An Episcopal commission tasked with reviewing and suggesting changes to The Episcopal Church’s canons met online Sept. 12 and responded to recent calls by the church’s two presiding officers for a new examination of Title IV disciplinary canons amid growing scrutiny of several cases involving bishops.
The Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons voted in favor of a brief motion promising to publish its “initial reflection” after engaging in a thorough discussion of the calls for “needed changes in Title IV” at its next in-person meeting, scheduled for Oct. 8-11 in Baltimore, Maryland.
The commission, which is composed of 10 laity, five clergy and five bishops, then went into executive session to discuss specific disciplinary matters involving bishops and how the process for handling those cases might merit attention as part of the commission’s legislative work. Episcopal News Service and other media were allowed to observe the Zoom meeting until the start of the executive session.
This was the commission’s first meeting since House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris revealed in a Aug. 30 letter to the house that she had been the complainant in a Title IV case against an unnamed retired bishop, alleging he “physically overpowered” her during a July 2022 incident at the 80th General Convention. The bishop was later identified by others as former Oklahoma Bishop Edward Konieczny.
That case concluded at the end of July 2023 with a “pastoral response” but no discipline for the bishop, according to Ayala Harris, who said she would push for greater safety and accountability in the church as the church prepares for the 81st General Convention in June 2024 in Louisville, Kentucky.
“We will continue to build on this work of culture change and accountability throughout our church structures and processes,” she wrote. “Along with leadership from the Standing Commission on Structure, Governance, Constitution and Canons as well as the Legislative Committee on Title IV Disciplinary Canons, we will reexamine our Title IV canons and their real-life application to ensure our commitments to safety and accountability, especially in areas where individuals have been given broad discretion with little oversight.”
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who chairs the House of Bishops, followed with a video message released Sept. 5, and he asked the standing commission to examine Title IV as it pertains to bishops, including “to listen to the concerns and hopes of the laity, clergy, and bishops of this church” and “to recommend to the General Convention needed canonical and procedural changes in ecclesiastical discipline of bishops.”
Christopher Hayes, the chancellor of the Diocese of California who chairs the standing commission, opened its Sept. 12 online discussion by acknowledging the recent statements by Ayala Harris and Curry, as well as a parallel letter drafted by several female bishops from Western United States dioceses, and an open letter signed by hundreds of clergy and lay leaders of the church.
Hayes also identified the four cases involving bishops that have generated renewed scrutiny of the Title IV canons. In addition to Ayala Harris’ complaint against Konieczny, the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh was accused by his sons and ex-wife of domestic abuse dating back decades. Singh resigned Sept. 8 as bishop provisional of the dioceses of Eastern and Western Michigan. A previous bishop in those two dioceses, the Rt. Rev. Whayne Hougland Jr., was suspended for a year by Curry in June 2020 after admitting to an extramarital affair, and the two dioceses chose not to welcome him back. Florida Bishop John Howard has been accused of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, though it is not clear so far whether that case or any other potential case against him has progressed to a formal investigation.
The standing commission’s role is legislative, not judicial or administrative, Hayes said. “We are not here to relitigate [the Konieczny] case or any of the other three cases that have drawn public attention,” he said. “We are here to propose things that we think the House of Bishops or House of Deputies want us to help them enact.”
The church regularly re-examines its Title IV canons to consider updates. The disciplinary canons apply to all clergy, though critics say the process for receiving and responding to complaints against bishops has not ensured equal accountability.