From Columbus: Title IV revisions get public hearing

June 13, 2006

The Legislative Committee on Canons heard mostly negative public comment June 13 on a resolution that would rewrite Title IV, the disciplinary canons of the church.

Eleven of the 13 people testifying spoke against resolution A153, which would replace the present adversarial system with a multi-layered approach that stresses mediation and reconciliation. The laity would also be subject to the proposed canons.

After an hour of public comment, the committee went into executive session for another hour and did not reopen the hearing to the public before adjourning.

Afterward, the House Deputies chair of the committee, Sally Johnson of the Diocese of Minnesota, said that Title IV may be on the agenda when the committee meets at 7:30 a.m. June 14.

During public testimony, many speakers expressed concern about including lay leaders in the new canons.

"I cannot imagine in a diocese the size of ours, how we would avoid simply being capsized by lots of complaints with folks who are essentially unhappy with others in their congregation," said the Rev. Sarah Shofstall, a deputy and Canon to the Ordinary from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. "I don’t want that kind of dispute having to be handled at the diocesan level."

The revisions would do away with the current structure of diocesan review committees and ecclesiastical trial courts. The actual functioning of the multi-layered approach to handling complaints was the subject of debate and various interpretations at the hearing.

The timing of the changes at this point in church history also worried several speakers at the hearing. "In my diocese and around the church right now, some of my conservative brothers and sisters are very anxious about the climate," Shofstall said, "and are very nervous that all kinds of disciplinary rules are going to be used against them."

Russ Randle, a lawyer and lay deputy from the Diocese of Virginia, agreed. "The church is not ready to receive changes right now. It’s not the right time to do this."

The proposed changes also seem too complicated, said the Rev. Susan Eaves, a deputy from the Diocese of Virginia. "I’m concerned about the complexity of the structure, particularly the human resources which are going to have to be employed, particularly in a smaller diocese."

Under the proposal, several dioceses could agree to combine resources to carry out parts of the process requirements in their jurisdictions.

The Rev. Chris Thompson of the Diocese of Southern Virginia, speaking on behalf of the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations, said his group applauded the work of the task force, but stopped short of endorsing the resolution. "We realize you are addressing something that is frightening to many people, but it is the beginning of a conversation.

"We are not officially endorsing it, but we do not oppose it," he said.

The only person testifying in favor of the resolution was a member of the Task Force on Disciplinary Policies and Procedures, which wrote the proposed canon. Les Alvis, from the Diocese of Mississippi, tried to explain the rationale behind the resolution. "We’re called by the church to the work of reconciliation," he said. "If canon law exists, as I believe it does, to uphold Christian values, then it follows that our disciplinary canons should promote these values of reconciliation, repentance, amendment of life, restitution and forgiveness.

"What is at the essence of what’s proposed is a completely new way of exercising discipline within the church," Alvis said. "The essence of this draft is to move away from a one-dimensional judicial model that’s adversarial in nature toward one that’s multi-dimensional and is pastoral in nature and is patterned not on the wisdom of the world but on the wisdom of the church."

The June 14 hearing is scheduled to start at 7:30 a.m. in the Union D room of the Hyatt Regency hotel. The full text of the resolution is available at