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:
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.
- There should be room in the Episcopal Church for priests and bishops who accept homosexual conduct as a valid, non-sinful choice. Answer: disagree
- There should be room in the Episcopal Church for priests and bishops who consider homosexual contact a sin. Answer: strongly agree
- The church should not divide over this issue [homosexuality]. Answer: strongly disagree
- 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
- 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
- The solution to our problem in ECUSA is for ECUSA to repent of its actions and return to traditional standards. Answer: strongly agree
- The solution to our problem in ECUSA is time; we should wait and let the fuss die down. Answer: strongly disagree
- 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
- 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
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.