Executive Council resolution on constitutions generates mixed reactions by Mary Frances Schjonberg June 19, 2007 (ENS)
The chancellors in four dissenting Episcopal Church dioceses and their opponents have weighed in on an Executive Council resolution that reminded all dioceses that they must accede to the Church's constitution and canons.
Furthermore, Diocese of Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker and the diocesan Standing Committee said June 19 that the action "is nothing more than an opinion expressed by those individuals who issued the statement" and claimed that resolutions of Executive Council and General Convention are "non-binding" on dioceses.
Groups representing Episcopalians who wish to remain within the wider church welcomed the Executive Council action, saying they feel vindicated in their protests of diocesan actions to change their constitutions. Chancellors for the four dioceses jointly called the action a "failed attempt to interfere in the internal constitutional processes of their dioceses."
On June 15, the Executive Council, the governing body between General Conventions, passed Resolution NAC023 which noted that Article V, Section 1 of the Constitution of The Episcopal Church requires each diocese's constitution to state "an unqualified access to the Constitution and Canons of this Church."
"Any amendment to a diocesan constitution that purports in any way to limit or lessen an unqualified accession to the constitution of The Episcopal Church is null and void," the resolution continued, adding that "the amendments passed to the constitutions of the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin, which purport to limit or lessen the unqualified accession to the constitution of The Episcopal Church are accordingly null and void and the constitutions of those dioceses shall be as they were as if such amendments had not been passed."
The chancellors of the four dioceses said June 18, in a statement on the Diocese of Pittsburgh's website, that they "reserve the right not to accede to [the Episcopal Church's] unbiblical actions."
"The Executive Council does not have the authority to make decisions or pass resolutions of this type on behalf of [the Episcopal Church]," their statement said. "Furthermore, the Executive Council does not have the right to interfere in internal diocesan constitutional processes ... The Executive Council's declaration is contrary to the law and to the historic Anglican faith."
Via Media USA, an alliance of Episcopal laity and clergy formed in 2004 to offer a counterpoint to efforts to "realign" the Episcopal Church along more conservative lines, said June 18 that it was "pleased that the Executive Council, in its resolution NAC023, has made clear what we have understood for a long time to be the case."
"The constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church have priority over those of dioceses, and diocesan attempts to say otherwise are null and void, as they have always been," the statement continued.
Iker and the Fort Worth Standing Committee said in a statement that the diocese first amended its constitution 20 years ago and called the actions taken by Council "evidence of an illegitimate magisterial attitude that has emerged in the legislative function of [the Episcopal Church]." They argued that Executive Council cannot render findings as to the legality or constitutionality of diocesan actions.
"Sadly, the one thing the resolution does show is that there is no desire on the part of the Council for reconciliation with those alienated by the recent actions of General Convention," the statement, signed by Iker and Standing Committee president the Very Rev. Ryan S. Reed, said.
Iker and Reed also wrote that the Council's refusal to participate in the so-called "pastoral scheme" put forward by the Primates of the Anglican Communion in February for dealing with the handful of Episcopal Church dioceses that are disaffected by General Convention's decisions "has deepened our sense of alienation" from the Episcopal Church.
Via Media USA said that Executive Council's resolution is a "further reminder to us not to turn our disagreements into structures of schism and division, but instead to reach out through them to find opportunities for reconciliation and healing."
"The Executive Council resolution reiterates the traditional understanding of the relationship of a diocese to The Episcopal Church," the statement said. "Via Media USA and its allies within The Episcopal Church pledge to continue to work on behalf of its unity, integrity, and common mission."
The statement said any continued attempts to "unilaterally leave The Episcopal Church or declare themselves unbound by its ministries or its laws" would be "as unwelcome as they are unwise."
"The dioceses of Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, Fort Worth, and Quincy have, once again, been put on specific notice to put a stop to such activities," Via Media USA said. "We hope they will take this opportunity to do so."
Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh (PEP), part of the Via Media USA alliance, issued a statement June 18 thanking the Executive Council "for affirming the long-settled constitutional understanding that dioceses do not have the power or authority to ignore or supersede the canons of The Episcopal Church in favor of diocesan actions."
At both the 2003 and 2004 Pittsburgh diocesan conventions, opponents of the constitutional change were unable to convince the majority that efforts to remove the unqualified-accession clause from their constitution were out of order, contradicted the constitution of The Episcopal Church, and was "based on a faulty understanding of the relationship of dioceses to the whole church," PEP said.
"Executive Council has now affirmed the minority's stance as the correct one," PEP's statement said.
"This resolution offers relief to faithful Episcopalians in this diocese who have been pressured to accept procedures or policies they knew were at odds with Episcopal Church canons," Joan Gundersen, PEP's president, said in the statement. "The Council was aware of these pressures. Furthermore, the resolution reminds all of us in Pittsburgh that once a diocese has been recognized by General Convention, there is no unilateral diocesan right of withdrawal from the church."
Remain Episcopal in the Diocese of San Joaquin, another Via Media affiliate, said in a June 18 statement that it is pleased that the Executive Council "has clarified what has been the historical polity of The Episcopal Church."
During its convention in December 2006, San Joaquin approved the first reading of a series of constitutional amendments, including one which would remove references to the Episcopal Church. The constitutional amendment will not take effect until a second vote is taken at another annual convention in 2007. The second reading will require a two-thirds majority in order to pass.
"For us in the Diocese of San Joaquin, where the proposed disaffiliation amendment has already passed its first vote, the statement by our Executive Council brings great relief," Remain Episcopal said. "We are hopeful that the leaders and members of our Diocese will now turn back from schismatic actions and move forward with our task of reconciliation."
There are no names attached to the chancellors' statement on the Pittsburgh website and the statement does not yet appear on any of the other three dioceses' websites. Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan is the moderator of the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, of which the bishops of Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin were founding members.
In November of 2004, the Diocese of Pittsburgh adopted an amendment to its constitution that reads "In cases where the provisions of the Constitution and Canons of the Church in the Diocese of Pittsburgh speak to the contrary, or where resolutions of the Convention of said Diocese have determined the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, or resolutions of its General Convention, to be contrary to the historic Faith and Order of the one holy catholic and apostolic church, the local determination shall prevail."
A sidebar to the chancellors' statement on the Pittsburgh website, titled "What is at issue in Pittsburgh?" says that the Executive Council "is attempting to undo a 2004 change to Pittsburgh's diocesan constitution that gives the diocesan convention the right to disagree with the national church about matters of faith and order."
Pittsburgh's diocesan leadership announced in late May that it had begun discerning the "future path of the diocese." The Standing Committee, Diocesan Council and Board of Trustees outlined four options including
"simply keep doing what it has been doing, remaining on the periphery of The Episcopal Church, but not attempting to reach a concluding moment in the conflict";
"submit to the will of the Episcopal Church in its majority, reversing the diocesan convention's actions over the last four years";
"separate as a diocese from The Episcopal Church, an option a number of Anglican Communion Network dioceses are considering"; or
"attempt to create space for conserving parishes to negotiate an exit from the diocese."
The leadership's statement said the diocese's next convention, November 2-3, will set the diocese's course.
The first article of the Diocese of Fort Worth's constitution qualifies the diocese's accession to the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons and the authority of General Convention by saying that "no action of General Convention which is contrary to Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Teaching of the Church shall be of any force or effect in this Diocese."
Neither the Diocese of Quincy nor the Diocese of San Joaquin appears to post its constitution on its website. The Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons are posted on Quincy's website.
Meanwhile, Quincy Bishop Keith Ackerman, as well as retired Quincy Bishops Edward MacBurney and Donald Parsons and diocesan chancellor Tad Brenner, told a reporter for the Peoria, Illinois, Journal Star newspaper that the diocese hasn't changed its constitution since at least 1993. The constitution, the paper reported in its June 16 edition, states that the diocese accedes to the Episcopal Church's constitution "contingent upon the continuing consent of the diocesan synod."
The newspaper said Ackerman characterized the council's actions as having no real teeth.
"I served on the executive council for six years," he said. "It has very, very little authority."
The Executive Council carries out the programs and policies adopted by the General Convention, according to Canon I.4(1)(a). The council is comprised of 38 members, 20 of whom (four bishops, four priests or deacons and 12 lay people) are elected by General Convention and 18 (one clergy and one lay) by provincial synods, plus the Presiding Bishop and the president of the House of Deputies.
ENS Article on line