Jefferts Schori removes Pittsburgh bishop from office

Duncan led effort to take diocese out of Episcopal Church
September 21, 2008

Robert Duncan has been given a formal sentence of deposition from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church and has been removed as the bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

 

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori signed Duncan's sentence on September 19, the day after the House of Bishops agreed by a vote of 88-35 to authorize the action. Bishop Richard S.O. Chang, vice president of the house, and Bishop Kenneth Price, the secretary, also signed as witnesses to the sentence.

The sentence and an accompanying letter from Jefferts Schori to Duncan were sent to Pittsburgh diocesan offices on September 22 and later released to the public.

The Rev. Dr. Charles Robertson, canon to the Presiding Bishop, told ENS that the Presiding Bishop signed the deposition before leaving for meetings with the Church of Sweden directly from the House of Bishops, "but she chose not to release it out of consideration for Duncan until he had been notified, which was done via his office [September 22]."

In the sentence Jefferts Schori declares that "from and after 12:01 a.m., Saturday, 20 September, 2008, Bishop Duncan shall be deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God's word and sacraments conferred at ordination in this Church and further declare[s] that all ecclesiastical and related secular offices held by Bishop Duncan shall be terminated and vacated at that time."

Robertson said that diocesan staff were contacted September 22 and told that the sentence of deposition was on its way to their offices. Robertson said he did not know if Duncan was aware of the effective date of the deposition before he received the sentence.

The diocesan Standing Committee, now the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese, will meet September 23 in a regularly scheduled gathering, the Rev. David Wilson, committee president, told ENS. Wilson said that Standing Committee members would discuss the details of the diocesan convention, scheduled for October 4, at which the deputies will be asked to approve resolutions (see resolutions one, two and three here) re-aligning the diocese with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of southern South America.

September 18 news release posted on the diocese's website said that "Bishop Duncan's own continuing status as a bishop in The Anglican Communion has been secured by the Province of the Southern Cone" and quoted Southern Cone Primate Gregory Venables as saying that "effectively immediately" Duncan was a member of that House of Bishops.

"Neither the Presiding Bishop nor the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has any further jurisdiction over his ministry," Venables claimed.
 
In a September 18 statement issued after the House of Bishops vote, the Pittsburgh Standing Committee said that Duncan would "continue to support the work of our diocese under the terms of his administrative employment agreement and within the bounds of his deposition, providing many of the services that he previously performed for the diocese."

Meanwhile, a group called "Across the Aisle" issued a statement September 22 saying that Jefferts Schori's office had informed the group of the sentence of deposition via a phone call that afternoon. "The direct communication is further evidence of the Presiding Bishop's recognition that Across the Aisle is the primary group working to maintain a diocese in Pittsburgh that is part of the Episcopal Church, even if the existing diocese votes at its upcoming convention to realign with an Anglican province in South America," the statement said in part.

The Presiding Bishop had singled out the group during her September 19 remarks to reporters after the end of the House of Bishops meeting, calling it "a remarkable example of cooperation across a variety of differences of opinion."

Jefferts Schori said during the news conference that the Episcopal Church would support efforts to reorganize the diocese should delegates vote for re-alignment.

"The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh will not go away, even if their convention makes a canonically inappropriate vote to secede" from The Episcopal Church (TEC), she said during the news conference.

Robertson told ENS September 22 that "the Presiding Bishop's office is communicating regularly with a group of leaders in the Diocese of Pittsburgh who, despite holding diverse opinions and positions, are committed to remaining in the Episcopal Church."

In the letter to Duncan which accompanied the sentence, Jefferts Schori noted "the prayerful and thoughtful atmosphere of the discussions" leading up to the bishops' authorization of the deposition.

"In their deliberations at the special session last week, the House of Bishops was clear that this action is based on Robert Duncan's actions and statements to facilitate the departure of congregations out of the Episcopal Church," Robertson told ENS. "This was not based on Robert Duncan's theological position." Duncan has taken a conservative stance on such issues as church attitudes toward homosexuality.

The Title IV Review Committee had certified in December that Duncan had abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church under the terms of Canon IV.9.1 "by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline, or Worship of this Church."

The Presiding Bishop moved to inhibit Duncan (restrict his episcopal acts) during the time between the certification and the time she brought the matter to a meeting of the house. However, the House's three senior bishops could not agree unanimously with Jefferts Schori's request. The canon on abandonment does not call for a formal trial, as do the disciplinary canons.

John H. Lewis, Duncan's attorney, said in a September 18 statement that was posted on the diocese's website September 22, that Duncan "was denied his fundamental right -- the right to a church trial … because the Presiding Bishop believes that his 'deposition' will assist her in her desire to seize the property of the Diocese of Pittsburgh."
 
-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.

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