Abandonment of the Church is a distinct ground for ecclesiastical discipline. Abandonment may be included as part of a Complaint that does include an allegation of the commission of an Offense, but Abandonment may also be alleged without any allegation of commission of an Offense.
Abandonment by Bishops
Pursuant to Canon IV.16(A)(1), a bishop “abandons” The Episcopal Church in one of three ways:
- By openly renouncing the “Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church.” This might happen by preaching or writing things that are contrary to the teachings of the Church, or by promoting a theology that is contrary to the tenets set forth in the principle documents of the Church.
- By choosing to join or align themselves with another church or denomination that is not in communion with The Episcopal Church.
- By attempting to perform “Episcopal” acts, like confirmation or ordination, in another church that is not in communion with The Episcopal Church and without proper prior authorization.
Sometimes these things happen when a bishop has chosen to leave The Episcopal Church without engaging in a formal process to do so. It is a determination and process that enables the Church to remove a bishop from ministry in the Church without engaging in a Title IV process.
However, any of those manners of abandoning The Episcopal Church could also lead to a determination of an Offense under Title IV.
The canonical steps of the process are as follow:
- Certification by a majority of the members of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, to the Presiding Bishop and the Bishop in question, that the matter is being considered;
- The Presiding Bishop may, with advice and consent of the Advisory Council to the Presiding Bishop, place restrictions on the ministry of the Bishop in question for the period the matter is being considered by the Board;
- If the Board concludes by a majority of all its members that the Bishop in question has abandoned the Church, the Board certifies that fact to the Presiding Bishop;
- The Presiding Bishop records the certification and statement;
- The Presiding Bishop is required to place a complete restriction on the exercise of the ministry of the Bishop in question, to prohibit the Bishop's exercise of any Episcopal, ministerial, or canonical acts, until the House of Bishops investigates and acts on the matter;
- The Presiding Bishop or Presiding Officer of the House of Bishops gives notice to the Bishop in question of the certification and restriction;
- The Bishop in question has sixty (60) days from the date of the notice (a) to declare by verified written statement to the Presiding Bishop that the facts alleged in the certificate are false or (b) to resign the office of Bishop under the provisions of Canon III.12.7. If the Bishop in question fails to comply, the Bishop is subject to Deposition or Release and Removal.
- If the Presiding Bishop determines that the Bishop has complied with a good faith (a) retraction of or (b) denial that the Bishop made the declarations or committed the acts relied upon in the certificate, the Presiding Bishop shall, with the advice of consent of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, terminate the restriction.
- If the Presiding Bishop determines that the Bishop has not complied in good faith, the Presiding Bishop shall present the matter to the House of Bishops, at the next regular or special meeting of the Board; and
- The House of Bishops may, by a majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote, (a) consent to the deposition of the subject Bishop from the ordained ministry of The Episcopal Church and pronounce and record in the presence of two or more Bishops that the Bishop has been so deposed, or (b) consent to the release and removal of the subject Bishop from the ordained ministry of The Episcopal Church, by declaring such release and removal in the presence of two or more Bishops. Canon IV.16A(2).
Abandonment by Priests or Deacons
A priest or deacon abandons The Episcopal Church by (1) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church, (2) by the formal admission into any religious body not in communion with the Church, or (3) in any other way. Canon IV.16(B) (3).
The canonical steps of the process are as follow:
- The Diocesan Standing Committee receives a report that a Priest or Deacon canonically resident in the Diocese may have abandoned The Episcopal Church;
- The Standing Committee notifies the Bishop Diocesan and the subject Priest or Deacon that it is considering the matter;
- The Bishop Diocesan may, with advice and consent of the Standing Committee, place restrictions on the ministry of the subject Priest or Deacon while the matter is under consideration by the Standing Committee;
- The Standing Committee shall consider the facts of whether the subject Priest or Deacon has abandoned the Church;
- The Standing Committee makes a determination and transmits in writing its determination to the Bishop Diocesan, including a statement of the details and declarations relied upon in making its determination;
- If the Bishop Diocesan affirms the determination, the Bishop Diocesan (a) places restriction on the exercise of ministry of the subject Priest or Deacon for a period of sixty (60) days and (b) sends a copy of the determination, with a notice that the Priest or Deacon has the rights specified in Canon IV.16(B).3.4;
- Prior to the expiration of the sixty (60)-day period, the subject Priest or Deacon may (a) resign, or (b) communicate a good faith retraction or denial of the declarations or acts relied upon in the determination;
- If the Bishop Diocesan is reasonably satisfied that the retraction is in good faith, the Bishop Diocesan may withdraw the notice and restriction on ministry;
- If, after sixty (60) days, the subject Priest or Deacon has not resigned or made a good faith retraction, the Bishop Diocesan has a duty to either (a) depose the subject Priest or Deacon, or (b) if the Bishop Diocesan is satisfied that there is no previous irregularity or misconduct is involved, with the advice and consent of the Standing Committee, pronounce and record in the presence of two or more Priests that the subject Priest or Deacon is released and removed from the ordained Ministry of the Church and from the obligations attendant thereto and is deprived of the right to exercise in the Episcopal Church the gifts and spiritual authority conferred in Ordination.
- If there is no Bishop Diocesan in the Diocese, the Standing Committee shall submit the matter to the Bishop Diocesan of an adjacent Diocese, who shall have the authority of the Bishop Diocesan in the matter.
Best Practices Regarding Abandonment
The Presiding Bishop (for Bishops) or the Bishop Diocesan (for Priests and Deacons) may consider sending a letter to the subject Bishop, Priest, or Deacon seeking a conference or other communication. This letter can be pastoral in tone and open an opportunity to correct good faith misunderstandings and clarify the Bishop's, Priest's or Deacon's intention to recognize the episcopal authority.
Note that the Pastoral Directions issued as part of Title IV proceedings, including temporary restrictions on ministry or administrative leave, often impacts congregations and diocesan operations. For example, the applicable Transition Officer may need to be prepared to provide options for staffing temporary vacancies for Rectors, Priests in Charge, and Bishops. A Pastoral Direction should address the continued compensation of the Priest or Deacon during pendency of the disciplinary matter. A Restriction on Ministry may operate to remove authority of the Bishop, Priest, or Deacon from continuing to serve in diocesan offices based on ordained status. See Canon IV.7 generally regarding Pastoral Directives, Restrictions on Ministry, and Administrative Leave.