Strange tea leaves (and silent lighthouse guns) in latest Baltimore Sun story about DUI bishop

The sad story of the DUI Bishop Heather Cook rolls on here in Charm City, even when appears that there are few if any concrete developments to report. But is the drama continuing behind the scenes at the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and in the national Episcopal Church?

Maybe. Thus, it should be noted that The Baltimore Sun published a rather strange, and thus interesting, feature story the other day that focused on the role that may or may not have been played in this story by U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. The goal appears to be to place the Cook tragedy in the context of recent Episcopal warfare (while avoiding global angles and, at the same time, cutting the Anglican wars timeline very, very short).

But toward the end of this story there are some interesting moments of silence. I cannot tell if the Sun editors simply do not realize the implications of some of their own reporting.

This brings me, once again, to the parable of the old lighthouse keeper. Remember that one?

Once there was a man who lived in a lighthouse on the foggy Atlantic. This lighthouse had a gun that sounded a warning every hour. The keeper tended the beacon and kept enough shells in the gun so it could keep firing. After decades, he could sleep right through the now-routine blasts.
Then the inevitable happened. He forgot to load extra shells and, in the dead of night, the gun did not fire. This rare silence awoke the keeper, who lept from bed shouting, "What was that?"

Yes, readers may substitute the famous Sherlock Holmes image of the dog that didn't bark at this point. Either way, what is the loud silence in this story?

Like I said, it appears that the main goal of this story was to talk about the woes of the Jefferts Schori era at the helm of the shrinking Episcopal Church. Thus readers are told, several times, things like this. Play close attention where this information leads:

Jefferts Schori, 60, has headed the 1.9 million-member national church since 2006. Her tenure has been a period of major schism, and she has drawn criticism for what some say is her overly litigious response to conservative Episcopalians who have broken with the church over its official support of same-sex marriage and gay clergy.

Jefferts Schori, who presided at Cook's consecration Sept. 6, has faced criticism before -- perhaps most notably when she welcomed a former Roman Catholic priest who was a pedophile into her home diocese without telling parishioners about his past.

Now, some Episcopalians in the Baltimore area have been asking how their diocese could have put forward a candidate it knew had a drunk-driving arrest without telling them. The selection committee that vetted Cook knew of the 2010 DUI on the Eastern Shore -- though not all its details -- and decided not to pass the information on to those who would vote in her election last May.

Following the fatal crash in December, both the diocese and national church say they are reviewing the process by which leaders are selected. That's a timely concern, given that the church is poised to choose a successor to Jefferts Schori, whose nine-year term expires this summer.

As I stated earlier, this story cuts the Anglican wars timeline really short -- as is so often the case -- leaving the impression that the fighting began in, oh, roughly 2000 with battles over the election of an noncelibate gay bishop.

This time around, ignore all of that old news. Instead, its interesting to note, near the end of this story, two lighthouse guns that did not fire.

First, note the earlier reference to the upcoming election to select the next presiding bishop here in the United States. That's crucial. Why? Because the current bishop of Maryland -- a symbolic figure as an African-American in the hierarchy -- has long been considered a strong candidate for the top job.

Now, note this passage near the end of the story:

... Debate continues in church circles over how much responsibility the two parties -- the Maryland diocese and the national church, personified by Jefferts Schori -- should bear in Cook's ordination.

The question swirled last month when the diocese revealed that the head of the Maryland diocese, Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton, who dined with Cook, Jefferts Schori and others on Sept. 4, suspected that Cook was intoxicated that night. He shared his concerns with Jefferts Schori the next morning, and that, spokesmen have said, ended the diocese's canonical responsibility.

First, it's interesting that Sutton is not mentioned earlier in this story. Why ignore the local leader through so much of this story? Also, where is the reference to Sutton being mentioned, for several years now, as a logical next presiding bishop? That's an interesting silent lighthouse gun. Perhaps the Cook case has closed that book.

The Sun report then goes on to consider an interesting canon law issue hinted at in this passage. Who has ultimate responsibility for Cook's ordination -- the local diocese of the national church? Note that this crucial legal issue appears to have been raised -- "spokesmen have said" -- by the local church leadership. What's up with that?

Allan S. Haley, a California attorney who studies canon law, agrees -- to a point. He cites a passage in Episcopal church law that reads: "In all particulars, the service at the ordination of a Bishop shall be under the direction of the Bishop presiding at the ordination." Haley said Jefferts Schori could have stopped the consecration had she been so inclined.
But it's not that cut and dried, he adds. Canon law can also be read as conferring authority on the diocesan bishop in such cases. That bishop has authority over any bishop-elect, he said, and church law empowers him to delay proceedings at any time in cases of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."
"Bishop Sutton could have interpreted that to mean getting drunk at a pre-ordination dinner with the presiding bishop," said Haley, the author of a widely read blog on the church, The Anglican Curmudgeon.

Interesting. Do I hear another silent lighthouse gun? Are leaders at the local and national levels of the Episcopal Church trying, quietly, to decide who is legally to blame for the Cook ordination, should this end up in a courtroom with the family of Cook's DUI victim seeking damages? In other words, who is liable?

The bottom line: Who will take the final financial fall?

One more question: Why were these issues raised at the end of this Sun story? The statistical woes of the national church are old, old news. When will Sun readers read about the financial and demographic challenges that loom over the troubled diocese here in Maryland?

If the national and local churches are debating who is ultimately and legally responsible for this tragic ordination, then that's the lede, folks.

PHOTOS: Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

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