General Convention 2009: Title IV 101

By Richard Helmer

You can read elsewhere about Wednesday’s hot debates at General Convention, the panel presentation including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and highlights from the day’s sermons and proceedings. As Convention got into high gear on its first full day, I began my work as self-declared Title IV wonk.

Here’s my primer for all you Title IV neophytes out there:

A Matter of Discipline

By number of pages, Title IV spans over 25% of the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. These pages contain what often seems like the arcana of ecclesiastical discipline concerning clergy: what constitutes a breach of appropriate clergy conduct, and violates of the Church’s doctrine and discipline, and how the church responds when clergy are so accused. In this way, Title IV is one of the key documents of Church-as-institution, with clergy being held to standards of conduct that safeguard the health and well-being of the greater institution. It’s easy to understand that with all the myriad changes in the institution of The Episcopal Church over the years, that this is no easy or inexpensive task. Title IV has been a subject of ongoing debate, review, and revision in The Episcopal Church from the very first General Convention in 1785.

Title IV in its present structure established in 1994 broadly provides for bishops or ecclesiastical courts to adjudicate clergy disciplinary matters and makes provision for disciplining bishops at the denominational level. Ecclesiastical courts tend to operate similarly to military courts, with a panel of appointed or elected officers to engage with legal representation and witnesses to establish facts, and then pronounce a judgment to acquit or convict and sentence the accused clergy.

What’s come to light in recent years are a number of challenges around this present structure:

Ecclesiastical courts, with their associated legal costs, can be notoriously expensive, especially for smaller dioceses. In severe cases, the drain on time and resources can impact the diocese at every level, particularly where diocesan resources are severely limited. . . like right now in so many places!

Broadly, the current Title IV can be perceived as more punitive in structure (a la a military court) than redemptive in the way of the Gospel as outlined in our baptismal covenant. For instance, there is scant provision offered in the present canons for mutual reconciliation between accused clergy and those who bring a complaint against them.

Determining what behavior violates clergy discipline remains, in many cases, ambiguous. Standards across the Church and from diocese to dioceses are unevenly applied and often lacking.

Bishops wield considerable discretionary authority in disciplining clergy under their oversight, often with little process for accountability. In instances too many to number, bishops have therefore dealt with disciplinary matters in ways that have been secretive and at times unjust.

Concerning Bishops

As we’ve seen in recent years in dioceses ranging from San Joaquin to Pittsburgh and Quincy to Pennsylvania, when bishops violate standards of clergy discipline or make plans to abandon The Episcopal Church, it is extraordinarily difficult if not practically impossible to move charges in an orderly way towards resolution. Instead, we have been left with protracted periods of conflict, dead-end processes, and expensive, lengthy trials (if the process ever gets to that point.) All of this is extraordinarily destructive to our mission and morale. Under present Title IV canons, the House of Bishops ultimately police themselves. Experience has demonstrated that this simply doesn’t work very well.

Moreover, even within their own dioceses, bishops walk a very fine line in disciplinary matters concerning their own clergy. They are simultaneously the chief pastor of the accused and often of the person making the complaint, and on top of that a potential judge with power over the ecclesiastical fate of both. Accused clergy have the option to forego the formal ecclesiastical trial and submit to the bishop’s judgment in any matter. Whether the accused clergy really have a choice in the matter can depend in large part on the disciplinary system their bishop has led into place.

The potential for abuse in this process seems obvious to many. But so is the potential for more pastorally sensitive bishops to lead parties towards reconciliation while avoiding the adversarial relationships that naturally develop in canonical proceedings. At the end of the day, though, it falls on the shoulders of the bishop to act both as pastor and judge – a two-hat problem, a dual role that is not only uncomfortable, but rife with potential conflicts of interest. A bishop is empowered by Title IV to act as pastor or judge. But to attempt to do both at the same time is often to risk doing neither very well.

One of the really difficult questions of Title IV remains, then, about the power of bishops in ecclesiastical discipline – both within their own dioceses, and in their life and engagement in the wider church. Christian history and tradition is largely on the side of bishops retaining this broad power. But the present course towards greater empowerment of all the baptized, lay and ordained, may be at odds with this precedent.

On the Table

General Convention is now reviewing carefully crafted Title IV revisions intended to address a number of these ongoing challenges. A taskforce appointed by General Convention in 2000 first took up revising Title IV. After offering an interim report to the General Convention of 2003, they finalized a set of recommended revisions for General Convention 2006, which even offered provisions for laity discipline. But General Convention that year debated the recommended changes to exhaustion, ending only with the adoption of core principles towards building a new taskforce to “complete and perfect” Title IV for this year’s General Convention. If you’re counting, that’s nine years of hard labor on Title IV by a few dozen dedicated members of the church!

The heart of these principles for a revised Title IV was articulated in the 2006 resolution that passed both Houses. The new Title IV would:

1. Reflect the values, ecclesiology, and theology of the Church;

2. Move Title IV towards a reconciliation model for all appropriate circumstances;

3. Encourage the prompt resolution of conflicts in the Church and the reconciliation of persons involved in those conflicts at the earliest appropriate time and the lowest appropriate level of the Church;

4. Consider the possible inclusion of certain Lay Persons in Title IV whose office or other leadership role makes inclusion appropriate, provided the treatment of their accountability and discipline is commensurate with their lay status, responsibilities and commitments;

5. Maintain the historic pastoral role and canonical authority of Bishops; and

6. Respect the roles, rights, and integrity of those persons subject to Title IV, and of injured persons, communities, Parishes, Missions, Congregations, and the Church.

The devil, as always, is in the details, and the resulting revisions under review by legislative committees this week constitute a massive text: one which you can view at your leisure. . .but it is not recommended for light bedtime reading!

Here’s a somewhat brief, and far from complete synopsis for those not willing to climb through the vast sea of words:

The revised Title IV Canons under consideration by General Convention this year:

• Drops attempted canonical structures for lay discipline. Explanatory material accompanying the revisions articulate the latest taskforce’s belief that lay disciplinary matters are best left to Title III: canons that include the ministry of all the baptized.

• More clearly define the terminology used in the canons, ranging from types of actionable behavior to titles for various officers involved in disciplinary proceedings.

• Create disciplinary boards at the diocesan level to supplant ecclesiastical courts. Disciplinary boards can form two essentially different kinds of panels, depending on the case:

o conference panels that can lead both parties (now referred to as complainants and respondents) into conversation with the goal of reconciliation;

o hearing panels which function more like an ecclesiastical court, and release an order (judgment).

• Establish the position of a trained intake officer to handle complaints involving clergy, gather facts, and then submit these complaints as appropriate to the bishop and disciplinary board.

• Formulate procedures to determine which panel and related disciplinary process is most effective in any given situation.

• Make provision for a pastoral response to all parties involved in any complaint.

• Maintain the bishop’s accountability throughout by requiring collaboration with the disciplinary board.

• Permit dioceses latitude in implementation to suit local needs. One new provision allows dioceses to partner with other dioceses to create shared disciplinary boards. This provides for cost-sharing in the implementation Title IV processes and fosters the development of more objective disciplinary boards and related officers.

• Finally, and perhaps most critically given our recent experience in The Episcopal Church, the House of Bishops will no longer rely primarily on disciplinary power over its own members. An intake officer and a disciplinary board including other clergy and laity would be established to handle charges against bishops. The hope is that these changes would more efficiently resolve conflicts between bishops and their dioceses, and end the pattern of festering issues that erupt in radical, extra-canonical actions (i.e., a diocese attempting to depart The Episcopal Church) or in destructive collapse of diocesan mission and pastoral relationships.

Regardless of the fate of Title IV revisions this year, rest assured that disciplinary matters in The Episcopal Church will be far from settled going forward. Confronting us is the profound matter that discipline in the Body of Christ is at best, a prayerful, relational process — one not at all easily enshrined in legislation, canons, or law. At root is the question of accountability between members of the Body – something The Episcopal Church is still coming to terms with as the Spirit leads us from rigidly delineated hierarchies to more fluid, organic structures –from objectivizing judgment and consolidated authority to mutual relationship and shared power. It’s a long journey, but one always bound up in our greater shared journey of salvation.

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