The Liberian Episcopal Church Election: Father Hart Deserves Consideration

By: Theodore T. Hodge

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
December 3, 2007


My parents were devout Episcopalians; my father a senior lay reader for many years. I was brought up in the Church and went to an Episcopal high school, an experience essential to my cumulative core. Although I am not a practicing Episcopalian, I find myself drawn to news of the church, which is why I found the recent news of election for Bishop of Liberia an interesting story.

I know outgoing Bishop Edward Wea Neufville, a family acquaintance and old neighbor, and I congratulate him for running the affairs of the church successfully and smoothly and riding into the sunset of retirement. I had learned that the winner and new bishop was Father Jonathan B. B. Hart. Since I knew none of the candidates contesting to succeed Bishop Neufville, my level of excitement was lukewarm, except that I wished the people of Liberia and the Episcopal Church well.

However, I awoke this morning to shocking news: “Elections of Bishop Nullified: Hart No Longer Bishop.” I read with astonishing interest only to learn that the decision to nullify the election is based on a technicality; actually in my mind, a triviality, and here’s why:

According to the letter received from the office of the Archbishop of the Province of West Africa, announcing the annulment, “The constitution stipulates clearly and unambiguously (Canon 11, Section 1(g) that the elected person should obtain two thirds (votes) of the members present and voting.”

Continuing, the letter states, “The Archbishop shall, in case the election is not confirmed by the Episcopal Synod, notify the Diocesan Synod of the position and the reason for such inability. The decision by the Episcopal Synod shall be final, and the candidate whose election was not confirmed, shall no longer be eligible for election. The election shall, at the same time, order that a new election be held by the Diocesan Synod within three months following in accordance with the provision of this Constitution relating to the election.”

I find the foregoing statement astonishingly mind boggling, congenitally defective in reasoning and consequently unfair. Here are the facts as we know them: An election was held. Two candidates contested. 302 votes were required for a two-third win. One candidate received 296 votes and the other got 157 for a total of 453 votes. The candidate receiving the lion share of the votes was declared the winner. Upon further scrutiny, it is rightfully determined that he is six votes shy of the required votes. This may require a ruling of annulment and a reschedule of a new election, for the sake of fairness. But why is the top vote getter disqualified from the upcoming election to be held?

A few critical questions occur to the prudent mind: Was the disqualified contestant responsible for the discrepancy under review? Was he responsible for announcing himself winner? Did he, in any way, shape or form, do anything unethical to unduly influence the outcome? If the contestant did nothing unethical or wrong, why is he being so harshly punished?

If the answer is simply, “We must take that action because the rule book says so”, then the Archbishop and his high office are nothing but robots. You just can’t apply such a harsh rule without concern for the human element. As far as we know, Father Hart was by far the favorite of the electorate of the Episcopal Church of Liberia. To annul the election and disqualify him from contesting the next election is to deny him his due right and the right of the Liberian Episcopal community to their first choice for Bishop. To choose anybody else, other than Father Hart, as the next Episcopal Bishop of Liberia will be a denial of democracy; a travesty of justice, so to speak.

Politics in general, and particularly in Africa, brings out skepticism, cynicism and indifference in people. Examples abound to justify such callous disposition. Yes, in the secular world of politics, but unfortunately, in the world of church politics as well. An excellent book by Dr. D. Elwood Dunn, “A History of the Episcopal Church in Liberia: 1821-1980”, is impressively instructive. I specifically recommend this book to those who may be interested in the history and politics of the Liberian Episcopate.

In addition to Dr. Dunn’s seminal work is an excellent journal article by Mr. J. R. Oilfield, titled “The Protestant Episcopal Church, Black Nationalists, and Expansion of the West African Missionary Field, 1851-1871”. Mr. Oilfield, a lecturer in History at the University of Southampton, also gives us an impeccable glance at history, covering a topic and period adequately featured in Dr. Dunn’s book.

My hope is that Archbishop Justice O. Akrofil of the Province of West Africa will revisit this very sensitive decision and reconsider all its pertinent ramifications. Father Jonathan Hart and the Liberian Episcopate deserve justice. It would be an injustice to deny him a fair chance to contest the re-scheduled election. The basis for his disqualification is just too trivial to significantly change the course of history. Secular politics has disenfranchised its electorates far too long; the church must do better. Much is expected.

© 2007 by The Perspective

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