Friday, July 20, 2007

Constitution and Canons and Justice in the Church

After watching the events of the trial of Fr. David Bollinger, I am both relieved and disappointed in the reality of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church in governing our Church. It is the first time I have seen the ecclesiastical process of justice in action. In fact I believe that it was the first time that anyone in that ecclesial courtroom had ever been there before. The novelty of it all made the progress of the trial a bit unwieldy at first, but the Court handled the issues well, with solemnity and seriousness. This was no TV drama. In fact, no witnesses were called and no evidence allowed to be presented because the Diocese did not provide the requisite materials and lists of witness for the pre-trial discovery in a manner that would have provided fairness to both sides. In other words the Diocese did not play by the rules of basic juridical fairness in preparing for the trial.

It was in the clear sense of duty by the judges of the Court to see to it that the trial was going to be fair that chief judge, Carter Strickland made it clear that the Court was not going to cut any slack for the Diocese or the Bishop. The failure of the Diocese to be prepared for the trial when it had brought the charges and after three years of waiting was not going to be tolerated by the Court. Also it was clear that the Court “took umbrage” at the attempt by Bishop Adams to have the trial moved to another jurisdiction. That attempt was vetoed by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Central New York. I must admit I was relieved because there was considerable talk out and about in the diocese whether David could get a fair trial because the bishop had spent so much political cache on it.

In any case, Bishop Adam’s reputation is severely tarnished by not only bringing the charges, but also by the actions of the legal team under his direction. The attempt to move the trial to another jurisdiction when items for discovery were ordered by the court was not a wise move on his part. The failure to provide the proper information in the discovery portion of the legal proceedings, the refusal to provide the Shafer Report when ordered by the Court, and continual delay in the proceedings have shown a propensity of our Diocesan to not provide for the appropriate climate of fairness for the clergy and laity of the Diocese.

In addition, the Diocese, which is responsible for equitable justice, refused to pay for the legal counsel for Fr. Bollinger. Fr. Bollinger had been forced to file for bankruptcy in January due to the loss of salary, loss of health benefits and the loss of standing in the Owego community in which he tried to gain employment in the time before the Court convened. He was unable to secure legal counsel to help defend him even though the Diocese secured a separate firm to lead the prosecution. It is incumbent upon the Church to be above reproach when it can so easily ruin a person’s reputation without ever resolving the issue. It is also incumbent for such proceedings, accusations and evidence to be manifestly available to the public, for it is the Light of Christ that we wish to shine down on such proceedings. As Church, we must be willing to undergo the perusal of the whole community so that we are not seen as hiding or obfuscating the facts. The recent history of churches to do that demands that we be more than open about legal proceedings in which we are involved.

One of the things that attracted me to the Episcopal Church was that all persons, laity, clergy and bishops had access to the power structure of the Church. What I have seen is that the structures that once held great checks and balances on power have been eroded in the revisions of the disciplinary canons of Title IV. Clergy are quite vulnerable in the present day. There are those who would see the Constitution and Canons as an alternative to the basic rights afforded us as citizens of the nations in which we live. I do not remember my Canon Law professor ever telling me that I gave up my rights as a citizen of the United States when I was ordained. Yet we have bishops who will tell us that Canon Law is like the Military Code of Justice. That was certainly not the intention of the founders of the Episcopal Church. Those rights to a fair and speedy trial are as much ours as clergy as it is for any citizen. For as Dr. Martin Luther King said: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

We are not above the law in the Church. We must be, however, absolutely willing to call forth from ourselves, as Church, a way of living and doing business that gives no hint of malice, obfuscation, or sloth in the face of equality. To be anything else tarnishes the Gospel for which we are gathered and formed. But I was gratified that even the canons leave something to be desired and Diocesan authority left something to be desired, the sense of fairness was embodied in the judges, both clergy and lay.

The Epicopal Church has been under much pressure over the past 4 years, pressure that seems unfair and hurtful. But what is still evident is that it is the people in the Church that still make us hope. The faith in Jesus Christ still abides among us, and it matters not who assumes authority among us, it is the Incarnation of Christ that rights the wrongs of life. Thanks be to God.

1 comment:

Caminante said...

In part, but not wholly, if General Convention 2006 had not had to spend so much energy and time on the Windsor Report, we might have been able to consider the changes to Title IV but, as was, the changes were huge and not terribly helpful and there was simply not enough time to deal adequately with them, so the whole thing was sent back to committee and we got left with what we have.