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.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.
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.
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.)