March 8, 2007

Unconvinced

Yesterday, March 7, five days before the deadline for obtaining adequate consents from standing committees to make him a bishop, Mark Lawrence wrote a letter that attempts to reassure the church that he is not planning to leave it. The letter is prominently posted on the Diocese of South Carolina Web site. It is, in fact, on its home page, where no one can miss it, but where it surely cannot stay forever. Therefore, I will reproduce it here:
Dear Standing Committees of The Episcopal Church,

I have been told that some diocesan Standing Committees have graciously offered to reconsider their denial of consent to my election as the XIV Bishop of South Carolina, if they only have assurance of my intention to remain in The Episcopal Church. Although I previously provided assurance of my intention, this has not been sufficient for some Standing Committees, which are earnestly seeking to make a godly discernment. Therefore, taking to heart the apostolic admonition in 1 Timothy 3:2, “Now a bishop must be above reproach, …temperate [free from rashness], sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher….” I am reminded to make every attempt to reason with those who have denied consent or who have not yet voted. As I stated at the walkabout in Charleston on September 9, 2006 and again in a statement written on 6 November 2006, I will make the vows of conformity as written in the BCP and the Constitution & Canons, (III.11.8). I will heartily make the vows conforming “…to the doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Episcopal Church, as well as the trustworthiness of the Holy Scriptures. So to put it as clearly as I can, my intention is to remain in The Episcopal Church.

Yours in Christ,

The Very Reverend Mark J. Lawrence
What are we to make of this declaration? It is, of course, a statement made under duress, but, for the sake of argument, I am willing to consider it an expression of a sincere intention. Should any minds be changed by it? No.

First, let’s look at the statement itself. Lawrence has said before that he will, as he puts it here, “make the vows” required by the church. Of course he will; it is required for consecration. The question has always been whether he will keep the vows he “makes.” He tells us that his “intention is to remain in The Episcopal Church.” This is not the same as saying that he will remain in The Episcopal Church, work for its unity, and resign as bishop and leave the church without prejudice should he, at some future time, not be able to keep the vows he has “made.”

Recall that Lawrence, answering a diocesan questionnaire (see my original essay, “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church”) said that:
  1. The church should divide over the issue of homosexuality.
  2. He is unsure if he would resign his orders as an Episcopal priest “[i]f the Diocese of South Carolina does not [emphasis added] become separate in some formal way from ECUSA.”
  3. “If the Diocese of South Carolina separates in some formal way from ECUSA,” he would not transfer to an Episcopal diocese remaining in the church.
These are strong opinions and require more explaining away than Lawrence has done in his latest letter and elsewhere.

In his November 6, 2006, letter “clarifying” his opinions, for example—recall that he framed the questions in this letter, although they reflect what was being asked by bishops and standing committees—in answer to the question “What would be your response if the convention of the Diocese of South Carolina voted to leave The Episcopal Church?” he wrote the following:
I don’t think that speculative questions of this nature as to what a person will do in some imagined future are either reasonable or helpful. I mean no disrespect by this, but I will say in all fairness, I can think up many such questions of an imagined future crisis that could send any of us into a conundrum of canonical contradictions.
Lawrence was not being forthcoming then, and he is only seeming to be forthcoming now.

I think that Mark Lawrence now believes that separating the Diocese of South Carolina from the rest of The Episcopal Church is, from his point of view, simply becoming unnecessary. What has changed? Quite simply, the communiquĆ© from the latest meeting of the primates raises the hope that the Anglican Communion will extinguish liberal Christianity from The Episcopal Church and return our church to some mythical seventeenth-century “orthodoxy.” Sadly, he might be right. Diocesan standing committees, however, can help prevent such a disaster by refusing to change their decision to deny consent, by changing their decision to give consent, or, if they have not yet acted on the request for consent, by either denying the request or doing nothing.

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