The now inhibited and tried bishop of Pennsylvania, Charles Bennison, has been sentenced to deposition. The whole process has been one of pain and sadness on all sides. Bishop Bennison has had every opportunity to respond and in most instances seems not to have been able to distinguish the reality of his improper behavior from whatever mitigating circumstances there may have been. Quite apart from the charges in the trial, his wider behavior as bishop has been marked by an apparent unwillingness to deal with the many dissatisfactions with his leadership style and his actions. So it comes as no surprise that he is now mounting a plea that the sentence of deposition be lifted. (Photo on right from Religious Intelligence.)
Religious Intelligence reports that "On Nov 11 attorneys for the Rt Rev Charles E Bennison, Jr, asked the nine-member court meeting at a Philadelphia hotel to modify its sentence, saying that deposing their client was tantamount to an ecclesiastical “death penalty.” The attorneys, acting no doubt with the full cooperation of Bishop Bennison, rightly consider deposition following trial to be the end of Bishop Bennison's career in the church. It is hard to know what sort of modification of sentence might be considered. Having found him guilty "of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, and conspiracy to cover up the sexual abuse," there is little room for any other response than deposition. To think that he might not be deposed and somehow continue in an ecclesiastical office seems pretty far fetched. It is a participation in denial.
Beyond the unrealistic hope that there will be a mitigated sentence, Bishop Bennison is quoted in The Living Church as having said,
“I love the church and I don’t want it to be unjust,” he said. “The Presiding Bishop repeatedly urged me to resign and make this all go away. That is the way that the church worked too often in the past. This is not just about me, it is about the integrity of the church.
“The charges are not fair and they are not true,” he said. “I don’t want to be remembered for something the court claims I did. This has been very costly, but no matter how it comes out, I’ll know I’ve done everything I could to make it come out right.”
I have no doubt that Bishop Bennison loves the church, but this is about him. Saying "This is not just about me, it is about the integrity of the church" echoes the lament of Richard Nixon whose battles were often seen by him and those around him as about the presidency rather than about him as president.
Denial takes many forms, of course, and Bishop Bennison is not alone in the practice of that particular skill. In a far ranging interview with Greg Griffith, Bishop Jack Iker has his own brand of denial. Bishop Iker is leading most of the clergy and people from the Diocese of Fort Worth out of the Episcopal Church and momentarily into the Province of the Southern Cone, there to wait the formation of a new improved Anglican Province in North America, recognized by the GAFCON bishops.
Here is Greg's exchange with Bishop Iker about the origins of the diocese:
"Greg Griffith: Do you have any intention of changing the name of the diocese?
Bishop Iker: We'll remain The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, because that's who we are, and who we were when we were formed, before we came into union with General Convention in 1982. In 1982 the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth applied to be admitted into union with the General Convention (the wording of the resolution), and we were. This will be our 26th annual convention, and we've decided we cannot remain faithful to the Gospel and the teachings of scriptures while we're under the authority of the General Convention Church. But that doesn't change who we are; it changes our relationship with the General Convention authority.
Greg Griffith: So not just from a conceptual standpoint, but really from an official standpoint, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth is not a creation of General Convention.
Bishop Iker: Not at all. If it's a "creation" of anything, it's a creation of the Diocese of Dallas, which decided for missionary and church growth purposes that they would divide the diocese in two. Two-thirds of the geographical area remained the diocese of Dallas. They wanted to create a new diocese which at the time didn't have a name; it was referred to as the "western diocese," so the first convention had to, among other things, choose our name - it wasn't given to us by someone else. There were several proposals, and the vote was that we call ourselves the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth."
He fails to point out that the Diocese of Dallas had to petition the General Convention to separate out a portion of the diocese to form a new diocese, or that the "Western Diocese" in formation was not actually a diocese but rather a "convocation of clergy and laity" which group is a diocese in formation until its constitution and canons are received and approved by Executive Council. At the point of union with the General Convention the new diocese is a reality, and not until then. None of this matters very much to most of us, except we ought to note that Bishop Iker is arguing that the diocese existed prior to the union with the General Convention and is not a product of that union and therefore can do as it wishes concerning being part of the Episcopal Church. This is simply the practice of denial.
Unfortunately, Bishop Iker omits the canonical requirement that "a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention." The C&C makes no provision for a diocese to leave the Episcopal Church without approval of General Convention or to have a life apart from it. There are numerous instances where dioceses have left The Episcopal Church, either to become parts of new Provinces or to be "extra-provincial," but they all involved prior approval of General Convention.
Over in Pittsburgh the realignment community consisting of the bishop, most of the clergy and many of the laity, have organized themselves as a diocese related to the Southern Cone. In a statement filled with wonderful inventions of the mind, well attested to by Lionel Deimel on his Web log, there is this:
"Leaders representing a majority of the world's Anglican Christians, as well as many inside and outside The Episcopal Church in North America, never accepted the validity of The House of Bishops' decision to remove Bishop Duncan from leadership. In spite of the decision's deep defects, Bishop Duncan and the diocese elected to submit to the purported "deposition," so long as the diocese was part of that denomination."
Moderator Duncan was wise to submit to the deposition, since the "leaders representing a majority of the world's Anglican Christians" have no say in the matter and those "inside The Episcopal Church" who "never accepted the validity of the House of Bishop's decision" to depose him did not determine the results. The majority of bishops in the House of Bishops voted to concur with the decision to depose him. The notion that one can submit only until he, or more strangely, the diocese was no longer part of the denomination and call that submission is very peculiar. This sort of thinking makes it possible for any person deposed - say Bishop Bennison - to accept deposition until he leaves the denomination, in which case he can recant his submission to authority and simply go about being a bishop again in other fields.
The notion that submission to the Church's authority is morally binding because of the promises made in ordination seems to have simply slipped by and been forgotten. Denial has a home in the hearts of many, it appears.
And, to round it out The Living Church proclaimed in its banner for the article, "Quincy Promises 'Christian Charity' for Remaining Episcopalians." It seems that the Clergy and Lay leaders at the Diocesan Synod who voted to leave the Episcopal Church are reported to have been filled with Christian Charity. They would work “diligently, in good faith, and with Christian charity with any member of the clergy who might wish to seek canonical transfer to another diocese of the person’s choice.” He added that parishes have a nine-month grace period in which they may withdraw from the synod, provided that such a move is approved by a two-thirds vote of eligible parish members."
Sounds great, except that the decision to leave was accompanied by a form for clergy that made it clear that unless they wrote "reject" on the certificate making them members of the Province of the Southern Cone they were in. It appears that clergy who wrote reject are being told that they must be the ones to leave and find another diocesan home. Further, parishes can withdraw from synod but only by a two-thirds vote. The whole charitable attitude is based on the proposition that clergy and parishes not going with those who voted to leave the Episcopal Church are the ones who are leaving, and having to ask permission to do so to boot. Charity too often looks exactly like this: we are glad to help you provided you understand you are one down.
And of course the denial here is that the clergy and laity in Synod who voted to leave deny that they are doing so at all, but rather that they are staying exactly as they are, but "simply" changing the Province to which they relate.
So denial floats, and people latch on to it, and if the same twists in facts are repeated over and over again there is always hope that people will be numbed to the reality. The reality is that Bishop Bennison's trial is about him, that the Diocese of Fort Worth is a product of General Convention, that Moderator Duncan was deposed and that the realignment crowd in Quincy has left, not those who remain Episcopalian.