October 29, 2011

Waldo on Lawrence

In my recent post, “I Told You So, ” I suggested that the present disciplinary inquiry involving Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina should have been seen as inevitable and that, frankly, Lawrence should never have been made a bishop to begin with.

I take up the subject of Lawrence again in response to a comment from the Rev. Bruce Robison. I addressed some of the issues he raised in my own comment, and, in this post, I want to focus on the remarks of Bishop W. Andrew Waldo, to which my friend called attention.

Bishop Waldo’s October 19, 2011, guest editorial in The State is “Unity, diversity both necessary and possible in Episcopal Church.” Alas, this essay exemplifies the kind of fuzzy-thinking, head-in-the-sand, collegiality-at-all-costs inanity that makes me wonder if having bishops is really worth all the trouble they seem to cause.

Waldo begins with hand-wringing about what is going on next door to his diocese:
Episcopalians in the Columbia-based Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina are watching with heavy hearts as our brothers and sisters in the Charleston-based Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina contend with allegations that their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, has “abandoned the communion” of the Episcopal Church.
Waldo’s basic thesis is that Mark Lawrence is a capital fellow for whom we should make sacrifices in the name of theological diversity. He writes, “I consider Bishop Lawrence a friend and respected fellow-laborer in the vineyards of the Lord. I know him to be a loyal and faithful minister who seeks to raise valid and serious questions as to the theology, polity and structure of the Episcopal Church.”

I do not disagree with Waldo when he says, “Our church has a long history of theological diversity and respect for those with whom we disagree, and we can all benefit from the challenge of addressing these questions openly and in a spirit of mutual charity.” Waldo, however, like so many conservatives who have actually left The Episcopal Church, seems to believe that theology is important, but institutional rules are not. Waldo writes
…it is hard for me to see how the actions complained of against Bishop Lawrence rise to the level of an intentional abandonment of the communion of this church, as is charged. I have difficulty understanding why matters that are arguably legislative and constitutional in nature should be dealt with in a disciplinary context.
Because The Episcopal Church does have a tradition of theological diversity, it generally shies away from heresy trials. (The radical conservatives are not so skittish about theological witch hunts, as the late Bishop Walter Righter discovered.) In fact, no one is pursuing charges against Bishop Lawrence for his theology, whatever that might be.

We do, however, expect our bishops to “engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church” (BCP, p. 513). In particular, we govern our church in a democratic manner, and the constitution and canons of the General Convention are to be obeyed, even by bishops. If a bishop does not approve of our governing documents, he or she is free to suggest changes at the next General Convention. Such advocacy is perfectly acceptable.

Ours is a church of theological diversity, but not of trustworthiness diversity. The doctrine of The Episcopal Church is hard to pin down, but its constitution and canons are largely unambiguous. Although theological concepts, such as that of the Trinity, may be more “important” than “matters that are arguably legislative and constitutional in nature,” bishops are pledged to be trustworthy champions of the latter. “Diversity” in legislative and constitutional matters is insubordination, a refusal to play by agreed upon rules, a failure to keep a moral commitment. This is precisely what “should be dealt with in a disciplinary context” [emphasis added]. What kind of example is a bishop who pledges his sacred honor to uphold the rules under which our church has agreed to operate but who flagrantly disobeys those rules because he doesn’t like certain decisions the church has made?

In his penultimate paragraph, Waldo writes
In John 15:12-13, Jesus makes an arresting proclamation about Christian unity: He commands that his disciples love one another as he has loved us. He tells us that such love means a willingness even to die for the sake of each other. This requires a deep trust in God’s providential hand in human events rather than in our own “rightness”—regardless of whether we lean right or left.
I see no compelling reason why the church should make sacrifices for a bishop who believes he is above the mundane conventions by which the rest of us live our life together. No one is persecuting Bishop Mark Lawrence—not for his theology, not for his views on how the church should operate. It is not the duty of the church to accommodate a bishop who puts himself above the decision-making mechanisms established by the church. If Mark Lawrence cannot live within the parameters set by a democratic General Convention, he has an ethical duty to resign. Failing that, he must accept the consequences of what can only be seen as his transgressions.

Bishop Waldo has failed to understand the essentials of the situation in which Bishop Lawrence has placed himself. Whether Lawrence has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church is debatable—the canons are indeed unclear on just what this locution means. I have no doubt, however, that he has committed offenses deserving of deposition. The facts brought forward by the people of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina are not frivolous. Lawrence cannot blame changes to the South Carolina constitution and canons on his diocesan convention. As bishop presiding over the convention, he had the obligation to declare propositions clearly out of order to be such. He did not.

In opposing the giving of consents to Mark Lawrence’s consecration, I titled my argument “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church.” Having first succeeded, then failed in that test, the church has been presented by Mark Lawrence with yet another test of its wisdom and resolve. Perhaps it will succeed this time.


  1. "Ours is a church of theological diversity, but not of trustworthiness diversity."

    It is interesting that Bp. Waldo does not object to the rejection of theological diversity so evident in Bp. Lawrence's writing and his diocese's actions.


  2. Thanks for expressing your opinion, Lionel, it is helpful to understand where you are coming from.

    Following your logic, then, all TEC bishops who do not enforce the clear canonical prohibitions against communion of those not baptized within their diocese need to be charged with violation of the canons.

  3. David,

    They should be admonished to stop first, but, yes, they could be charged. That open communion is a “liberal” thing does not make it acceptable from my point of view.

    I cannot condone liberals violating the canons if I dislike it in conservatives, can I?

    Perhaps we have found a rare point of agreement.

  4. When I was in seminary an older priest told me that he believed it was probably impossible to pass a week in the ministry of the church without fumbling a canon or rubric. Sometimes that is what you might call accidental--and other times I suppose, and this is often in the case of rubrical violations, it will simply be the case that the individual priest or bishop will determine his or her own judgment to trump the settled view of the whole church. We're a bunch of eccentrics. Liberal clergy decide they want to hear about a few matriarchs along with the patriarchs of Eucharistic Prayer C, Evangelicals tweak the eucharistic acclamation and the blessing over the water in the baptismal liturgy, and on and on.

    The best practice of our church for centuries has been the studied practice of not noticing. Making room for one another.

    I'm not arguing for laxity in matters of moral high seriousness or of ecclesial order. But the reality is that the bushel basket of accusations brought against +Mark seem to me to be truly counterproductive. A throwing of gasoline on the fire, and making things more likely to wrong in South Carolina, not less likely.

    Bishop Waldo and I would disagree on many topics, but I appreciate his letter, which I believe reflects a way of walking on the high road.

    Bruce Robison

  5. Clearly, making minor changes to the liturgy or violating certain rubrics is hardly a serious offense, even if technically a presentable one. (Offering communion to the unbaptized is more serious.)

    That said, one of the joys of being an Episcopalian is being able to walk into an Episcopal church far from home and, because of the familiarity of the liturgy, feeling right at home. Messing with the liturgy diminishes this joy.

    Some changes are more upsetting than others. A priest’s naming both matriarchs and patriarchs is not too upsetting, though it will please some visitors and irritate others. More disconcerting are changes in text said by the people or by the people and celebrant. Such changes as the substitution of “God’s” for “his” may be a local convention that catches the visitor unawares or may actually appear in a printed service bulletin or—heaven forbid—on an overhead slide.

    Perhaps the most obnoxious change I have encountered is the addition of “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” to “Thanks be to God” at the end of the service. The message this sends to visitors—to this visitor, at any rate—is if you don’t know to say this, you are not one of us.

  6. Two things:

    I think Mark Lawrence really wants to stay in TEC. Charging him and deposing will drive him out and why some leaders in TEC feel a need to do that baffles me.

    Secondly at St. David's we use both overhead slides and we add the "who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ". Oops!

  7. I don’t doubt that Mark Lawrence wants to stay in The Episcopal Church. Moreover, should he be deposed, we would be left with a diocese more radical than its former bishop. Despite all the talk of Katharine Jefferts Schori’s being a tyrant, the reality is that there is little the church can do about the situation. The only real check against a diocese’s running off the rails is the power to withhold consents. In principle, though not likely in practice, the wider church could hold out until the diocese elects a bishop likely to move the diocese closer to the center.

    By the way, David, why do you add “who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”?

  8. The addition to the BCP dismissal comes directly from 1 Corinthians 15:57. The BCP conflated the verse.

    St David's adopted this practice sometime in the 1980s as a result of its usage by the Cursillo movement in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.

  9. David,

    Thanks for the information. I knew where the phrase came from, by the way. General Convention did not see fit to add it to the BCP, however. Of course, that is no longer relevant for your church.

  10. Excellent analysis as usual. I have found a disturbing trend among radical conservatives. They use the results of an election as justification for their position if the vote goes their way. If the election goes against them, they are somehow justified in ignoring the results.

    Of course the answer is if you don't like the rules of the Episcopal Church, go to General Convention and try to get the votes to change them. I have attended the Diocese of Dallas's convention for several years and I have invariably voted on the losing side. Yet I maintain the validity of the vote, and I am subject to it. But then again I am not a conservative and therefore I have to accept the results of elections, period.


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