The Diocese of San Joaquin is widely thought to be preparing to secede from the Episcopal Church. It is at least considering doing so. So the question needs to be asked, “Can a Diocese secede from the Episcopal Church, and if so how?”
What follows are some thoughts on this matter. I must first, of course, make the following obvious disclaimer: I am not a canonist and my conjectures only arise from interest in the subject, not expertise. Thus I am sure to be soundly criticized. This is an exploratory exercise, not a finished product. Still, perhaps it is useful to proceed.
The matter of secession under the current Constitution and Canons:
What makes a Diocese part of the Episcopal Church is the “union” it has with General Convention. That is, its bishop is a member of the House of Bishops and the Deputies entitled to represent the Diocese are members of the House of Deputies of General Convention.
The Dioceses that formed the Episcopal Church, that is who sent bishops and deputies to the first and perhaps several conventions after were admitted by virtue of presence, that is, by actual inclusion. The question of admission of dioceses is now covered by Article V of the Constitution. But in every case the Diocese becomes part of the Episcopal Church by inclusion in General Convention, which determines admission in every instance.
There are rules in the Constitution covering the admission, division, joining, cession of diocesan territory and/ or jurisdiction and retrocession of jurisdiction.
There are provisions under Canon I.11 (Of Missionary Jurisdictions) for a Diocese to secede from the union with General Convention, specifically when a Missionary Diocese “beyond the territory of the United States of America” (1.11.3b) becomes “extra provincial” or part of another Province or where several Dioceses form part of a new Province. The General Convention can grant autonomy to such Missionary Dioceses.
There seems to be nothing in the Constitution or Canons concerning the ability of a Diocese part of “the territory of the United States of America” to secede from the Union. The special situation of the division between the Episcopal Church in the United States of America and the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America does not provide any clarity, in part because the argument of being part of “the territory of the United States of America” was precisely the question of civil union – namely can a state secede from the Union. If a state could, then the diocese in that state were no longer part of the territory of the United States, and were no longer clearly part of the Episcopal Church. If states could not secede, then the diocese were part of the Church. Unfortunately the only way to determine if a state could secede was to try by force of war. The true separation of the two bodies of dioceses, one in the North the other in the South, awaited the end of the war. At the end there was one nation and one Church.
So what happens if the clerical and lay leadership of a Diocese simply walk away? What if the Convention of a Diocese stops sending member bishops and deputies to General Convention or House of Bishops meetings, it stops contributing to the budget of the Church?
Contributions to the budget are a special case, for there is a canon regarding assessments. (Canon I.1.8) Presumably failure to pay the assessment constitutes a disobedience of canon, and opens a portal for the claim that because the leaders of the Diocese have abandoned their fiduciary responsibilities they have broken the canonical requirements for inclusion in the Episcopal Church.
But what about non-attendance? Suppose Bishop and Deputies simply do not attend meetings? At what point can the General Convention declare the representation of the Diocese vacated and appoint representatives or provide for the territory of that diocese to be absorbed by neighboring dioceses, or declare the area a mission territory to which it will appoint a bishop? I see nothing helpful in the canons, which means I suppose that General Convention can act as it sees fit.
There is, however, the matter of unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. The admission of new dioceses into union with the General Convention includes submission of the Constitution of the Diocese which includes a statement of “unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church.” (Constitution V.1) But what about those dioceses whose admission formed the Convention out of which the Constitution was written, or those who were admitted prior to the requirements of “unqualified accession (if such a time ever existed)?” It can be argued that those dioceses have in fact conformed by practice. But whatever those arguments, bishops, by their unqualified pledge at ordination, are required to conform to the Constitution. Here is what the oath looks like: “In the Name of God, Amen. I, N., chosen Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in N., do promise conformity and obedience to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. So help me God, through Jesus Christ. (from the 1789 BCP). Now the form reads (from the Constitution – VIII) “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 engaged to conform to the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of the Episcopal Church.”
When a Diocese changes its own Constitution or Canons to strike unqualified accession or conformity, and the Bishop of that Diocese has declared him or her self to be subject to the Constitution of the Diocese and not the Episcopal Church there has been a breach of unqualified accession. At that point, it seems to me, the Diocese and / or the Bishop has defaulted on the oath of conformity. At some point the General Convention can declare the dissolution of the union between the Diocese as currently constituted and the Episcopal Church and reconstitute the diocese with a Constitution that gives unqualified accession and with a bishop who continues a pledge of conformity.
It seems to me then that there is a basis on which the General Convention could declare a Diocese vacated by its Bishop and Diocesan Convention, and by extension by its Deputies – the proof of which would be that the Diocese fails to send representatives, fails to financially support or fails to exercise authority in conformity with the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. What the General Convention then does with the ministry in the territory now vacated can be dealt with by reorganizing the diocese.
To declare a diocese vacant is not to declare that it no longer exists. Since a diocese represents the ministry of this church in a specific territory that work can be reassigned in a variety of ways congruent with the Constitution and Canons of the Church. It can be argued that the material and financial resources previously entrusted to the Diocesan offices now declared vacated revert to the trust of the Episcopal Church for the ministry to be done in that territory in whatever manner determined by the General Convention. Canon maintains this, but it is unclear just how civil law will understand the matter.
Since the church is made up of people who form a voluntary organization there is nothing that can prevent individuals from leaving. They could indeed form a new diocesan structure and seek other synod arrangements. Since the Episocpal Church would not be vacating its ministry to a particular area jurisdiction, any such synodical arrangements would almost surely be with a church not in communion with this church since we state in our Canons (I.11.4) that “no two bishops of Churches in communion with each other should exercise jurisdiction in the same place; except as may be defined by a concordat adopted jointly by the competent authority of each of the said Churches, after consultation with the appropriate inter-Anglican body.”
The conclusion is then that no Diocese may secede from the Union that constitutes the General Convention. People may go, but the missionary obligation of the Episcopal Church for the work in the territory vacated remains and the determination of the ecclesial structure of the work done in that territory is made by the General Convention.
When those who leave wish to take property and financial resources with them a wide range of options arise. Unfortunately, since vacating the premises assumes non conformity to the Constitution and Canons there is in principle no reason why those leaving will agree that all such material effects are held in trust for and by the Episcopal Church. Matters are made all the more difficult because the pure case of total agreement of bishops, clergy and people of a diocese to leave will almost never be the reality. There is no end to the problems that will arise in determining ownership of property and money.
The days may be upon us when the General Convention may be called upon to deny seating, voice or vote to deputations, or to declare a diocese vacant, and determine new structures for the work in those jurisdictions. Certainly it seems more and more important to find ways to hold bishops accountable to their oaths and dioceses to the requirement of “unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church.”