December 1, 2011

Whither South Carolina?

I was upset earlier this week when I learned that Bishop of South Carolina Mark Lawrence would not be charged with abandoning the The Episcopal Church. (I was in a meeting when I learned of this development, and members of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh can testify that I was visibly upset!) I can understand the decision not to charge Lawrence; there are reasonable arguments both for and against bringing charges. In fact, I have no doubt that Lawrence has violated his responsibilities as a bishop and should be subject to the disciplinary procedures of Title IV, but the proper charge probably is not one of abandonment.

Here is Section 1 of Canon IV.16, which deals with abandonment by a bishop:
If a Bishop abandons The Episcopal Church (i) by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church; or (ii) by formal admission into any religious body not in communion with the same; or (iii) by exercising Episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than the Church or another church in communion with the Church, so as to extend to such body Holy Orders as the Church holds them, or to administer on behalf of such religious body Confirmation without the express consent and commission of the proper authority in the Church, it shall be the duty of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, by a majority vote of all of its members, to certify the fact to the Presiding Bishop and with the certificate to send a statement of the acts or declarations which show such abandonment, which certificate and statement shall be recorded by the Presiding Bishop. The Presiding Bishop shall then place a restriction on the exercise of ministry of said Bishop until such time as the House of Bishops shall investigate the matter and act thereon. During the period of such restriction, the Bishop shall not perform any Episcopal, ministerial or canonical acts.
Clearly, the issue before the Disciplinary Board for Bishops was whether Lawrence had abandoned the church “by an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church,” not whether he had in some way strayed from “the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church,” which I believe he certainly has. It is not hard to argue that Lawrence has not made a relevant open renunciation, however. In fact, the bishop has consistently indicated his intention to remain in The Episcopal Church, even while failing to make a convincing declaration of loyalty to the church.

Almost certainly, the question of abandonment was raised because the charge of abandonment is handled differently and more expeditiously than other less ambiguous charges. That an abandonment charge led to the deposition of Pittsburgh’s Robert Duncan no doubt encouraged those who raised the abandonment question regarding Mark Lawrence. It must be admitted, however, that Duncan had gone further in distancing himself from the church. But, even in that case, one might question whether the open-renunciation requirement had been met.

I believe that Lawrence should be charged with violating the canons of both the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and those of The Episcopal Church, but I say this with trepidation. The situation in South Carolina is a mess, and The Episcopal Church lacks effective tools to deal with it.

It is true that Bishop Mark Lawrence has not acted as an ideal Episcopal bishop, but he is hardly the first conservative Bishop of South Carolina with an ambivalent (or perhaps unfavorable) view of The Episcopal Church. It was, in fact, inevitable that a Mark Lawrence (or someone even more antagonistic to The Episcopal Church) would be elected bishop in 2006. As I pointed out in my essay “No Consents: A Crucial Test for The Episcopal Church,” episcopal candidates were being asked to respond to very telling questions. Here are several multiple-choice questions asked of candidates and Lawrence’s answers:
  1. There should be room in the Episcopal Church for priests and bishops who accept homosexual conduct as a valid, non-sinful choice. Answer: disagree
  2. There should be room in the Episcopal Church for priests and bishops who consider homosexual contact a sin. Answer: strongly agree
  3. The church should not divide over this issue [homosexuality]. Answer: strongly disagree
  4. If the Diocese of South Carolina does not become separate in some formal way from ECUSA, I intend to resign my orders as an Episcopal priest. Answer:unsure
  5. If the Diocese of South Carolina separates in some formal way from ECUSA, I intend to transfer from this diocese to an ECUSA diocese. Answer: strongly disagree
  6. The solution to our problem in ECUSA is for ECUSA to repent of its actions and return to traditional standards. Answer: strongly agree
  1. The solution to our problem in ECUSA is time; we should wait and let the fuss die down. Answer: strongly disagree
  2. The solution to our problem in ECUSA is for the conservatives to go along and get along (not that big an issue). Answer: strongly disagree
  3. As a priest, I should not follow my bishop’s direction when it conflicts with Scripture, traditionally interpreted by the Anglican Church. Answer: strongly agree
Presumably, Lawrence’s answers were the sort the South Carolina electorate was looking for. Despite the existence of clergy and laypeople in South Carolina fiercely loyal to The Episcopal Church, evidence suggests that, on the whole, South Carolina Episcopalians are even more hostile to The Episcopal Church than is their bishop.

The widespread sentiment within South Carolina means that, if the church were to remove Bishop Lawrence, the South Carolina problem for the church would still be unresolved. The diocese, if it did not do something even more radical—there would be a lot of angry church members in the diocese in that eventuality—would simply elect another problematic bishop. At that point, all the church could do is refuse to consent to the consecration of the bishop-elect. It is unclear that the church would have sufficient resolve to reject bishops-elect until an acceptable one was chosen. Recall that Lawrence was rejected once—do not believe that his failure to receive sufficient consents was simply an administrative quirk—but he was given the required consents when elected again and after he provided a fig-leaf of reassurances that he would behave himself. Many of us suspected that the bishop-elect gave those reassurances with his fingers crossed.

Whereas it is not true, as Lawrence would have it, that Episcopal dioceses are sovereign, it is equally true that the general church has few options when a diocese deliberately runs off the rails. There is no way to remove or even discipline non-episcopal diocesan leaders from outside the diocese. This is, alas, a deficiency in our canons. Were Bishop Lawrence deposed, it is possible—likely even—that the  Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina would try to leave the church, perhaps aligning itself with the Anglican Church in North America. Or it might appeal for help from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who might view South Carolina as another Rwanda in need of his well-intentioned, if extralegal, intervention.

In other words, The Episcopal Church has no good options in South Carolina other than to encourage Episcopal Forum of South Carolina and other loyal Episcopalians to work for change from within. Given the state’s conspicuous hostility to outside authority generally and the conservative leanings of the people of South Carolina, I do not have high hopes for significant change anytime soon.

Should the church charge Mark Lawrence with an offense that can be successfully prosecuted? In the end, I don’t know. He deserves to be removed from office, but will his removal have consequences worse than those attendant to his continuance in office? I fear that The Episcopal Church will simply have to watch the train wreck and hope for the best.

In the meantime, General Convention should consider whether canons need to be changed to deal effectively with circumstances like those now present in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

Update, 12/3/2011: Yesterday, I posted an essay by Mary Roehrich dealing with the situation in South Carolina. I invite you also to read “Mary Roehrich on South Carolina” if you have not already done so.


  1. Perhaps Bishop Lawrence in South Carolina means the Episcopal Church, not The Episcopal Church. The distinction is familiar to AVM members in the Diocese of Albany. Our Bishop Love proclaims his intention to remain in the Episcopal Church. To his mind, the Episcopal Church is quite different from TEC. It is to this mythical construct that our bishop is wedded, and the reason we believe that he is still capable of leaving.

  2. I don't quite understand how the case of DioSC is SO different from San Joaquin, Pittsburgh or Fort Worth? [Who are now have the leadership of actual *Episcopal* bishops] Please help me understand.

  3. Lionel, I suppose one way of approaching all this is to say that we are, post-2008, in a period of experiment regarding how, or whether, it will in the future be possible for progressives and conservatives to co-exist within the Episcopal Church. In any event, if you haven't seen it already, you and your readers might be interested to see the ACI response to the decision not to bring charges of Abandonment against our old friend +Mark.

    Bruce Robison

  4. JCF,

    Similar or not, it is not at all clear that we need another San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, or Fort Worth.

    That said, one difference is that, in South Carolina, it is not clear that the bishop actually wants to take the diocese out of The Episcopal Church. Were a split to occur, however, the quitclaim deeds could be a significant obstacle to protecting Episcopal Church property.

    I do countenance the possibility that Lawrence is actually following in the steps of Schofield, Iker, and Duncan. He has been known to be less than candid before.

    As for the quitclaim deeds, I would advise South Carolina Episcopalians to sue the bishop. The status of parish property was the issue over which Calvary Church sued Bob Duncan.

    Of course, it is possible that the stronger is the opposition to Lawrence, the more likely he is to jump ship.

    In the end, I don’t claim to know the best way forward.

  5. Bruce,

    As is inevitably the case, you find every statement by the ACI to be compelling, and I find myself disagreeing almost completely. The essay you cite is no exception.

    I have acknowledged that the abandonment charge was a stretch. The notion that the action of the Disciplinary Board exonerates Lawrence of all charges, however, is ridiculous. In supporting the removal of accession to the Episcopal Church canons, Lawrence violated the South Carolina constitution. (See “Unqualified Accession.”) In giving quitclaim deeds, an action not considered by the Board, Lawrence violated the canons of The Episcopal Church.

    As for the “safe place” comment that the essay so disparages, non-conservative Pittsburgh Episcopalians, both lay and ordained, understand what Henderson meant quite well. Even you, if you did not experience it under Bob Duncan, must have been able to see effects of episcopal abuse in your colleagues.

    I do not want to attempt a complete analysis of the ACI piece here, but I will point out that ACI has its own agenda of minimizing the role of the general church. Dioceses are not and never have been the fully autonomous entities that the ACI claims that they are.

  6. Good, Lionel. I actually have never had 100% agreement with my friends at ACI on the "sovereignty" theme. It is the case that the Episcopal Church functioned in its canons and customs with a much higher degree of diocesan discretion and autonomy through nearly all its history, and I do worry that the present rush to a more centralized and homogenous pattern of life may not be a healthful phenomenon. It is in many ways I think a damaging trajetory in a season when the institution itself is imploding in terms of people and dollars, and when was it called for is more focus on the missionary front-lines, not more focus on the central office.

    Back whenever it was in our history here I didn't vote to support the removal of the "accession" language in our diocesan constitution. I understood and to a significant extent shared the unhappiness that led many in our diocese to establish that differentiation, but I made it clear at the time that I believed that it isn't possible to add later qualifications to an "unqualified" commitment. I believed our action was a legal nullity, and I would have the same view of the South Carolina resolution. Nonetheless, such a differentiation is primarily notional. If in fact the diocese continues to live within the constitutional framework of the Episcopal Church, the statement of qualification is harmless. I can state all day long that I am free to rob a bank if I want. So long as I don't actually rob the bank, it doesn't much matter what I say, near as I can tell.

    South Carolina is one of the founding dioceses of the Episcopal Church, and it is today one of the very strongest. I think what we need to be doing--and I agree with Mary Roehrich's piece entirely in this--is walking alongside Bishop Lawrence and asking him what it is we can do to help in his clearly stated intention to hold the diocese together within the Episcopal Church. If his answer is, "please take a step or two back, so that we here can feel like we have some space," I think that's something we ought to do.

    Bruce Robison

  7. I don't see anything at all in Lawrence's actions that seem to point to him taking a step back or two. (even if he were to say such words, the data do not support such a claim). At every stage, his actions and responses appear to me to be the mark of a person who is going to change the trajectory of TEC. Perhaps I don't understand just how hostile some of his flock are to TEC. But if that is the case, then I guess he is not the big "leader" that he is recognized to be, or else, why would there be all of the fuss? It just doesn't add up. My money is on Lawrence with a new exit strategy. God help us.


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