March 18, 2007

Reflections on the Mark Lawrence Affair

Three days after the announcement of the failure of the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence to achieve the consents necessary to be consecrated Bishop of South Carolina, much has been written about the consent process and the significance of its outcome. Particularly because the Mark Lawrence affair played out against a larger context of Anglican controversy, it may be too early to write of its ultimate significance, but it is a good time to point out misconceptions and to argue against what I believe to represent mistaken opinion—even if it is (or was) my own—lest it become conventional wisdom. Eschewing the role of historian, therefore, I take up that of commentator.

“Null and Void”

The first indication that Lawrence’s bid for consecration had failed came from the Rev. J. Haden McCormick, President of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina, who began his announcement on the diocesan Web site as follows: “I received a phone call late this afternoon from the Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori giving notification that she was declaring null and void the election of The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence to be bishop of The Diocese of South Carolina.” The lead in the AP story released a short time later was: “Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori took the highly unusual step Thursday of invalidating the election of a bishop in the tradition-minded Diocese of South Carolina, which has rejected her authority because of her liberal theological outlook.”

Neither McCormick’s statement nor that of AP religion writer Rachel Zoll was untrue, but, to the average reader, they may have given the impression that the Presiding Bishop, upset with what had been a rather messy referendum, had simply decided to declare it improper and to ask the diocese to start the episcopal election process over from the beginning. Certainly, some Lawrence supporters concluded that the leader of The Episcopal Church had abused her office by taking unusual and prejudicial action against their candidate. Even the Episcopal News Service story repeated the phrase “null and void.” In explaining what had happened, that story cited Sections 4(a), 4(b), and 8 of Canon III.11, but it failed to cite Section 5, which reads as follows:
In case a majority of all the Standing Committees of the Dioceses do not consent to the ordination of the Bishop-elect within one hundred and twenty days from the date of the notification of the election by the Standing Committee of the Diocese for which the Bishop was elected, or in case a majority of all the Bishops exercising jurisdiction do not consent within one hundred and twenty days from the date of notification to them by the Presiding Bishop of the election, the Presiding Bishop shall declare the election null and void and shall give notice to the Standing Committee of the Diocese for which the Bishop was elected and to the Bishop-elect. The Convention of the Diocese may then proceed to a new election.
Clearly, the Presiding Bishop was doing exactly what she was required to do by Episcopal Church canon. She was not “throwing out” the referendum on Mark Lawrence; she was declaring that, when all the votes were counted, the referendum had lost. The press can perhaps be excused for missing this subtle point, but Episcopalians generally—and ENS, in particular—should have tried to communicate the distinction more clearly to the wider public.

Canonical Changes?

Because some of the consents obtained from standing committees for Lawrence’s consecration were defective—it is still not yet clear which were defective and how—some people have alleged that confusion caused by recent canonical changes were, to some measure, responsible for Lawrence’s rejection. Although changes were made to the canons by the 2006 General Convention, this particular argument is simply not sustainable. There were revisions to Title III in 2006, and what is now Canon III.11 was, in the 2003 revision of the canons, Canon III.16. A careful reading of the relevant sections reveals little difference and virtually no substantive difference, even though material has been rearranged a bit. In any case, the requirement for signed testimonials for bishops-elect apparently goes back to 1789 and for such signed testimonials from standing committees for bishops not approved at the General Convention to 1799, according to White’s and Dykman’s definitive Annotated Constitution and Canons.

Lawrence supporters have blamed the Presiding Bishop for failure to notify standing committees of their faulty testimonials giving consent, but, in actual fact, it was the South Carolina Standing Committee that was responsible, by canon, both for soliciting and collecting consents, none of which were to be sent to the Presiding Bishop until a majority of standing committees consented. One must wonder if the Standing Committee of South Carolina was too busy counting consents to actually look at them. In any case, it is difficult to see how the Standing Committee could misunderstand Canon III.11.4(b):
Evidence of the consent of each Standing Committee shall be a testimonial in the following words, signed by a majority of all the members of the Committee:

We, being a majority of all the members of the Standing Committee of ______________, and having been duly convened at ______________, fully sensible how important it is that the Sacred Order and Office of a Bishop should not be unworthily conferred, and firmly persuaded that it is our duty to bear testimony on this solemn occasion without partiality, do, in the presence of Almighty God, testify that we know of no impediment on account of which the Reverend A.B. ought not to be ordained to that Holy Order. In witness whereof, we have hereunto set our hands this _____ day of _________in the year of our Lord _________.
(Signed) _______________
Adequate Consents or Not?

It is apparently the case that, on March 9, South Carolina had not received the required 56 consents. At that point, the Standing Committee would normally have informed the Presiding Bishop that this was the case, and the matter of Lawrence’s status as bishop-elect would have changed to rejected bishop-elect. (I say “normally,” but, in fact, this situation has not occurred since 1875.) The Presiding Bishop, with the advice of her Chancellor, David Booth Beers, had allowed South Carolina another three days to obtain consents, and, at the end of that period, 57 consents, reputedly, were in hand. These were forwarded to the Office of the Presiding Bishop and were the basis on which Katharine Jefferts Schori made her judgment about the failure of the consent process on March 15. Seven testimonials were found to be defective for such causes as carrying no actual signatures. Why, Lawrence’s supporters asked, could not the Presiding Bishop simply go back to the relevant standing committees and ask for corrected testimonials?

There is, of course, no canonical authority for requesting “proper” testimonials after the consent period has expired. Consents from standing committees are handled much like absentee ballots in civil elections. Ballots must be received by a certain date and must be properly executed, which, in any jurisdiction I know about, requires that they be signed by the voter. Consents, like absentee ballots, are not officially tabulated until the election is over. The only difference is that, whereas in a civil elections, absentee ballots are usually not even opened until the polls are closed, the standing committee of a diocese that has elected a bishop can not only look at consents but can send them back for correction if they are not in order. Does the consent process really have to be more forgiving than this? The Episcopal Church even let standing committees vote twice, and some standing committees did give consent after first withholding it. Episcopal canons do not clearly allow this—nor disallow this, it must be said—but such multiple voting would never be allowed in the civil sphere, where one’s vote would be disallowed if a person voted twice.

One might have wished that Lawrence’s supporters would have been grateful for having been given an extra three days to vote. Instead, they have complained that, having been given one dispensation, they should be granted yet another.

120 Days = 123 Days

In an earlier post, I argued that South Carolina should not have been granted an extra three days for the consent process to be completed. Whereas the favor was intended as a gracious gesture, it was not graciously accepted by those it was intended to help, and it was, I firmly believe, a completely unjustified violation of church canons. “One hundred and twenty days” is, well, 120 days. Let me put that in a way that will be clear, if uncharitable: Allowing 123 days was unfair and illegal. I have no doubt that, had Gene Robinson been required to submit to the same consent process as Mark Lawrence, he would not have been granted the same “grace period,” mostly because everyone could anticipate that the right wing of the church would cry foul, and it would be completely justified in its indignation. Liberals and moderates, however, are assumed to be nice people, so, except for me, virtually everyone has kept quiet about the three extra days. (Mind you, I gave up vying for Miss Congeniality years ago.)

As best as I can tell, such a three-day extension has never been offered in the past. (It will, I sincerely hope, never be offered in the future.) It was extended as a gesture of goodwill toward a minority within the church by someone, namely, the Presiding Bishop, who is supposed to be representing the whole church. The biggest problem with this gesture, beyond its being an abuse of authority, is that validating the election of a controversial bishop is something of a zero-sum game. The bishop-elect either becomes a bishop or not. A dispensation given to the bishop-elect’s supporters necessarily is a handicap imposed on the bishop-elect’s detractors. On what ethical basis can the Presiding Bishop choose to upset the impartiality of the consent process to favor one outcome over another? Episcopalians clearly favor a certain generosity toward those holding minority views, but our polity does not allow the minority to rule, nor should it.


We have been told over and over by Lawrence’s supporters that our church is filled with hypocrites. They claim that, when Gene Robinson was up for consecration, liberals argued that New Hampshire, like any diocese, had the right to the bishop of its choice. South Carolina, the argument goes, should benefit from the same argument. South Carolina’s Canon Theologian Kendall Harmon explained to the Washington Post, however, that liberals have a “double standard” and that “conservatives are not leaving, they’re being driven out of the Episcopal Church.” In fact, some liberal bishops bought the argument that, having voted for Gene Robinson, they had to vote for Mark Lawrence. Bishop John Chane was one of these, and this argument may go a long way toward explaining why bishops with jurisdiction gave Lawrence sufficient consents for consecration.

With all due respect to Bishop Chane, I have to say that the reciprocity argument is specious. In the same story in which Dr. Harmon was quoted, I made the slightly more complex argument that should have moved Bishop Chane and those arguing along the same lines as he: “A diocese has a right to the bishop of its choice, all things being equal. But all things weren’t equal,” I said. “Gene Robinson was not threatening to walk away from the Episcopal Church.”

The Real Problem

Thus, of course, we come to the real problem: Mark Lawrence, goaded by questions from the South Carolina diocese, suggested that he would welcome a separation of the Diocese of South Carolina from The Episcopal Church. When challenged on this, he offered a series of answers to questions of his own devising that did not at all clarify his position and perhaps made Episcopalians even more queasy about his becoming a bishop. The South Carolina Standing Committee later tried to reassure the church in a letter of its own, but that wasn’t very effective either. Why, people wondered, could Lawrence not simply say that he would not leave the church and would do everything in his power to keep South Carolina from doing so? As the consent period was coming to a close, Lawrence finally issued a statement that satisfied some that he was not a potential schismatic. I was unconvinced, but his statement was sufficient to cause some standing committees to change their votes. Lawrence never repudiated his earlier pronouncements, however.

Is this system crazy, or what?

The 120-day consent period is a holdover from an earlier age when communications were not what they are today. Probably, most standing committee members were aware of Mark Lawrence’s election within days, or perhaps even hours. Because of delays in sending out requests for consent, standing committees had nearly six months to consider Lawrence’s suitability. Admittedly, more and more data—one hesitates to use the term “information”—became available as time wore on, but we were presented with the curious situation in which Lawrence and his supporters tried repeatedly to formulate a statement that would satisfy skeptical standing committees without resorting to outright lies. How long does such a process really need to go on? Does anyone who says something outrageous and requires six months to correct his mistake deserve our trust as an Episcopal bishop? Don’t we want bishops who are a little quicker on their feet?

The 120-day consent period should be shortened. It is unnecessary and, in the case of a controversial election, can lead to the painful spectacle we have just witnessed. The period should be cut in half, and standing committees should be allowed to vote only once. If we want to have bishops, let’s have a process that lets us get them faster.

Maybe Not Relieved

In my press release about the outcome of the South Carolina consent process, I said, “I’m sure that most Episcopalians that have been following the quest for consent to consecrate Fr. Lawrence are relieved to know that he will not now become a bishop.” There was, no doubt, some relief that an ugly season in the history of the church was over, but hardly anyone, even standing committee members who voted against giving consent, has been willing to express anything but sadness over the Lawrence affair. Even I find myself not especially cheered by Lawrence’s failure to be made a bishop and not particularly tempted to indulge in schadenfreude. I am gratified, however, in a way that perhaps only a loyal Episcopalian in an ultraconservative diocese like Pittsburgh or Fort Worth or San Joaquin or South Carolina can be. We have seen the narrow intolerance of Episcopal bishops harboring a deep loathing for The Episcopal Church, and we are relieved that our church has chosen not to add to their number. Episcopalians in healthier dioceses still do not fully appreciate the malignancy that threatens our church.

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