Has The Episcopal Church been losing the public relations competition with those who have left the church in San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Quincy, and, most recently, in South Carolina? My question is prompted by a story in today’s edition of The Post and Courier of Charleston, South Carolina. The story is titled “African bishops endorse Bishop Mark Lawrence,” and it is based on extensive publicity from Lawrence’s breakaway “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”
The newspaper story reports that four East Africa Anglican bishops visiting Charleston have expressed their support for the departure of Lawrence and much of his diocese from The Episcopal Church. The story reproduces the photo of the four bishops and Mark Lawrence provided by the breakaway group. The smiling quintet of bishops includes (L-to-R) the Rt. Rev. Robert Martin, Diocese of Marsabit, Anglican Church of Kenya; the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, unaffiliated “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina”; the Rt. Rev. Nathan Kamusiime Gasatura, Diocese of Butare, Anglican Church of Rwanda; the Rt. Rev. Elias Mazi Chakupewa, Diocese of Tabora, Anglican Church of Tanzania; and the Rt. Rev. Abraham Yel Nhial, Diocese of Aweil, Episcopal Church of the Sudan.
The visitors are scheduled to speak at various South Carolina churches over the next few weeks. They will be joined in this enterprise by the Rt. Rev. Ken Clarke, Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh, Church of Ireland; and by the Most Rev. Mouneer H. Anis, Primate of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem & The Middle East.
Stories like this encourage the perception by the public that the South Carolina schism and the motivation behind it are widely approved outside the U.S. Never mind that hundreds of Anglican bishops are not expressing their support or that the four bishops pictured were already in the U.S. to attend the New Wineskins for Global Mission 2013 conference. The 99-minute video provided by the Lawrence faction suggests that the bishops’ travel was supported by a pre-schism diocesan grant to the conference that required recipients to visit South Carolina. (Also provided to the media were an audio file, transcript, and photo album, from the same April 9, 2013, event.)
Why hasn’t The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (i.e., the real Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina) not produced a similar demonstration of support from friendly Anglican bishops? Are there no bishops in Canada, England, Scotland, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, or elsewhere willing to stand up for the continued integrity of The Episcopal Church and for Anglican comprehensiveness, as opposed to the Evangelical self-righteousness of newly minted “Anglican orthodoxy” or “Biblical Anglicanism”? I suspect that no public support has been forthcoming because no such support has been requested. If our church cannot actually mobilize the express support of any foreign Anglican bishops, it should rethink its participation in the Anglican Communion.
It would be easy to dismiss the significance of the support offered by the East African bishops. Their opinion does not immediately affect the status of The Episcopal Church within the Anglican Communion or bring the schismatic “diocese” within the Communion. It does, however, lend credence to the assertions of Lawrence and his supporters. Visits of the bishops to Lawrence’s parishes will no doubt help firm up support for the South Carolina schism, which is less than universal. News of the bishops’ support may increase the approval of the Lawrence group within South Carolina and perhaps create doubts in congregations that have retained their Episcopal Church identity. Moreover, Anglicans around the world can surely be influenced by what the see (or don’t see) in the press.
The larger question is this: Why has The Episcopal Church not worked harder at cultivating support within the Anglican Communion? Following the General Convention’s consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson, our church took much abuse in meetings of the primates and even in meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council. Why have we meekly taken such abuse, and why have we not sought more support for our positions? The extreme Anglican right has created GAFCON and the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. Why is there no Fellowship of Progressive Anglicans?
Are we simply inhibited by our pathological niceness? If so, it is time to recognize that our theological enemies—and they are our theological enemies—are playing by different rules. Our Anglican propriety (and dysfunctional collegiality in our House of Bishops) can have long-term consequences—for The Episcopal Church, for the Anglican Communion, and for a Christianity motivated by love, rather than self-righteous. It is time to rethink our ground game in the Anglican church wars.