By Drew N. Keane

Recent Title IV proceedings against the Bishop of Albany, the Rt. Rev. William Love, expose a number of ambiguities in the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church that, if unaddressed, will almost certainly result in future conflict.

The unanimous ruling of the hearing panel found that, by prohibiting the clergy under his charge from officiating a marriage between same-sex couples and enforcing the Canons of the Diocese of Albany, which prohibit either the use of marriage or blessing rites for same-sex couples in the churches of Albany, the Diocesan, “violate[d] the Disciplinary Canons of TEC in that his action constitutes a failure to abide by promises and vows made when ordained pursuant to Canon IV.4.1(c). Specifically, the panel found him guilty of breaking his vow to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church,” a finding that Bishop Love disputes, though he chose to resign rather than appeal the panel’s finding.

It is in specifying how Bishop Love violated his ordination vow that the constitutional confusion emerges. The ruling claims that Resolution 2018 B012 “was properly constituted and passed as an authorized revision to the BCP as expressly provided for in Constitution Article X, thus requiring that all Bishop Diocesans permit their clergy the option to utilize such rites.” The liturgies authorized by the resolution were authorized for “trial use,” a process described in Article X of the Constitution. Trial Use is the process by which the Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States is revised. While 2018 B012 does authorize liturgies, it authorizes them for Trial Use not as a revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer — in other words, it authorizes possible revisions or additions to the prayer book for consideration.

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Keep in mind that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is part of the Constitution, and according to Canon IV.2 the doctrine of the Episcopal Church is found in the scriptures, historic creeds, and in the “sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer.” So, the Trial Use process is not simply a means for liturgical revision, but also a means for constitutional and doctrinal revision. For a Trial Use revision or addition to the Book of Common Prayer to be authorized and thereby become part of the Constitution and a formal expression of the doctrine of the church, the Trial Use text(s) must be passed by two successive meetings of the General Convention. (There is a lower bar for revising the Canons — that only requires passage at a single meeting of the General Convention.)

The process of Trial Use described in Article X is a six-year process; a vote is taken at two successive General Conventions. The Constitution does not stipulate that Trial Use can be continued indefinitely. But, 2018 B012 stipulates that “period of trial use for these liturgies shall extend until the completion of the next comprehensive revision of the Book of Common Prayer.” Since we cannot know when such a comprehensive revision may occur, the period of Trial Use that this resolution authorizes is one without a definite ending. It is not at all clear that Article X allows an indefinite period of Trial Use. That means there is a case to be made that the resolution is out-of-order (though this is not the case made by Bishop Love in his hearing).

Now, why does it matter if Trial Use continues for six years or nine years or indefinitely? In cases when a Trial Use liturgy teaches a doctrine different to the doctrine found in the un-revised 1979 Book of Common Prayer, then the formal doctrine of the Episcopal Church remains unchanged while a different doctrine, expressed in the Trial Use liturgy, is under consideration. So, presently we can and have said to the other churches of the Anglican Communion and to those churches with whom we are engaged in ecumenical dialogue that the doctrine of the Episcopal Church concerning marriage has not changed but remains that expressed in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, while at the same time we can also conduct services that communicate different doctrine while we are exploring whether or not to formalize such a doctrinal change.

This places the Ordinary of a diocese in a difficult position. Bishops, the Ordinal says, “are called to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the

Church” and they vow to “conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church.” During the Trial Use process, the doctrine of the Episcopal Church is that expressed by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer; any doctrines different from those that are expressed in Trial Use liturgies are merely under consideration. The question naturally arises: when a doctrinal change is under consideration may a Bishop Diocesan restrict the use of Trial Use texts on the basis of a doctrine expressed by the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, to which he or she is obligated to conform? The difficulty of the question is compounded when the liturgy in question involves permanent effects the legitimacy of which would likely be called into question if the Trial Use process does not result in the formal adoption of the revised text of the prayer book. If the Trial Use process may be extended indefinitely (which is assumed by B012) then the question of legitimacy is also extended indefinitely.

B012 also resolves that two additional proposed revisions of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, namely, revisions “to paragraph one of ‘Concerning the Service’ of Marriage, the proper prefaces for Marriage and the Catechism,” simply “be referred to the SCLM for serious consideration as they engage in the process of revision of the Book of Common Prayer.” Since the SCLM has not presently been charged with revising the prayer book, the status of these proposed revisions is uncertain. The Albany Canons, which Bishop Love enforced, align with the understanding of marriage contained in the Catechism (which Canon IV.2 specifies as expressing the doctrine of the church). The proposed changes to the Catechism are not, according to B012 involved in the Trial Use process, presenting a real constitutional conundrum, one that was almost certain to result in a collision.

B012 entirely side-steps these questions by resolving that

in dioceses where the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or, where applicable, ecclesiastical supervision) holds a theological position that does not embrace marriage for same-sex couples, and there is a desire to use such rites by same-sex couples in a congregation or worshipping community, the bishop exercising ecclesiastical authority (or ecclesiastical supervision) shall invite, as necessary, another bishop of this Church to provide pastoral support to the couple, the Member of the Clergy involved and the congregation or worshipping community in order to fulfill the intention of this resolution that all couples have convenient and reasonable local congregational access to these rites.

While the resolution is clear, and Bishop Love’s actions clearly do not conform to this resolution, the resolution of a single meeting of the General Convention cannot trump or alter the Constitution. Given that the formal liturgy and doctrine of the Episcopal Church remains unchanged at this time and must remain so until the Trial Use process is over (which may or may not result in adoption of the changes under consideration), this resolution only makes the question of what the Ordinary’s duty is in this case more acute.

In the Episcopal Church we frequently invoke the Pauline principle honeste et secundum ordinem, let all things be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40) and rightly so, since orderliness fosters fairness, patience, and unity even in the midst of fierce disagreement (as was the case for the Corinthian church). Abuse of power is, of course, the foe of orderliness, and I have often heard this case characterized as an instance of power abuse. Perhaps it is; nevertheless, if it is, I am not at all sure which parties involved have abused the power entrusted to them. What does seem clear, however, is this: if we avoid addressing the constitutional ambiguities that this case exposes, then arbitrariness (of one kind or another) cannot but result.

Article X’s Trial Use is the only mechanism for doctrinal change that our Constitution contains. Bishop Love’s case reveals that there are important questions that Article X leaves unanswered, questions that, if not addressed, will almost certainly result in this kind of difficulty again in the future. When Trial Use involves consideration of doctrinal change, should an Ordinary act as if the new doctrine under consideration already is the doctrine of the church or, rather, should — or may — she or he continue to uphold the formal doctrine during that period? Can Trial Use continue indefinitely? If it can, is it wise or just to initiate an indefinite Trial Use period (1 Corinthians 10:23 comes to mind — not all that is lawful is expedient or edifying). Finally, can the resolution of a single General Convention answer a question that the Constitution does not answer? These are questions that every deputy to the 80th General Convention ought to consider.

Drew Nathaniel Keane is a lecturer in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro.

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C R SEITZ

I agree with your argument. (ACI spent over a decade pointing out similar disregard for the Constitution and the due process it expects). The problem is that I doubt it really matters. We have gotten to a point where things like “confusion” and “irregularity” are just annoying buzzing noises. I doubt there will be any “future conflict” because that would imply that people genuinely care about constitutional order. They don’t. That isn’t cynicism but a fact on the ground. That is why two people pointing out error in the Hearing Panel’s reference to B012 could say in the same breath… Read more »

Michael Tessman

Kudos for Drew Keane’s careful delineation of issues/process in this regrettable matter; one more chapter in the furtherance of TEC’s demise as an eccliesial body with any integrity. I think back to +Ed Browning’s (infamous?) “there will be no outcasts” address to GC (1997) and the subsequent occasions of “casting out” now too numerous to recall over 20+ years. TEC’s re-naming/branding opened wider the doors of rushing to judgement for the apparent purpose of institutional preservation (keeping up appearances?). Prayerful discernment (both aescetical and theological) has been replaced by legislative and juridical pronouncements. Decry though we must, the recent egregious… Read more »