The Episcopal Church: "Injustice in the Name of Justice"
By Ladson F. Mills III
Special to virtueonline
March 15, 2013
The Episcopal Church prides itself on its commitment to justice. Our national church leaders engage this word "religiously" to support their current agenda. The clergy of one diocese note that whenever their new bishop desires to make any change it is presented as an issue of justice regardless of how innocuous the issue may be. Perhaps this bishop is a victim of what has become self evident. In the Episcopal Church justice has become synonymous for bullying through legality.
Recently the competing dioceses in South Carolina met for their respective conventions. The larger, with eighty percent chose to remain under the leadership of Mark Lawrence. The other eighteen percent remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church under provisional bishop Charles vonRosenberg. While both sides placed their best foot forward the more crucial meeting was being played out at the Kanuga Camp and Conference Center with the meeting of the House of Bishops. I welcomed an unplanned encounter with several of the bishops attending the meeting.
I took full advantage of this to ask some troubling questions. Where is the justice in the decision to bring charges against nine bishops for offering their opinion in the form of an Amicus Brief. This brief was filed in court cases between the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Fort Worth in Texas and Quincy in Illinois.
Why were these nine bishops publicly humiliated under threat of church discipline?
An Amicus Brief or "Friend of the Court Brief" is typically filed by those who are not a party in the case but to offer the court information which may have bearing. Supreme Court Rule 37 states that it must contain relevant material which may be of considerable help to the court.
This particular brief concerns the polity of the Episcopal Church. It is disturbing that bishops must now only express opinions approved by the presiding bishop and her chancellor. These nine bishops presented the traditionally held view that the Episcopal Church is made up of a confederation of dioceses. The current presiding bishop is making every effort to set up an archdiocesan system which is hierarchical in polity. Why are opinions expressed by bishop's supporting court cases against South Carolina and Mark Lawrence acceptable while the opinion of these nine are not? I inquired if manipulating their testimony might violate First Amendment rights or perhaps constitute a contempt of court. Might a creative lawyer be able to present this as a civil rights violation?
Now in fairness neither gentlemen was expecting our conversation. One answered that while these were important questions he would need time to ponder. I believed him to be honest and hope he will respond. It was not, however the legal response which I was seeking, but a moral one. It is painfully clear that justice in the Episcopal Church has been reduced to legalism.
According to my sources within the federal judiciary withdrawal of an Amicus Brief during a case is not unusual but in this case was not required. Restrictions on future briefs under duress of discipline from the national church might smack of Nazi style totalitarianism, but it is legal. Courts regard church discipline as under the purview of the church and therefore protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. Therefore the Episcopal Church leadership remains free to manipulate and bully these nine . As usual Chancellor Beers is prepared to use the legal system to his full advantage. It may not pass the moral test for justice, but it is legal. If there was ever any doubt there can be none now that under the new Title IV Canon freedom of expression is eradicated.
Justice, as these nine bishops have discovered is no longer about right and wrong but superficial legalities.Perhaps the Episcopal Church has forgotten that it once was a beacon in the moral high road of justice issues. The fight against segregation, once the law in the south, is just one example. We are left to ponder how a church dedicated to justice could deny freedom to its members for expressing opinions when their expertise is appropriate.
Adding to the confusion has been a supporting statement for a historic hierarchy in the Episcopal Church by the well-known University of South Carolina Professor and historian Dr. Walter Edgar. Dr. Edgar's opinion as expressed to the court in the current case is hardly definitive. While many view him as an outside the diocese expert it has been revealed to VOL that Dr. Edgar is a member of an Edisto Island, South Carolina group remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church under vonRosenberg .
Religious freedom as upheld by the First Amendment of the Constitution is a tricky concept. Just like the Uniform Code of Military Justice for members of the armed forces, separation of Church and State allows churches to exempt members from certain legal rights in order to voluntarily serve. These rights, however may be set aside but are never forfeited .
Some years ago a bishop wrote to his diocese: "When the concerns about the individual and personal become prominent , to the detriment to the communal and the corporate, then a destructive self righteousness may emerge...and, perhaps, a victim mentality...and, eventually, a martyrdom complex."
That was written by Provisional Bishop von Rosenberg to the Diocese of East Tennessee in October 2010. Yet in the petition recently filed in federal courts his lawyers state "that without immediate injunctive relief Bishop vonRosenberg will continue to suffer significant spiritual and financial loss."
Several things are readily apparent from his statement. Two years later with significant assets at stake vonRosenberg now asserts that it is not unjust for a minority of eighteen percent to overrule the majority of eighty. It also reveals the strategy of the presiding bishop and her chancellor in that if a judge grants them control of the property and finances the membership will return. Given their failure to present a compelling argument to the majority of South Carolina Episcopalians the court system may be their only hope.
It is now clear what does not lie beneath the surface of those leading the Episcopal Church. Their actions are self revelatory. We have now sunk to the point where differing opinions, even from the loyal, must be suppressed.
Injustice in the name of justice. Where is the justice in that?
Ladson F. Mills III is a priest with over thirty years pastoral experience. He is retired and lives with his wife in South Carolina. He currently serves as Scholar in Residence at Church of Our Saviour, Johns Island. He is a regular contributor to Virtueonline
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