24 July 2007

When law and Gospel meet

For over two thousand years, followers of Jesus Christ have been struggling with the balance between law and Gospel. The struggle continues today, as evidenced by the present diversity of views on human sexuality. Not only, of course, do we argue about the balance of law and Gospel, but we often wonder, which law and which Gospel do we follow? It's not always clear.

Now, it seems, we're having a similar conversation over the recent episcopal elections in South Carolina and Virginia. This story blew up on Sunday, and yours truly wrote about it here. It was much-discussed in blogospheria Anglicana, though little mention was made by liberal bloggers.

Yesterday we got a bit of response from 815, in a blog posting on epiScope. Here's what Jan Nunley+ had to say:
At the same time, Virginia did use a shorter consent form instead of the full, exact language in Canon III.11.4.b. But the shorter form made it very clear to what and to whom the standing committees were consenting; the majority sent in their consents; and what's most important, individual signatures of the individual committee members were affixed.

Signatures are very important to lawyers. You may, while dying, scrawl on a piece of paper, "I leave all my money to my dog," and if your signature is attached, there is a good chance Phydeaux will be rolling in dough (if not smellier things) very shortly thereafter. You may, however, draw up a perfectly iron-clad testament and if you have not signed it, it means nothing. Nada.

That is the issue here. Not the precise wording, but the presence or absence of individual signatures received before the deadline, determined whether or not a consent could be counted as valid.

I very much want to find a way to agree with what seems to be a different application of canons, depending on the situation. But I'm not quite there yet.

The canons specify both the wording and the means of showing approval. You get the precise words to use (there is no "short form") and the precise manner in which approval is to be shown (written approval, signed). It's all black-letter law, right in Title III (PDF). Check it out.

In her posting, Jan says that there are "90 possible" elections affected by defective consents. Let's suppose in the past it didn't matter so much, because our church was in a difference place. But in the Lawrence debacle, we were all quoted chapter and verse on why the canons matter. Frankly, I agree with this rigid canonical adherence, but it has to be the same, in all cases, no matter what. It's only fair. It's only just.

Now we're told it was about signatures. Of course, it's hard to see why we insist on the signature portion of the canons, but we look past the textual requirements. I'm also not sure the claim on the importance of signatures is valid. These days, electronic "signatures" in lots of forms are considered equivalent with ink signatures, in lots of situations. The Living Church is reporting that South Carolina was told not to use the "short form" in its consents. Fine. But why wasn't Virginia told the same thing?

In all elections since the South Carolina election, it seems to me that it is important to ensure that there is adherence to the canons. If we're tossing out one election because of defects, I think we need to toss out others as well. I am not saying that Virginia's election should be tossed out, or that the ordination was irregular. I am saying that an "oops" should emanate from 815, and in the future we should follow the canons precisely. If the canons are no longer deemed adequate, there's a little project to work on before GC 2009.

It seems to me that we heard "law, law" in the case of South Carolina. And we've heard "Gospel, Gospel" in other cases. Let's have law and Gospel in all cases, balanced appropriately. Why am I writing about this budding controversy? Well, I think how we handle these conversations has to do with how we'll handle other, more difficult issues. When the response from church leadership to all this is, "Let's don't and say we did, shall we?" it hardly seems to respect the dignity of those who find this situation challenging. Much better would be a straightforward, official explanation of why canons are applied particular ways at particular times. I'd like this problem to go away. And I'd like to avoid this particular conversation in the future.

So let's do, and let's talk about it. Let's figure this one out. It will help us in conversations about other episcopal elections, in conversations about sexuality, in conversations on any other subject. As we on the progressive side demand that the conservatives listen to us, let's make sure we listen to those who have (very valid) concerns.

An inclusive church is not just a church for liberals. An inclusive church is a church for everyone.

UPDATE: In addition to an update over at epiScope (see the comments to this posting for details and a response), the Diocese of Virginia has issued a statement. It reads, in part:
The process of requesting and receiving consents is governed by the Office of the Presiding Bishop through various administrative departments. The process of obtaining consents for the ordination and consecration of Bishop Shannon Johnston followed by the Standing Committee of The Diocese of Virginia was approved and confirmed by the general Church. The procedures we followed have been in widespread use throughout the Church for at least a decade. We received over 80 signed consent forms, and our process was confirmed by the act of consecration in a joy-filled service presided over by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church.
OK, fine. No one wants to un-consecrate Bishop Johnston and no one think's this is Virginia's fault. At least I don't. Rather, I think Lionel Diemel's solution is about right. Let's admit procedures weren't followed, here and in other consent processes. And then let's ensure that all future consents conform precisely to canons. That will fix the problem and make this story go away. (Thanks to BabyBlue for noticing the Virginia release.)


Chip Johnson+, cj said...

Absolutely, Scott+,
"An inclusive church is a church for everyone."
Unfortunately, we or you, whichever way the flow hapens to be today, cannot be included. Somehow, that flies in the face of true inclusion, doesn't it?
One day, He will come, and it will no longer matter, to most of us, anyway. Although, I feel that some will even argue about their accomodations there.

anglicanhopeful said...

Jan Nunley also points out that the canons for GC consent include language that differs from the canon regulating Diocesan consents. That’s fine - GC consent language is clearly defined in canon III.16.3, and diocesan consent language is clearly defined in canon III.16.5 (not III.22.3 as Nunley incorrectly cites). The language in which recent GC consent to the election of a bishop was given is different apparently from that which is prescribed in our canons. Maybe I’m not reading the canons correctly but nowhere do I see a canon that allows for an acceptable ‘shortened’ substitute consent for dioceses OR GCs. It’s pretty clear the writers of the canons intended them to be followed to the letter, not substituted for (or else why spell it out?). With our unique polity (decisions made for the whole church only in GC), and no evidence of any acceptable substitutes being approved in any GC, I would think this is not a minor matter at all.

Scott Gunn said...

Anglicanhopeful, which version of the canons are consulting? My 2006 edition has episcopal elections covered in III.11.

Here's what I posted to T19 a bit ago:
Anyway, Jan seems to have one bit of confusion. For whatever reason, the canons do not prescribe the language of consent when an election is approved by General Convention (See III.11.3). Apparently it is enough for a resolution to pass both Houses. However, the canons are quite clear for consent by Standing Committees (See III.11.4). In the latter case, both the wording and signatures are precisely described. Comparing one with the other is apples to oranges.

epiScope (and a bunch of other sites) can't be accessed, apparently due to a power failure around SFO.

I suspect the III.22.3 cite was an even earlier (2000?) version. Title III has been revised at the last two General Conventions, and I think the canons have been renumbered each time.

Your point remains correct: there is no provision for a "shortened version", nor is a primacy of signature requirements mentioned.


Scott Gunn said...


Undoubtedly, some people will be unhappy at the eschaton!

In the meantime, I do think we should be working for a church in which everyone is included. Period. In our human sinfulness, we fall short of that ideal, but I believe God's boundless love does not make distinctions on our human-made categories.

No, this does not mean "anything goes," but it does mean we don't draw lines around particular groups.


Lionel said...

I think I qualify as a “liberal blogger,” and I wrote about the consent affair hours before Jan’s post. I was (and am) troubled by what now seems like a cavalier attitude toward the constitution and canons in the Office of the Presiding Bishop. There is no evidence that the Presiding Bishop shares this attitude, and she cannot be responsible for what seems to have become a certain sloppiness in that office that predates her tenure. (Canon Gerdau is quoted in The Living Church as saying, of the non-canonical testimonial, “no one has ever objected to it before” and “[w]e don’t think this is a defect.”

In light of the revelation that South Carolina did, apparently, use the proper form, I am preparing another post, but I stand by my recommendations as to what the Presiding Bishop should do. Basically, that advice amounts to “repent and sin no more.”

Scott Gunn said...


You're right, and I'm glad you posted about this. I think this one is getting airplay from you, me, and the Usual Suspects (that term is used affectionately here!) from the right.

I like your solution. Let's admit there was a problem, and let's make sure it doesn't happen again. I can't fathom why this isn't getting fixed.

Anyway, I thanks for your posting on this.


Ann said...

There is a huge difference between getting enough legal signatures for consent and defective wording in the message. We in Wyoming did not get anything from South Carolina and had to make up our own response. There seemed to be a lot of sloppiness in their process of gaining consents - the PBs office did grant them extra time and they still did not get enough properly signed consents. However, I do notice that all dioceses since the SC debacle have promptly sent out the forms with return envelopes.