chapter. The recent name change allows members to distance themselves from the AAC and claim status as active Episcopalians who can make disciplinary complaints against clergy, including the Presiding Bishop.

The name game may have been a cunning tactic in fanning the embers of a controversy in which public interest has waned considerably as support for LGBT equality, including marriage equality, has grown among all but the most conservative religious groups in the years since the election of openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003. But experts on Episcopal Church history and polity see little likelihood that the AAF complaint will gain any traction within the disciplinary structure of the Episcopal Church.

Robert Prichard, a professor of American religion at Virginia Theological Seminary and the editor of the Journal of Episcopal Canon Law, allows, however, that the complaint does point to certain ambiguities in Episcopal canon law that have been exploited by both supporters and critics alike. General Theological Seminary professor Bruce Mullin, who has been an advisor to the Presiding Bishop on a church property dispute cases, likewise sees the charges as revealing the “practical reality” that drafters of the canons of the Episcopal Church could not have foreseen every possible cause for conflict between leaders in national, diocesan, and local churches.

“The Presiding Bishop and the national church have had to respond at times in an ad hoc way in the spirit of preserving unity within the church,” said Mullin. “Canons that were crafted in the nineteenth century could not have anticipated the way things have unfolded in the twenty-first, so of course there will be ambiguity. But,” he adds of the AAF’s charges, “there’s nothing new here.”

You Might Be an Anglican Schismatic If…

The first such ambiguity is the matter of what constitutes “abandoning communion,” or voluntarily leaving the church and therefore giving up rights to property and the protections of canon law.

Here, the question is whether an individual or group that refuses the authority of the church hierarchy has “left the church” or rather, as most breakaway Anglicans would claim, if they are in fact claiming the authority of a “truer” practice of “the traditional faith.” In essence, said Prichard, “these folks are claiming that they did not ‘leave’ the Episcopal Church, but that ‘the church left them.’”

After case of this sort of “did too/did not” bickering in the 1870s, a revision to canon law allowed that church authorities could press for the removal of bishops, priests, or deacons if they were “acting in a way as to abandon communion.” The revised canon is arguably a strident application of, uh, common sense. It works something like this in determining if clergy and their flocks have left the Episcopal Church:

You might be an Anglican schismatic if…

1. You’ve changed the sign out front from “The Episcopal Church of St. Whatsit” to “The Anglican Church of St. Whatsit.”

Or,

2. You’re now under the authority of an Anglican bishop in, say, Nigeria rather than the Episcopal one installed in the cathedral nearest your church.

Or,

3. Your Vacation Bible School features a rollicking game of “Pin the Tail on the Antichrist” in which the cartoon image of said “Antichrist” bears a striking resemblance to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the retired Bishop of New Hampshire, or a two-headed representation of both as the Earl of Hell.

Or,

4. All of the above.

Still, dissenters complain that the “acting in a way” provision has allowed Jefferts Schori and her agents to act imperiously in dismissing from the Episcopal Church those with whom they disagree on matters of doctrine and polity.

Prichard likewise explained that the AAF’s complaint seeks redress for millions of dollars “squandered” on litigation by attempting to apply a provision of the canons added in 2009 to prevent local clergy and congregations from appealing to secular courts to overturn the decision of a bishop.

The canon prevents, for instance, a church slated for closure by a bishop from suing in civil courts to retain property or funds from its sale. The provision effectively reinforces the authority of bishops over churches in their dioceses. In this case, however, the AAF is attempting to hoist Jefferts Schori in the church’s own canonical petard by claiming it is she who has violated the bounds of ecclesial legal authority by pursing cases against breakaway congregations in secular courts.

The Republican Party at Prayer

The claim is a canonical and legal non-starter, says Pritchard. “There are absolutely times when the church has to handle matters in the secular courts,” he explained, as in cases of financial or sexual misconduct. But, he speculated, there is perhaps more afoot in the AAF’s complaint than mere quibbling over provisions of Episcopal canon law.

Pritchard has a hunch that the December complaint has been made public this year as the Episcopal Church prepares to nominate candidates for the election of the next Presiding Bishop in 2015. Some discussion is underway in church circles about whether canon law would permit Jefferts Schori to pursue a second term. Under current canon law, nominees must be bishops in an Episcopal diocese, which Jefferts Schori is not.

Pritchard wonders whether the timing of the initial claim and its wider publication this week is intended to “give a black eye” to members of the nominating committee, which announced a timeline for the nomination process earlier this month, and to undermine any efforts to interpret or revise canon law so that Jefferts Schori can run for a second term.

While Mullin agreed that the dissenters are bent on crafting a public image of Jefferts Schori as “lawless” in her spiritual leadership of the Episcopal Church, he is more inclined to see the actions of the AAF as “a reflection of the general cultural and political climate of the United States.”

Trustees listed on the AAF’s name change filing—a trio of attorneys, a genteel innkeeper, a conservative journalist, and the former chair of the ACC chapter in Washington—are vestiges of what the Episcopal Church once seemed to be: “the Republican party at prayer.” Keepers of seventeenth and eighteenth century establishment churches and their theologies, the AAF and many of their colonial Anglican ilk “have not been part of the Episcopal church as it really is for generations,” says Mullin.

Indeed, comments on the Anglican Ink article as it’s moved from one conservative Anglican blog to another, seem resigned to the ineffectiveness of what have to be considerable efforts to stir more controversy in a denomination that has largely put more than a decade of rancorous defections behind it.

“I am glad to see this. However, I doubt much will come of it,” says one commenter.

“The AAF document will be a record for future historians,” offers another.

Well, there’s that.

Meanwhile, perhaps it’s time for the new American Anglican version of “the Republican party at prayer” to refocus its energies on other concerns. After all, there are still a couple years left in the Obama presidency to roll back that sinful Affordable Care Act.

Elizabeth Drescher [@edrescherphd] is the author, with Keith Anderson, of Click 2 Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (Morehouse, 2012). She teaches religion and pastoral ministries at Santa Clara University. She is currently at work on Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of Religious Nones, a project funded in part through a grant from the Social Science Research Council’s “New Directions in the Study of Prayer” project through the Templeton Foundation. Her website is www.elizabethdrescher.com  

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