May 2, 2007

Following the Rules

The April 8 issue of The Living Church carried a story about Mark Lawrence’s failure to receive adequate consents to be consecrated as South Carolina’s next bishop. The same issue contained an editorial calling the failure “a tragedy for the entire church.” The May 6 issue offers two letters in response to the magazine’s coverage of the Lawrence affair.

In the first letter, the Rev. John Rawlinson of St. James Episcopal Church in Oakland, California, takes the magazine to task over its editorial, focusing on the assertion that “Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori decided to follow canon law to the letter in ruling the process invalid” [emphasis added]. Rawlinson pointed out that Jefferts Schori was obliged to follow canon law. (She was also obliged to allow only 120, not 123 days for consents to be submitted, but that point is moot, I suppose, at least as far as Lawrence is concerned.)

The second letter is mine, which is reproduced below as it appears in The Living Church:
The article, “Presiding Bishop Invalidates South Carolina Election,” and the editorial, “Failure to Consent Leaves Everyone a Loser,” misinterpret events.

Any balloting procedure must ensure the validity of votes cast. Because South Carolina’s choice of bishop was controversial, particular care was needed to ensure that the legitimacy of the consent process, whatever its result, would be unquestioned. That process did not generate sufficient consents by the date required, and it did not generate enough valid consents, even after the extra three days allowed by the Presiding Bishop. Assuming that the standing committee read the canons and examined the consents it received, its members must have known that some consents were invalid.

Bishop-elect Mark Lawrence received insufficient consents not because of his theology, but because of what he said he would do to the church. He has not been denied consecration because of “things he was reported or reputed to have said or written,” but because of statements he unquestionably made—some of them in TLC—that suggested his unwillingness to be bound by the canons of The Episcopal Church.

The church’s consent process for episcopal elections is not a mere formality, but an important, substantive check on dioceses that may have made questionable choices. The message in this sorry affair is not that “there is no longer room in The Episcopal Church for bishops who uphold traditional Anglican teaching.” It is that the church is growing impatient with bishops who cannot respect its polity and will not abide its law.
Lionel Deimel
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Both letters, then, emphasize the obligation of those in ordained orders to abide by Episcopal Church canons. It is annoying that Episcopalians have to point out this obligation over and over, and yet the church’s militant traditionalists cannot seem to bring themselves to acknowledge it, calling those who raise the issue “canonical fundamentalists.” To this, I propose a question: Why should we defer to the opinions of these people on matters of scriptural interpretation—firm opinions based on ambiguous, if not contradictory texts that cannot be verified as definitive—when they seem incapable of finding the “plain meaning” in straightforward instructions written in the modern era?

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