Significant changes in the way that the Episcopal Church enforces discipline with its leaders have been proposed by the Task Force on Disciplinary Policy and Procedures and will be considered by the General Convention in June.
The present adversarial system, under which presentment charges are filed, would be replaced by a system that utilizes mediation and fact finding and seeks "restorative justice - reconciliation," said Stephen Hutchinson. He is chancellor for the Diocese of Utah and was active in writing the task force's proposal.
The church's canons which deal with disciplinary matters, Title IV, would also be amended to include lay persons for the first time.
"The canons would apply to anyone, to everyone in leadership," said Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis, chair of the task force.
She and Hutchinson explained that the work of the task force was shaped by a theological reflection by the Rev. Dr. Pamela Cooper-White written in 2003 for the task force's Blue Book report. An Episcopal priest, Cooper-White is professor of pastoral theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.
That paper noted that the church's Catechism, which states that the ministers of the church are all the baptized: "lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons."
"The canons should offer a process that recognizes the responsibilities and accountability of the ministry of the baptized in our relations with one another at all levels of the church's earthly organization (in practical terms, encompassing both 'paid' and 'volunteer workers')," wrote Cooper-White.
"One of the primary benefits" of the proposed canonical changes "is that they are grounded in theology and sense of mission of the church," said Waynick.
"It reflects our baptismal ecclesiology that all members of the church carry out the mission of the church," she said.
Anyone in leadership, she added, should have the right to exercise their ministry "in a serious, responsible and accountable manner."
The existing "adversary mode of fact finding" is "a draconian system and expensive one," said Hutchinson. He said that it is based on a "military justice model that does not reflect the theology of the church."
He noted that it had led to an estimated 95 percent of cases being resolved without filing of a presentment.
"The focus of the proposal gets away from punishment, and that is very liberating," he added. "We can be more of something we say we are as a church, and that's a major step."
Another improvement is the listing of standards to which individuals can be held accountable. He explained that the existing canon uses a "thou shalt not" standard, or a vague standard of "conduct unbecoming."
The standards that are expected of clergy and lay leaders in the proposed system have been adapted from codes of conduct in other professions. They help clarify the church's expected conduct.
If those standards are apparently violated, "you can craft outcomes which embody restorative justice" and which meet the needs of the specific situation, including requirements for therapy, counseling, and education, said Hutchinson.
"The current Title IV doesn't allow you to do that," he noted.
The task force was created by the 2003 General Convention and charged to report to the 75th General Convention meeting June 13-21 in Columbus, Ohio. Hutchinson explained that the task force's proposal has gone through an extensive and helpful process, which included review of disciplinary process in other professions, and discussion and feedback from a number of constituencies including provincial meetings, the House of Bishops, the chancellors' conference, clergy groups and response from the web.
The proposal that evolved "reduces the bureaucracy, the number of players" involved in the current canon, explained Hutchinson.
He added that if a case cannot be resolved by mediation, that the panel of discipline that would hear the case has "more transparency and accountability to the whole church" than the current ecclesiastical court system.
Under the proposed canon, the panel can be a multi-diocesan group, which could save money and share expertise while reducing the possibility of conflicts of interest, he added.
The existing canons "are not helpful; they are difficult" to work with, agreed Woodi Sprinkel, a member of the task force and a psychotherapist in private practice in Virginia. She has consulted extensively with churches on misconduct issues.
The move toward reconciliation means "setting ourselves [in the Episcopal Church] as a model for others," she said.
"It is a momentous, really sweeping change."
Once people become familiar with the changes, and the background for them, "they will be a part of who we are as a church," said Waynick. "It will mean honest and careful conversation with each other.
"Conciliation and mediation will become the order of the day, and a model for others," she said.
Other members of the task force are Les Alvis of Tupelo, Mississippi; Duncan Bayne of Seattle, Washington; the Rev. Virginia Herring of Greensboro, North Carolina; the Rev. Dr. Guy Lytle of Sewanee, Tennessee; the Rev. Margo Maris of Eagle Creek, Oregon; and Bishop Wallis Ohl of Northwest Texas.
Additional information on the report of the task force is available at www.episcopal-ut.org. The task force's Blue Book report is available at http://episcopalarchives.org/digital_archives.html.