Title IV: Abandonment Without Offense?

Written by:
Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Bishop Dorsey Henderson, President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, has responded to questions concerning the canonical process underway involving Bishop Mark Lawrence. We appreciate his clarification on a matter of great interest to the church.

Many in the church had assumed that the Lawrence matter was being processed by the normal intake procedures specified under the new Title IV. Included among these were bishops sympathetic to the national church who assumed that this was the beginning of an extended procedure involving the Reference Panel, subsequent Conference and Hearing Panels, and the normal process of notice and opportunity to be heard inherent in the trial process. We were dubious of that assumption ourselves, but that was one of the questions we raised in our earlier piece on this matter. We are grateful for an answer.

It is now clear that there will be no such process. The matter will be considered by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, meeting as a whole, which will vote whether to certify Bishop Lawrence for abandonment. If it were to certify that Bishop Lawrence has abandoned the church, his ministry would be restricted immediately (what formerly was called inhibition) and the matter would be sent straight to the House of Bishops at its next meeting (following a period of at least sixty days). If the Disciplinary Board votes by the end of this year, that meeting would be the March meeting of the House of Bishops at which Bishop Lawrence would be deposed if the House so votes by a majority vote.

One issue Bishop Henderson does not address is the apparent failure of all involved in this matter to comply with the canonical duty imposed on all clergy to “report to the Intake Officer all matters which may constitute an Offense.” (IV.4.1(f).) Contrary to Bishop Henderson’s implication that these deal only with a narrow category (“moral and/or legal infractions”) the offenses that must be reported include (i) any material instance of “knowingly violating or attempting to violate, directly or through the acts of another person, the Constitution or Canons of the Church or of any Diocese”; and (ii) any material failure to “abide by the promises and vows made when ordained.” This reporting obligation was the primary focus of our earlier piece, and the failure, if it was one, to provide this information to the Intake Officer as required suggests that all of the bishops and others familiar with these facts had concluded that they do not even arguably constitute a canonical offense or a violation of ordination vows.

It does not matter that this is also being investigated as potential abandonment. Unlike the abandonment process, which is discretionary, reporting to the Intake Officer is mandatory. This is not optional, nor is there an exception if one decides on one’s own that this matter may also be so serious as to constitute a case of abandonment. This is not a trivial matter; it is important even in the case of something that is arguably abandonment to follow the normal intake process and for the Reference Panel to consider whether these issues might benefit from those aspects of due process that the normal hearing process provides.

This duty to report falls on all clergy with knowledge of the facts, including the Presiding Bishop, the President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, and all other bishops, priests and deacons of the church. It is well known that these allegations have been presented to the Presiding Bishop, the Executive Council and the House of Bishops on numerous occasions. How the abandonment process meshes with the normal Title IV procedures is not at all clear, just one of the many failings in the new title. But this much is crystal clear: all matters that even arguably are a violation of the canons or a violation of ordination vows must be reported to the Intake Officer.

And unless we have entered a Kafkaesque realm of canonical jurisprudence, one cannot be found to have “abandoned” The Episcopal Church if one has unarguably complied fully with the Constitution and canons and one’s ordination vows. But this appears to be the realm in which Bishop Lawrence now finds himself. For he is being fast-tracked for abandonment when all the leaders of the church, including the Disciplinary Board itself, implicitly must have concluded that these matters do not rise to the level that they even “may” constitute a violation of the canons or Bishop Lawrence’s ordination vows.

October 11 2011 07:46 pm | Articles