George Conger reports:
The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops has deposed the Bishop of San Joaquin and the retired suffragan Bishop of Maryland for “abandonment of the Communion” of the Episcopal Church following a closed trial in Texas on March 12. However, a joint investigation by The Church of England Newspaper and The Living Church magazine has revealed procedural and legal inconsistencies that may render the vote a nullity.
The ecclesiastical trial of Bishop John-David Schofield was a necessary part of the Episcopal Church’s legal strategy to secure the property of the Diocese of San Joaquin, US Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said on March 12. However, the flawed trial has created a legal anomaly leaving Bishop Schofield in place as Episcopal bishop of San Joaquin, when neither he, nor Bishop Schori, want him to hold that post.
“The current public dispute over the canonical legality of the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops’ recent vote to depose Bishops Schofield and Cox amounts at best to a severe embarrassment to the Presiding Bishop, her advisors, and the House itself; at worst, it exposes a travesty of Christian justice and prudence,” the Anglican Communion Institute noted.
“The result of this dispute and the failures of good order leading up to it will inevitably be the further erosion of [the Episcopal Church’s] standing in the public’s eye and in the Communion’s councils,” it said.
Bishop Schofield was consecrated Bishop of San Joaquin in 1989. Last December, he presided over a diocesan convention at which clergy and lay delegates voted overwhelmingly to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone. For this action Bishop Schofield was found by a review committee to have abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church, and was suspended from office pending a trial.
Title IV, Canon 9 section 2 of the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons requires that the House of Bishops “by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote” must give its consent to depose a bishop under the abandonment of communion canon.
Eligible voters are defined as both active and retired bishops. Of the 294 bishops eligible to vote, less than a third were present for the trial. To lawfully depose Bishop Schofield, 148 votes would have to have been cast in favor of deposition.
As of breakfast on the last day of the House of Bishop’s March 7-12 meeting, 115 active and retired bishops were present. However, by the start of the trial only 68 active bishops answered the roll call, as did an undisclosed number of retired bishops.
The two hour trial in absentia began with a reading of the charges, followed by prayers from the chaplain. The bishops then broke apart into small groups and then gathered in a plenary session for debate.
A voice vote was held, first for Bishop Schofield and then for Bishop Cox, and both were declared to have been deposed. Questioned about the canonical inconsistencies at a post-meeting press conference, North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry defended the proceedings but admitted that there had been no discussion of its legality. “We have acted in recommendation to our canonical advisers,” he said. ”We acted in accordance with the canons.”
During the press conference, Bishop Schori said she had refused to accept Bishop Schofield’s resignation from the House of Bishops because the canons required a sitting diocesan bishop of the Church to receive permission to resign from the House of Bishops. His letter of resignation was flawed, she said. “He resigned his membership in the House of Bishops, not his status as a bishop with jurisdiction.”
The Episcopal Church had to bring him to trial and to refuse his resignation, as it needed to “clarify the status of the Corporate Sole. It is inappropriate for him to retain control of it.”
Trusteeship of the property of the Diocese of San Joaquin is vested in the Bishop, under California law, by means of a Corporate Sole-whereby the bishop by virtue of his office is trustee of the property.
Bishop Schori told the press conference that Bishop Schofield following the trial was “outside my sphere of influence. No longer a member of the House of Bishops. Not a member of the clergy. Not my concern.”
However, the revelation that the trial failed to conform to canon law, and by failing to garner enough votes to depose Bishop Schofield, had resulted in his legal acquittal, sparked a firestorm of controversy.
The Presiding Bishop’s lawyer, David Booth Beers released a statement on March 15, stating that his “position” was that the requirement that all bishops eligible to vote could be interpreted to mean all eligible to vote who happened to be present at the meeting.
What steps will now be taken to remedy the situation are unclear as both sides are confused as to how to act. Bishop Schori has already nominated a new bishop to serve as her designee in San Joaquin—retired Northern California Bishop Jerry Lamb. However, leading clergy of the diocese who wish to remain within the Episcopal Church have declined to meet with him, citing the failed trial as evidence that Bishop Schofield remains the Episcopal bishop.
On Palm Sunday, Bishop Schofield preached in his cathedral in Fresno—with Bishop Lamb seated in the front row of the congregation. Greeted with applause, Bishop Schofield defended his decision to affiliate with the Southern Cone as an act of moral necessity.
Bishop Schori had called a special convention of the diocese for March 29 to ratify Bishop Lamb’s appointment as Episcopal bishop. However, under civil and canon law the failed trial leaves Bishop Schofield as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in the US Church, and Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin in the Province of the Southern Cone.