We are living in a strange time.
The leadership of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth is claiming they can “take the diocese” out of The Episcopal Church. They claim our diocesan convention can vote to leave for the Province of the Southern Cone and take all of us – and the property – with them.
They are portraying the time between the first vote on this action and the second vote as a “time of discernment” for parishes, although this mostly consists of a team of spokesmen for the diocese visiting each parish to “make their case.”
As strange as this time is for most parishes, it’s even stranger for those parishes that are in or about to be in a search process. Imagine those conversations – “We’d like you to consider applying for rector of our parish, even though our bishop tells us we won’t be in The Episcopal Church by this time next year.”
Makes for a short list of candidates, don’t you imagine?
But then that’s normal for this diocese. Our bishop accepts no newly ordained clergy except from Nashotah House. He accepts no female priests, of course. He accepts no male priests who have been ordained by bishops who are women. He accepts no openly gay priests who will not sign a pledge of celibacy. He accepts no priests who support the ordination of gay men who are in committed relationships. He accepts no priests who support or who have performed the blessing of a same sex union. He will accept male priests who support the ordination of women as long as they agree not to make a big deal about it [assuming they were ordained by a male bishop].
Search committees are typically given a list from the bishop’s office and are left with the impression that they can choose only from that list.
But our diocesan canons give search committees and vestries more power in this process than they are led to believe.
It DOES take a vestry and a search committee who knows what the canons actually say, not just what the bishop says they say. Which is:
Sec. 33.1 Upon the organization of a new Parish or in the event of a vacancy in the Rectorship of an existing Parish, the Wardens shall give notice within three (3) days to the Bishop of the Diocese of such vacancy. It shall be the duty of the Bishop or his deputy to meet with the Vestry of the vacant Parish before the Vestry takes whatever measures may be necessary to continue regular services. If the Vestry of the Parish shall for 30 days have failed to make provision for the services it shall be the duty of the Bishop to take whatever measures may be necessary to continue regular services.
NOTE: The bishop puts an interim in the parish ONLY IF THE VESTRY hasn't taken action to do so within 30 days. You CAN pick your own interims, folks.
Sec. 33.2 In the case of a vacancy in the Rectorship of a Parish the Bishop or his deputy shall meet with the Vestry of a vacant Parish to discuss the calling process. The Bishop shall suggest the names of one (1) or more priests to fill the vacancy. The Vestry shall, in the calling process, inform the Bishop of other priests that it would like to consider for the vacant post.
Note: You don't have to stick with the bishop's list. You CAN add candidates of your own.
Sec. 33.3 Following notice that the Bishop has no objection or if after thirty (30) days the Bishop has made no objection to any Vestry nominee(s), the Vestry may proceed, either from the Bishop's suggestions or from the list submitted to the Bishop.
Sec. 33.4 If the Bishop objects to any priest nominated by the Vestry, he must do so in writing within 30 days, giving his reasons therefor. Before proceeding to an election, the Vestry shall consider such objection at a meeting called and held for that purpose.
NOTE: The Vestry has to CONSIDER the bishop's objections, not automatically cave in to them. [See below]
Sec. 33.5 A Vestry, having decided upon the person whom they wish to call as Rector of the Parish, sends the name of that person to the Bishop, who is given not more than thirty (30) days in which to communicate with the Vestry in the matter. At the end of thirty (30) days, or as soon as a communication has been received from the Bishop, the Vestry may proceed to an election. Written notice of such election shall then be sent to the Bishop, signed by the Wardens confirming a majority of the entire Vestry. If the Bishop be satisfied that the person so elected is a duly qualified Priest, the Vestry may then, but not until then, proceed to issue a call to such Priest to become Rector of the Parish.
Note: The only requirement the bishop can impose is determining that the person so elected "is a duly qualified priest," NOT that the person agrees with the bishop and NOT that the person graduated from a certain seminary.
Sec. 33.6 Once the Priest has accepted the call, the Bishop shall notify the Secretary of the Diocesan Convention and the Registrar of the Diocese both of whom shall record it. Such record shall be sufficient evidence of the relation between the new Rector and his Parish.
Revised October, 1991
The key is a vestry/search committee with knowledge of the canons and the fortitude to stand up to the bishop's pressure to call a priest of his choosing. It also is worth noting that any parish should look very closely at calling a priest who is willing to break this solemn vow:
I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church.
Here is some commentary from White and Dykeman's Annotated Constitution and Canons:
" White & Dykeman in their commentary on the Church Canons argue a bishop has the right to reject the election of a rector1 due to the “duly qualified Priest” phrase of Title III, Canon 9. In their opinion “qualified” must “...receive a more comprehensive meaning than merely that he has been ordained; it must be taken to mean that the bishop is to be satisfied of the general fitness of the Minister elected, both morally and intellectually, before he can be compelled to transmit the certificate to the Wardens, as to the election of such Minister, to the Secretary of the Convention for record, and thus complete such election to a Parish under his jurisdiction."2
White & Dykeman do not argue a bishop has an unqualified right to reject the election of a rector, for any rejection must be based on a determination the priest’s general moral or intellectual fitness is deficient. Rejection for any other reason appears to be a violation of the Canons of the Church, which would make a bishop liable for presentment under the terms of Title IV Canon 1 Sec 1(e)3 Canon 3(C) and Sec 23 (a)(2).4
As generally used the phrase “general fitness” means “characteristic of the majority of those involved; prevalent; being the usual the case; true or applicable in most instances of those eligible” in terms of moral character and intellectual achievement and capability. More succinctly the phrase points to some moral or intellectual characteristic that sets a priest apart from the norm.
Canon Law gives no guidance as to specific actions or characteristics that would justify such a determination; however, church practice as in the case of Bishop Dixon’s rejection of the election of Fr. Edwards to be rector of St. John’s Parish in Accokeek is instructive. In rejecting Fr. Edwards’ election the Bishop cited “derogatory remarks...made about the Episcopal Church, including that ‘the machinery of the Church is hell-bound,’ and...teaching the importance of ‘gumming up the works of the Church.’ Opinion at 10; 172 F. Supp. 2d at 708. Furthermore, Father Edwards had advised her that his obedience to her, ‘as a woman bishop, would be limited;..he would not guarantee that he would obey her instructions regarding her visitation to Christ Church...and he would not guarantee her that he would not attempt to lead Christ Church out of the Church or attempt to take Church property as part of that effort.”5
Thus it can reasonably be concluded actions indicating unfitness must go quite a bit beyond the slightly strange, unusual or unconventional. Indeed it appears they must be such as to clearly and unequivocally set the priest apart from the norm.
It is also noteworthy as to church practice that Bp Dixon conveyed her decision and the reasons for it in writing to the vestry. The clear implication is that while the Bishop, assuming White & Dykeman are correct, has the right to reject the election of a rector, the Bishop is nonetheless accountable for that decision within the joint discernment process between a Diocesan Bishop and a parish vestry in selecting a new rector."
1 Canon Law commentators are not unanimous in the opinion that a Bishop has the right to reject the election of a rector see Stevick, Daniel B.; Canon Law: A Handbook (New York; Seabury Press, 1965) 193.
2 White & Dykeman, Church Law.
3 TITLE IV ECCLESIASTICAL DISCIPLINE
CANON 1: Of Offenses for Which Bishops, Priests, or Deacons May Be Presented and Tried, and Of Inhibitions
4 TITLE IV CANON 3: Of Presentments
Sec. 23 (a) A Bishop may be charged with any one or more of the Offenses other than Offenses specified in Canon IV.3.21(c) by
(1) three Bishops; or
(2) ten or more Priests, Deacons, or adult communicants of this Church in good standing, of whom at least two shall be Priests. One Priest and not less than six Lay Persons shall be of the Diocese of which the Respondent is canonically resident....
5 UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT, Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Greenbelt. Peter J. Messitte, District Judge. (CA-01-1838-PJM)