Tuesday, June 13, 2006

More Day One: Proposed Title IV Hearing

The following release landed in my inbox just a moment ago. It is not on the ENS page just yet. It describes the hearing about the proposed Title IV, the disciplinary canons. It is Resolution A153.

The revisions have been in the works for two trieniums and attempts to get at percieved weaknesses in the current Title IV which was last revised in 1994. The current disciplinary canons are based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The revisions attempt to turn the emphasis in church discipline to a perspective that holds up principles of restorative justice. They also attempt to include a wider array of pastoral tools into the process and, finally and most controversially, they include laity and not just clergy under the purvue of the canons.

Here is what the ENS piece said.

It is true, the comments were mostly negative. From my notes, I heard issues pertaining to the lower standard of evidence compared to what is in place; the admission of hearsay evidence into proceedings; limited privilege for those who testify or bring evidence while at the same time compelling people to testify or give evidence who are now not compelled to do so; limited immunity from liable for those who testify. I also heard concern that this the wrong time in our common life, with the whole Communion watching us, to include laity into the canons that might seem punitive or oppressive to others. Those who spoke included a sitting federal judge, several lawyers including a diocesan chancellor and at least two diocesan canons to the ordinary.

Here is the gist of what I said at the hearing.
Good afternoon. I am neither an attorney nor a diocesan official. I speak to you today as parish priest who has also worked as a healthcare chaplain, an interim pastor, and now a Rector of an average sized parish. I speak to you as one trained in parish development and in crisis intervention.

I must commend the group that brings this proposal to us for their attention and committment to restorative justice and for attempting to connect our baptismal vows to our common life through our disciplinary canons.

Having said that, I find two fatal flaws in this proposal that cause me to speak against it.

First, you have already heard about the several legal and procedural concerns. I am concerned that the definitions of laity who have a ministry (that's everyone) and laity who have ministries of leadership is not clear. Does this later category apply to the chair of the church bazaar as well as to the chair of the standing committee? Who defines that? And how is it consistently applied. When we talk about lay ministry, does that mean that everyone's expression of their baptized life, their discipleship, is the same as some peoples work on behalf of the church in service to the baptized disciples of Jesus?

The importance of defining which laity is involved at what level of discipline is critical when a parish is experiencing change that generates anxiety, if the congregation has a history of unstable or incompetent leadership, or is having a conflict.

My second concern is that in my experience ministering to unstable or conflicted congregations or in congregations facing neccessary but dramatic change is that the parish system starts to see itself in terms of it's anxiety. More than once, I have seen anxious congregations reach for the rule book--the canons--as a quick fix to their anxiety. Reaching for the rule book is a natural and normal part of the process of working through a groups anxiety at a time of uncertainty and change. Handled badly or prematurely, it can have the effect of addressing anxiety by cutting short the process.

Many of the tools set out in the proposed Title IV point to tools that a good intervention might use, but by placing these under the category of "discipline" it changes the conversation radically.
Instead of becoming a means to address an anxious parish family system, it becomes a process that must me addressed in the context of discipline. Discipline for anxious people is a win-lose proposition that is contrary to principles of restorative justice.

We must be careful that we, well-meaning though these proposals are, to substitute an overreaching understanding of order in place of discipleship and that we similarly do not turn a
parish development issue in an anxious parish system into a discipline issue that stops all conversation before the parish can move on with it's work. This proposal, from a parish development perspective, uses too many tools applied at the wrong time in the wrong venue and in the wrong context.

We will see what happens tommorrow morning.

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