October 8, 2011

I Told You So

My friend in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh David Wilson remarked on my lack of comment on the news that Bishop of South Carolina Mark Lawrence has had allegations of abandoning The Episcopal Church brought against him. (Details and relevant links can be found in the ENS story “South Carolina bishop investigated on charges he has abandoned the Episcopal Church” published three days ago.) I don’t like to disappoint David, so I will offer my initial take on the situation below.

First, I should say that no one should be surprised at the charges. Once the Diocese of South Carolina began qualifying its accession to the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church—with the encouragement of Bishop Lawrence, I might add—an attempt to depose the bishop became inevitable; it was only a matter of when charges would be brought forward.

Will the charges lead eventually to deposition? Who knows? To begin with, since Title IV, the disciplinary canons, has been completely revised, it is hard to predict how events will play out. The Lawrence case will necessarily be setting precedents.

The charges, of course, are much like those leveled against then Bishop of Pittsburgh Robert Duncan. Duncan had long been bad-mouthing the church and had been gradually making constitutional and canonical changes to isolate the diocese from the general church. Lawrence has done the same. What he has not done that Duncan did is actually to set in motion a process intended to remove the diocese from The Episcopal Church. Duncan was deposed only weeks before the final October 2008 vote to “realign.”

I believed that the case against Duncan was unassailable and his removal from office long overdue, but there were many—mostly those sympathetic to the realignment movement, I suspect—who asserted that a presentment was inappropriate until the realignment vote actually took place. Of course, had the church waited, Duncan would have claimed to be out of the church and beyond its disciplinary reach. Alas, his removal did not come early enough to prevent the tragedy that he brought upon the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

This, of course, raises the question of at what point one can, with confidence, be said to have “abandonment of the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of The Episcopal Church.” Have you abandoned the church when you have subverted its polity, secured future employment outside the church, and packed your bags; or do you have to walk out the door and brush the Episcopal Church dust off your shoes first?

I think a civil law analogy is instructive here. If law enforcement discovers that someone is planning to blow up the Capitol, and that person has begun accumulating materials for a bomb, do we have to wait until the plot is carried out to make an arrest? Clearly not. Likewise, if a bishop is clearly not committed to submitting to the “Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship” of the church, even if that person has not yet done anything to cause irreparable harm to the church, that potential for harm exists and needs to be guarded against.

Another comparison between Bob Duncan and Mark Lawrence is less favorable to the Bishop of South Carolina. When Duncan was elected Bishop of Pittsburgh, there was no special reason to think him a threat to the diocese as a unit of The Episcopal Church. Did he harbor schismatic thoughts? I have no idea. If he did, he kept them to himself (or within a circle of co-conspirators into which I had no visibility).

Mark Lawrence’s bid to become a bishop, on the other hand, was problematic at the outset. It was not a quirk that he failed to receive sufficient consents following his September 16, 2006, election. Only after he was nominated a second time—he was the only candidate considered by the South Carolina convention—was he finally allowed to become a bishop. Episcopal Church leaders just didn’t have the stomach to reject an episcopal candidate twice.

I will return to the topic of Lawrence’s rocky road to the episcopate in a moment. First, I want to comment on the paranoia about South Carolina that is rampant among conservatives. The standard narrative is that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is somehow out to get Mark Lawrence. This notion persists despite Bishop Dorsey Henderson’s memo—Henderson is the president of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops—that asserts that
  • Information [i.e., charges] was presented from communicants within the Diocese of South Carolina.  
  • The information was not brought forward by the Presiding Bishop’s office, or by the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church. Therefore, the matter is not being handled by the Presiding Bishop’s office or anyone in the employ of the Episcopal Church Center.
In spite of this, the ever outrageous Bishop—not of the Episcopal Church—David Anderson had this to say in his weekly message from the American Anglican Council:
In May and June, the American Anglican Council warned that with the implementation of the new American Episcopal Church (TEC) Title IV Canons, the Presiding Bishop would receive unprecedented power to directly intervene in a diocese or discipline a bishop. Our anticipation was that Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori would move quickly to punish South Carolina TEC Bishop Lawrence by inhibiting/suspending him and the Standing Committee of South Carolina and replace everyone at the top with her hand-picked “loyalists.” Although such a “Blitzkrieg” approach would have drawn international alarm and censure from many quarters, it was the approach that we considered most likely, based on previous actions

Apparently, the Presiding Bishop has decided to be more careful about how she drives Bishop Lawrence to the guillotine, and so an elaborate story has been concocted about how loyalists in South Carolina compiled the list of particulars on a grievance letter and sent the complaint to the the President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. Former Bishop of Upper South Carolina Dorsey Henderson is the President of this board, and so he was the one to communicate with Bishop Lawrence on the “serious charges,” including “Abandonment of the communion of this Church.”
In other words, Bishop Anderson is accusing Bishop Henderson of lying, probably at the behest of the presiding bishop.

Even if one chooses to ignore Anderson’s penchant for wild exaggeration, there is no reason to believe that there was any need for anyone to concoct a story about South Carolina loyalists drawing up a list of grievances against their bishop.

As I noted more than a year ago (see “S.C. Via Media Group Calls for Investigation”), The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina (EFSC), which is composed of “loyalists in South Carolina” and which has been growing by leaps and bounds of late, appealed to Executive Council to investigate the goings on in the diocese. Executive Council is not really in the investigating business, but the appeal likely got the attention of church leaders. Anyway, it is a reasonable inference that EFSC members were at least involved in delivering the charges to the committee. EFSC was around long before Mark Lawrence, and it may have needed some advice from New York, but it didn’t need any encouragement.

I return now to the matter of collecting consents for Mark Lawrence to be consecrated a bishop following his first election. When I heard of his election, I was upset because I remembered an essay Lawrence had published in The Living Church only a few months earlier.

In “A Prognosis for this Body Episcopal,” Lawrence described The Episcopal Church as “a comatose patient on life support” in need of “a surgery that frees us from the ‘heresy’ of a national church or, more accurately stated, from an ecclesiastical nationalism and the provincialism that has led to the deepening fracture within our Church.” The medicine he recommended was turning over the governance of The Episcopal Church to the Anglican primates. “Our very survival, let alone our growth,” he boldly asserted, “necessitates the surrender of our autonomy to the governance of the larger church—that is, the Anglican Communion.”

I was alarmed that the author of “A Prognosis for this Body Episcopal” might become a member of the House of Bishops. I became even more alarmed after looking into Lawrence’s representations to the Diocese of South Carolina. On a questionnaire, for example, he answered strongly disagree to the statement “The church should not divide over this issue [homosexuality].” In Lawrence’s answers to walkabout questions from the diocese, the bishop-elect took the opportunity to criticize further The Episcopal Church and to defend alternative primatial oversight.

This led me to write “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church,” in which I urged bishops with jurisdiction and standing committees to withhold consent to Mark Lawrence’s consecration. Via Media USA sent copies of my essay with a cover letter to the bishops and standing committees that were being asked for consents. A couple of months later, assailed with questions about his loyalty, Lawrence released a set of questions—his own, apparently—and answers. I found these unconvincing and analyzed them on my Web site. (See “The Annotated Mark Lawrence.”)

Mark Lawrence did not receive the required number of consents from standing committees, and his election was declared null and void by the presiding bishop. There was a good deal of confusion about what really happened, but the reality is that Katharine Jefferts Schori bent over backwards—violating the canons, I believe—to give Lawrence his best chance to be approved for consecration. Had standing committees felt comfortable approving him, he would have received the necessary consents long before the allotted 120 days for response had expired. (I have written a number of blog posts about Lawrence. The two most important on his failure to receive the necessary consents are “Lawrence Bid Fails” and “Reflections on the Mark Lawrence Affair.”)

Mark Lawrence should never have been made a bishop. Given his public statements, I have every reason to believe that he was insincere when he took the oath to “engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 513).

The recent charges against Bishop Mark Lawrence have only confirmed what I believed five years ago.  All I can say to my church is “I told you so.”


  1. I would only say that it seems to me that our old friend and colleague +Mark has amply demonstrated over these years his deep intention and firm commitment to remain as Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina--in an environment where I believe he would have the very strong support of the large majority of his diocese if he were to choose another direction, and it speaks to his integrity that he has not done so.

    The deeper problem--which we failed to solve here in Pittsburgh, to our lasting detriment--is how to find sufficient differentiation without tearing the fabric. It's a fine task, threading a needle, and of course there is no guarantee of the outcome.

    In any event, most of the items referenced in the complaint are irrelevant to a canonical charge, and those that are at least hypothetically relevant suggest a certain strictness of application in this case that is not seen elsewhere.

    If South Carolina has announced formally that "local determination" shall prevail when its views contradict the canonical direction--well: how many dioceses and bishops have determined informally, "without a convention resolution" that violations of the canons referencing admission to Holy Communion of the unbaptized, for example, are permitted because of their "local determination?" Quite a few.

    Bruce Robison

  2. Bruce,

    Granted, there are very many Episcopalians in South Carolina who are more hostile to The Episcopal Church than is Mark Lawrence. Those people would leave the church in a minute if given the chance. Yes, Lawrence has the tiger by the tail. His response to radicals has not been to tell them that certain changes to the diocese’s governing documents are simply out of order, however. Instead, it has been to help create a diocese that is Episcopal in name only.

    I did not intend my post to be laying out a legal case for abandonment, which may or may not be the most credible charge that could be lodged against Lawrence. The canonical changes made in South Carolina are improper, but they are completely consistent with statements Lawrence made prior to his consecration.

    I have argued elsewhere (see “Unqualified Accession”) that qualifying accession to the general church constitution or canons is—I’m not sure this is still correct terminology—a presentable offense.

    How, exactly, could we have solved the “deeper problem” in Pittsburgh? Bob Duncan and his minions, after doing everything possible to suppress views they didn’t like, left the church voluntarily. No one drove them out. We failed to solve the “deeper problem” because a majority of active members of the diocese didn’t want the deeper problem solved.

    As for open communion, let me go on record as being against it and thinking it theologically silly. I do not find it theologically offensive, but I respect those who do. That said, the failure of authorities to enforce one law is generally not seen as a valid defense against a charge of violating a different law. Claiming selective enforcement of a particular law, on the other hand, is sometimes exculpatory. In other words, your complaint about open communion is irrelevant.

    If people are concerned about a priest offering open communion or about a bishop condoning it, since open communion is clearly a violation of prayer book rubrics, they should file the proper complaint. Under the new Title IV, I can imagine an outcome to such a filing being much more generally satisfying to all parties than under the old Title IV.

  3. ::Sigh:: Why is it otherwise presumed adults revert to the "he is bad too" argument whenever TEC says "stop theif?" Sure some liberals in some places go to far, and violate canons. Witness Northern Michigan's episcopal election a ways back, when it is proven, something happens. But oh, don't let someone get shot down for theft or conspiracy, or something. After all, they are conservatives!


  4. OK, I do know how to spell, "thief." I should not rely on that spell checker.


  5. jimB

    And you apparently don't know the difference between "to" and "too" either.

  6. I am not a bit surprised at what is happening in SC. Good people went against all evidence that +Mark would go to war with TEC. Call it war, or protecting conservatives in SC, it is no surprise at all right now that significant resources will be plundered by TEC and +Mark. Way to go everyone! But I guess +Mark has his own little empire right now, within EPUSA circles or not.

  7. Lionel,

    You may recall that after the last TEC convention you reproved me for my emotional remarks on the implications of Title IV reform. You say that you anticipated teething problems with the changes and that we should give Bishop Henderson the benefit of the doubt.

    Bishop Henderson was a lawyer before he was a bishop and he knew the concerns that had been raised. Wouldn't you have expected that in a high-profile case like this he would have bent over backwards to ensure that the newly established procedures were followed to the letter?

    In a sense, Mark Lawrence isn't the person about whom you should be worrying. He has ample support in South Carolina and will no doubt be happy to embrace what you consider his martyr complex. My feeling is for those individual conservative priests in liberal jurisdictions who are now witnessing what seems to be an inability to follow through on due process, even as defined in the new canons and in the public spotlight.

    Is it really going to take someone who shares your theological convictions being disciplined by the Presiding Bishop for disagreeing with her before you will acknowledge that there may be something fundamentally wrong with the distribution of power under the new Title IV canons?

    My sense is that in the 19th century the conservative majority bent over backwards to give those few modernist clergymen who ended up in diocesan court the benefit of the doubt. Apparently that was then and this is now.

  8. Jeremy,

    To the best of my knowledge, nothing improper has happened in the Mark Lawrence case. That the church attorney recused herself (for reasons that remain confidential) is hardly an irregularity. What are you suggesting?

    As for the 19th century, I don’t know that conservatives were all that inclusive. After all, they established the Reformed Episcopal Church and never approved the consecration of James DeKoven. All in all, the Christian Church seems to have been a snake pit more often than not. So what’s new?

  9. Bishop Waldo of Upper South Carolina, and very much on the "progressive" side of the spectrum, has what I think is a well-modulated and thoughtful comment here.


    I was in my roles with the National Network of Episcopal Clergy Associations very much concerned with the new Title IV. There is a fundamental shift in procedural value, and we really don't know (though perhaps are beginning to worry about) what the consequences will be. The older Title IV was modeled on the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) and was designed to provide an orderly disciplinary process, to include a series of "innocent until proven guilty" safeguards for those under investigation or presentment. The new Title IV moves from a legal to a professional model, where "protection of the association" has a higher priority--with a model perhaps in the procedural structures of the Bar Association. Many of the "innocent until proven guilty" protections are replaced by a procedural bias in favor of the complaining party. The designers of the processes had at the front of their minds the kinds of concerns, many valid, raised about the church "sweeping under the carpet" claims regarding child abuse and sexual misconduct.

    It probably is the case that in situations where charges related sexual misconduct or criminal abuse are raised, the disciplinary structure will have now fewer opportunities to sweep under the rug. But whether those procedures are appropriate in other kinds of cases--or whether those individuals and bodies charged with conducting these procedures are actually competent and equipped to do so--remains to be seen.

    Certainly thus far, from my point of view, the evidence isn't encouraging, and if the Title IV procedures are going to be appropriated by conflicted parties in church disputes in an effort to attack opponents, I think we're going to be in real trouble.

    Bruce Robison

  10. Any just disciplinary system must strike a balance between the rights of the accused and the rights of injured parties, including the institution administering the system. Clearly, the new Title IV resulted in part from the perception that, in cases of clergy misconduct, the balance favored the accused to the extent that both the injured party and the church itself could be harmed further by the system.

    I don’t know that Title IV has the right balance in the case of sexual abuse, and I surely don’t know that it has it right balance with respect to abandonment. I do know that there were serious defects in how abandonment charges were handled prior to July 1, 2011.

    For now, I think everyone needs to dial down the rhetoric about how horrible both the new Title IV and its administration is—particularly because their visibility into that administration is severely limited—and focus on what Bishop Lawrence has allowed to happen in his diocese.

    Bishop Waldo’s essay requires a separate comment, which I will put in the form of a new blog post shortly.


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