February 17, 2007

The Consents Question, Again

The question of consents for the consecration of the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence as Bishop of South Carolina is again in the news. Episcopal News Service (ENS) yesterday released a story based on a letter from the president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina. The letter, signed by the Rev. J. Haden McCormick, was recently posted on the diocese’s Web site. Presumably, it has been sent to standing committees that have already voted to deny consent for Lawrence’s consecration, as it requests that the decision to withhold consent be reconsidered. According to the Web site, “a similar but not identical letter has been sent to those Standing Committees who [sic] have not yet responded to the request for consent.” No one has come forward with a copy of that letter, though there is no reason to think it is much different from what has been made public already.

Lawrence is Bishop-elect of South Carolina, but he cannot be consecrated, under Episcopal Church canons, unless a majority of standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction each consent to his consecration. The voting on consents normally is carried out in obscurity, but the circumstances surrounding the episcopal election of September 16, 2006, have drawn the attention not only of Episcopalians throughout the church, but of many observers in the wider Anglican Communion as well. Consents from 56 standing committees are needed by March 9 if Lawrence is to become the next Bishop of South Carolina. It is rumored that, with somewhat more than half the church’s standing committees’ having responded, somewhat more than half of those have withheld consent.


In October 2006, I wrote an essay arguing that Lawrence’s consecration would not be in the best interests of The Episcopal Church. Copies of “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church” were sent by Via Media USA (VMUSA), along with cover letters, to bishops and standing committees. Two weeks later, Episcopal Forum of South Carolina (EFSC), a Via Media USA alliance member, sent its own letter urging caution in considering whether to consent to Lawrence’s consecration. (ENS reported on both the VMUSA and EFSC initiatives.) Wake Up, a New York-based alliance favoring an inclusive church, subsequently issued its “Wake Up Call No.3, “There is an Impediment,” arguing against allowing Lawrence to become a bishop and urging Episcopalians to lobby their bishops and standing committees to prevent his consecration.

Even supporters of Lawrence quickly acknowledged that the San Joaquin priest could be a hard sell as South Carolina bishop. (“Lawrence’s consent may prove difficult,” South Carolina Canon Theologian Kendall Harmon observed a few days after the election.) Bloggers Father Jake, Tobias Haller, Mark Harris, and Christopher Johnson, among others, weighed in on the question of consents. Public controversy was reignited in early December, when Simon Sarmiento posted a letter from Lawrence on “Thinking Anglicans” intended, one assumes, to reassure his critics. (See ENS story of December 10.) It did nothing of the sort. Tobias Haller responded with a post titled, simply, “No.” Mark Harris gave his analysis of the Lawrence letter, and I posted an analysis, including a footnoted version of the Lawrence letter, that I called “The Annotated Mark Lawrence.”

It would be difficult to evaluate the current tally of consents from public sources alone, but the votes of a few standing committees have been made public. At least two standing committees, those of Bethlehem and Kansas, have not only announced their decisions to withhold consent, but have taken the extraordinary step of publishing their reasons for doing so. Andrew Gerns republished the Bethlehem statement on his blog, “Andrew Plus,” and commended the transparency achieved by Bethlehem to standing committees generally. Would that more of them would take this advice to heart.

The South Carolina Letters

As I suggested earlier, the consents required to consecrate Mark Lawrence have been slow in coming. ENS reported last month that the South Carolina Standing Committee had postponed Lawrence’s scheduled February 24 consecration. The deferment was attributed to “unanticipated delays in the mailing of the Consent Requests.” At best, this is wishful thinking. The Diocese of Newark, for example, elected Mark Beckwith a week after South Carolina chose Lawrence, and it endured the same bureaucratic trials in sending out its own consent requests. Nevertheless, Beckwith was consecrated Bishop of Newark on January 27, having received, without difficulty, the required consents both from standing committees and bishops with jurisdiction. The same day that the ENS story appeared, Lawrence wrote a rather petulant letter to his Bakersfield congregation explaining that plans to move to South Carolina were on hold.

Postponement of the Lawrence consecration, followed by the sending of letters, not only to standing committees that have not voted, but also to those that have already rejected Lawrence as a bishop, suggests some sense of panic in South Carolina. I am hardly one to suggest that the Standing Committee should not lobby for its point of view, however.

Has the Standing Committee contributed to a constructive dialogue, and, more to the point, will its letters likely achieve their desired effect on the standing committee vote? Certainly, the letters from South Carolina have inspired another round of blog posts, including this one. (Read, for example, “No more Bob Duncans” by the Admiral of Morality.) Before addressing these questions, it will be helpful to see what was actually written. The published letter is below. (I have not edited the text, which I copied from the Diocese of South Carolina Web site. Any errors are in the original.) The unpublished letter to standing committees that have not yet responded to the request for consents likely encourages the making of a timely decision; non-responses are counted as denials of consent.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I write this letter as the head of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina to address concerns expressed by various standing committees regarding consents for the consecration of The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence as our next Diocesan Bishop. This is an official request to those who have withheld consent to reconsider their initial action. We intend this letter to correct some of the misinformation surrounding our Bishop Elect.

a) Questions have been raised regarding Mark’s willingness and that of the diocese of South Carolina, should it be under his leadership, to continue to serve our Lord as faithful members of the Episcopal Church.

Response: The Diocese of South Carolina has operated faithfully within the canons of the The Episcopal Church (TEC) since 1795 and continues to do so. The Rev. Mark Lawrence signed the oath of conformity at his ordination as priest and has faithfully lived within the canons of the church for 26 years. When asked directly during our election process if he would be able to sign the oath of conformity as a bishop, he responded, “Yes”. Present behavior is the best indicator we have of the future. Statistics released at the last General Convention revealed that the Diocese of South Carolina was first in all categories of percentages of growth – average Sunday attendance, financial growth and baptized membership. Recent official church statistics show we are the only diocese that has grown faster than its surrounding population. The tree is known by its fruit.

b) Questions have been raised about the participation of the Presiding Bishop in the consecration of the new Bishop of South Carolina.

Response: When the election of the XIVth Bishop of South Carolina was scheduled to be held, (before the Church decided to withhold consent to all consecrations until June 2006) the Bishop of South Carolina XIII had negotiated with the Presiding Bishop’s office to find a chief consecrator acceptable to the Diocese of SC. A tentative agreement was reached with the Presiding Bishop’s office that this was indeed possible. Our Bishop-elect had nothing to do with this arrangement as this decision was worked out by the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese of South Carolina before we held our election.

c) Questions have been raised about Alternative Primatial Relationships (APR), implying negative intentions about our relationship to The Episcopal Church (TEC)

Response: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina, after the General Convention 2006, requested APR), in order to restore peace to the diocese and to prevent happening in the diocese what was being experienced in other diocese within the Church. This was an action of the Standing Committee acting as the ecclesiastical authority of the Diocese prior to our Bishop’s election. This question is being answered by the Standing Committee for that reason. Alternative Primatial Relationship has never been defined, as it has never been requested by a diocese in the history of the Anglican Communion. In the context of the Windsor report and the scheduled primates meeting in Tanzania, the Standing Committee’s sole intention was to provide space for the conflict raging in TEC and to protect the common life and mission of a diocese that has grown faithfully for eighteen years. Our Diocesan Bishop XIII participated in a conversation regarding APR in New York in September of 2006 at the invitation of the Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and the Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts -Schiori and other bishops on all sides of the issues. We have consistently sought to deal with these matters within the framework of the Church as a sign of our long-term commitment to the mission of the whole Church. In the past, TEC has created a climate for discussions of these matters for congregations in an imaginative way and this is simply an expansion of that spirit.

In conclusion, neither the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina nor the Bishop-elect have any interest in a consecration that does not follow the canons of this diocese. We hope that you will find this information helpful as you re-consider the position you have taken concerning our Bishop-elect.

In Christ alone,
The Rev. J. Haden McCormick
For the Standing Committee

I find this letter quite curious, in that it seems more about the Diocese of South Carolina than about that diocese’s Bishop-elect. Perhaps it does clarify a few matters that, hitherto, were not crystal clear, but it fails to address the more important ambiguities in the statements made by Lawrence himself.

Consider first the most trivial issue addressed by McCormick, the matter of the chief consecrator of the new bishop. It may be interesting that Bishops Salmon and Griswold agreed that the Presiding Bishop need not be chief consecrator, but I cannot imagine that any bishop or standing committee would, for an instant, consider withholding consent merely because a diocese was unwilling to have the Presiding Bishop serve in that capacity. In any case, the canons do not require the Presiding Bishop to be the chief consecrator. (This matter is dealt with in Canon III.11.6. The reference to Canon III.16.5 in the ENS story is erroneous, referring to the 2003, rather than the 2006 canons.) Nonetheless, someone must have raised this issue, since Lawrence addressed it in his letter of November 6. As does McCormick, Lawrence there attributes aversion to participation of the Presiding Bishop in his consecration to the diocese. Whereas when McCormick’s places responsibility for raising the chief consecrator issue at the feet of the diocese, he seems to be assuming responsibility, when Lawrence does so, it seems like a dodge.

There have been rumors that, should the consecration of Mark Lawrence not be consented to by The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of South Carolina might consecrate him anyway, perhaps by importing Anglican bishops for the purpose from other provinces. It is not clear whether McCormick intends to dispel such rumors, but he surely seems to want to seem to do so. In his final paragraph, he advises that “neither the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina nor the Bishop-elect have [sic] any interest in a consecration that does not follow the canons of this diocese.” Personally, I would have been more reassured had McCormick expressed a desire not to violate the canons of the General Convention. Whether this statement is a prevarication or is simply not phrased wisely, I cannot tell. In any case, it fails to be reassuring.

Item (a) in the letter is a muddle. The argument made is something like the following: The diocese and its Bishop-elect have been well-behaved in the past. Therefore, they are likely to behave properly in the future. Moreover, the diocese is growing, so it must be doing good and godly things.

The first argument is simply ludicrous. It is generally true, one might suppose, that things generally go along as they always have, all things being equal. (This “principle” is analogous to Newton’s First Law of Motion.) One must not fail to add the all things being equal caveat, however. In the current circumstances, all things are decidedly not equal. The diocese has asked for an extra-canonical relationship without consulting the General Convention and with the clear intent of circumventing its canons. Mark Lawrence has expressed approval of this request and the similar request from his own Diocese of San Joaquin. Moreover, Lawrence made an even more radical recommendation in his essay “A Prognosis for this Body Episcopal” in the June 11, 2006, issue of The Living Church, namely that The Episcopal Church should simply surrender its autonomy to the Anglican primates. Taking this bit of advice would amount simply to tossing church canons overboard. If one looks at the recent actions of the Diocese of South Carolina and of its Bishop-elect, therefore, one might indeed be able to predict their immediate future trajectory. That trajectory is not reassuring to Episcopalians who believe that our canons should be observed and changed as needed, and not simply be violated whenever it seems personally convenient to do so.

As for the argument that the “prosperousness” of South Carolina is some indicator of its godliness, one can only suspect that the diocese is infected with a severe case of creeping Calvinism if it actually finds this argument compelling. Moreover, not all Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina would agree that the fruit of the diocese has been all that sweet. In no case does the “success” of the Diocese of South Carolina, however measured, give it the right to ignore the canons of The Episcopal Church.

Item (a) is oddly phrased, speaking as it does, of the diocese and its Bishop-elect as “faithful members of the Episcopal Church.” The diocese, of course, is not a member of The Episcopal Church, but an integral component of it. Mark Lawrence is certainly a member, but he aspires to become one of its leaders, a position that carries special obligations regarding church governance. Given other infelicitous constructions in McCormick’s letter, however, I should not, I suspect, make too much of this.

Finally, item (c) is more curious still. It is most notable for its absolving Lawrence of any responsibility for the request of the diocese for what the letter calls “Alternative Primatial Relationships” (APR). Standing committees do not vote on the faithfulness of electing dioceses, however, but only on whether a Bishop-elect should become a bishop. Any argument that APR would be helpful for the diocese or for The Episcopal Church is irrelevant if APR is to be obtained unlawfully. The fact remains that the diocese’s request seeks to subvert the polity of The Episcopal Church and circumvent the canons of the General Convention. That Lawrence has expressed approval of this request is indicative, at the very least, of an insensitivity to the polity of the church that alone should disqualify him from becoming an Episcopal bishop.

I am frankly confused about what McCormick is asserting is needed and would be provided by APR. How is isolation from the Presiding Bishop going “to restore peace to the diocese”? Is the diocese at war? What is he referring to when he writes that he wants “to prevent happening in the diocese what was being experienced in other dioceses within the Church”? Are other dioceses at war? He is on target, however, in observing that “Alternative Primatial Relationship has never been defined.” Most readers would take this as an indication that the Standing Committee’s request for APR was simply irresponsible. McCormick several times refers to “these matters,” but nowhere does he define just what matters “these matters” are. Is he afraid to say? Again, I have no idea. He concludes his discussion of APR with this sentence: “In the past, TEC has created a climate for discussions of these matters for congregations in an imaginative way and this is simply an expansion of that spirit.” Does anyone know what he is talking about?

Has the Standing Committee of the Diocese South Carolina made a helpful contribution to the dialogue on consents for Mark Lawrence? No. The McCormick letter is a jumble of non sequiturs and irrelevancies. Will the letters have their desired effect? Probably not.

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