What's going on the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina? It depends who you ask.
Events since July, when the Episcopal Church held its General Convention, have prompted the diocese to draft five proposed resolutions and call for a diocesan convention for Oct. 24.
Many local Episcopalians are concerned about what they perceive to be the broad liberal drift of the national church, a trend that calls into question the church's adherence to traditional practices and beliefs, ranging from attitudes toward Scripture, Christian doctrine and the degree to which the church should accommodate gays and lesbians.
One diocese resolution calls on leaders "to begin withdrawing from all bodies of the Episcopal Church that have assented to actions contrary to Holy Scripture, the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them, the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference which have expressed the mind of the Communion, the Book of Common Prayer and our Constitutions and Canons, until such bodies show a willingness to repent of such actions."
Another resolution calls for an endorsement of an Anglican Covenant, "expressing our full commitment to mutual submission and accountability in communion, grounded in common faith."
A third resolution states that "this Diocese will not condone prejudice or deny the dignity of any person, including but not limited to, those who believe themselves to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered," but "will speak the truth in love as Holy Scripture commends …"
These statements, and others made in recent months have caused many in the diocese to question its future.
Unity or split?
The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, which advocates "unity with diversity," consists of about 500 members and supports those who wish to remain part of The Episcopal Church, issued this statement last week:
"Resolution 2, if passed, would essentially separate our diocese from participation in The Episcopal Church. … Over the years our Diocese has disagreed with The Episcopal Church over many issues, from slavery and civil rights, to revisions in the Book of Common Prayer and the role of female clergy. In each instance some people felt so strongly that they could no longer be a part of The Episcopal Church and left.
"Fortunately, most stayed. The Diocese has weathered those storms, and by the Grace of God, has flourished. The proposed resolutions are a direct threat by the leadership of our Diocese to separate from union with The Episcopal Church."
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the diocese, said the resolutions do not signify a break from the national church, only a pullback from its governing bodies.
He called Resolution No. 2 a "protest of conscience" and a challenge to the General Convention and House of Bishops for contradicting church canons when it voted in July in favor of resolutions that appeared to clear the way for the consecration of gay bishops and blessings of same-sex unions.
Episcopal Church officials have said the resolutions do not substantively change anything; they only affirm already-held positions.
But many in the Anglican Communion understood the actions at the General Convention to contradict a de facto moratorium on gay ordination and same-sex blessings.
"I regret the fact that there is no will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the Church in North America," Archbishop Rowan Williams told the General Synod of the Church of England meeting in York.
'Drift of the church'
Timothy Winkler, a member of St. Andrew's Church in Mount Pleasant since 2002, said he was drawn to the congregation because of its body of believers.
"Homosexuality, same-sex blessings are not the heart of the issue," he said. "They are more symptomatic, as opposed to what's going on at a systemic level. Really, I think you've got a serious parting of ways."
The national church has changed the rules of the ballgame, while a minority in it wants to hold on to orthodox teachings, Winkler said.
He referred to several concerns, including controversies that popped up earlier this year when, in February, a devotee of Buddhism was elected bishop of the Episcopal Church's Northern Michigan diocese, and when, in April, Ann Holmes Redding was defrocked after becoming a Muslim.
These episodes and others have raised concerns among the orthodox about the "drift of the church," Winkler said.
"At some point you have to draw distinctions. You either are for certain components of traditional orthodoxy or you believe in other things. You can't be a Hindu-Muslim-Episcopal-Buddhist."
He said reconciliation is preferred, but sometimes the distinctions are too large and must be recognized. Inclusivity is a fine idea, but it can be a "slippery slope," Winkler said. What should the church do about someone who rejects traditional teachings, like the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture?
"At some point, a decision should be made," he said.
'On the defensive'
Barbara Mann, treasurer and board member of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, said the Episcopal Church has not contradicted its canons or changed the definition of marriage or rejected the lordship of Christ.
And she took issue with the claim that "withdrawing from all bodies of The Episcopal Church," as stated in the diocese resolution, did not signify a separation.
"The resolution means basically withdrawing from the Episcopal Church," she said. "The General Convention is the main body of the Episcopal Church."
Its big meeting takes place every three years, but its work "encompasses all the commissions and committees that make policy and carry out the will of the (church)," she said. To abandon the General Convention is "tantamount to dropping out of the church."
Mann said she regrets the turmoil and controversy.
"Probably, if breakaway parishes hadn't started some years ago to take the assets, putting the national church on the defensive, perhaps this would have unfolded differently, with some negotiation possible," she said.
'Not going anywhere'
Lonnie Hamilton, a member of Calvary Episcopal Church who has served as a delegate to the General Convention in 2003 and 2006 and attended as a first alternate this year, said he has watched as support for gay ordinations and same-sex marriage has gained significant churchwide support.
He said he thinks the issues around homosexuality have less to do with theology and more to do with power and control.
While he said he understands the concerns of diocese officials, he is not eager to leave the national church.
"I fought too hard to get into the Episcopal Church," he said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Hamilton said he worries about what lies ahead.
"My question has been: If you leave the church, where do you go?" Hamilton said he doesn't think emotions and ideology should drive actions before all the options are carefully considered. "What happens to pensions? Property?"
He said too many of the decisions about next steps were being made by diocese officials and that lay people "do not really have that much authority in helping to fashion (a solution)."
The Rev. Phillip Porcher, 77, says he has been active as an ordained priest in The Episcopal Church for more than 50 years.
He was involved in past conflicts over changes to the Book of Common Prayer, racial integration and the ordination of women. He grew up attending Christ Church Chapel in Mount Pleasant and remains loyal to the national church body.
He said actions taken at the General Convention are consistent with the positions and practices of the church.
They have "done nothing to change anything contrary to what the church has always stood for: openness and welcome," Porcher said.
Refusing to join the governing bodies of the church amounts to a departure, he said.
"I don't know how they can not participate in the General Convention and House of Bishops, and remain in the church."
Since the 1980s, the diocese has welcomed many graduates from the conservative Trinity School for Ministry near Pittsburgh, which is known for its evangelical leanings, Porcher said.
This has caused the diocese to assume a more orthodox posture, he said.
Growth in the diocese is partly a result of non-Episcopalians joining local congregations, and many of them are "susceptible to conservative arguments," Porcher said.
He said he didn't mind the conservative arguments, but resented the suggestion that those who don't agree are somehow not true Christians.
"That is unheard of in our polity. Christ welcomes everybody."
A split should be avoided, but it could be too late for that, he said.
"The vain part of me, the base part of me, says, if you don't like it, leave, and quit bothering the rest of us," Porcher said.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.
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