The separation is official, but the divorce papers have yet to be signed.
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, has abandoned the church, according to the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops.
That announcement, along with a notice from Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that prohibited Lawrence from exercising ministerial duties, beginning Oct. 15, triggered an automatic response from the Diocese of South Carolina.
Two resolutions prepared by local officials in recent weeks that disaffiliate the diocese from The Episcopal Church and call for a special convention took effect as a result of the disciplinary action, according to a statement posted late in the afternoon on the diocese’s website.
The separation has been years in the making, exacerbated by the church’s acceptance of gay bishops and same-sex unions, though just how this phase of the conflict would unfold remained unclear until now.
On Aug. 20, in the wake of the church’s General Convention, Lawrence announced that he and the standing committee had agreed on a course of action, but did not explain what that was.
Local officials walked out of that convention after delegates approved the development of a rite for same-sex unions (granting individual bishops the right to opt out).
Officials of the local diocese have long faulted The Episcopal Church for what they consider the liberal leanings of an institution too quick to compromise Scripture in favor of social trends. Discord between conservative Episcopalians, here and elsewhere, and the rest of the church body has flared and subsided over the decades. But the ordination and consecration of the church’s first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003, reignited dissent among a theologically conservative minority of Episcopalians.
Conservatives have broken away or distanced themselves from the church because of changes they say contradict biblical teachings and Anglican tradition. Advocates of change argue that the church always has struggled to reconcile its doctrines and practices with a changing society, and does so according to a systematic democratic process.
Reached by telephone late Wednesday, Lawrence asserted the diocese’s autonomy but refused to abandon entirely the Episcopal label.
“We are still the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina,” he said. “We are who we’ve always been.”
He noted that the diocese helped found The Episcopal Church, not the other way around, and that it left the church once before (during the Civil War when Southern states were seceding).
At the time, the national church ignored the break since nothing in the church’s constitution or canons permits dioceses to leave, and that’s essentially what the church had done again, said Steve Skardon, a local Episcopalian who has been critical of Lawrence.
The diocese changed its constitution and canons in 2010, declaring itself sovereign, then it modified its corporate charter in 2011, removing reference to the national church. The church’s response was to declare those changes “null and void.”
But now it has taken action, citing those changes as well as the issuance by the bishop of quitclaim deeds in late 2011 to each parish, relinquishing his oversight of the property. This violated the church’s Dennis Canon, which requires bishops and dioceses to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church.
Lawrence has argued that an autonomous diocese had no obligation to abide by a pre-emptive church law instituted in 1979 (though the diocese formally agreed to it). Besides, in 2009 the S.C. Supreme Court ruled in favor of All Saint’s Church on Pawleys Island after that parish left the diocese and Episcopal Church, a decision diocese officials are depending on to bolster their position.
At least 24 parishes filed their quitclaim deeds with the state, effectively taking ownership of the property, according to documents made available by the diocese. At least four parishes in the Charleston area will remain part of The Episcopal Church no matter what happens: Grace, Calvary, St. Mark’s and St. Stephen’s.
Lawrence said he will meet with clergy Friday “to bring them up to date on the circumstances we’re in.”
Two perspectives remain in force. The national church has restricted Lawrence, forbidding him to “perform any Episcopal, ministerial or canonical acts.” The church could decide to oust him, in which case the Presiding Bishop would call an emergency convention that would elect a provisional diocesan bishop and standing committee. Eventually, a regular convention would be organized and a new, long-term bishop would be chosen.
But diocese officials view things differently. It is unclear what step they will take next. They could affiliate with another church body in the U.S. or abroad, or they could find a way to reconcile with The Episcopal Church.
Lawrence said he’s interested in finding a solution.
“We, on our end, are still open to negotiations,” he said. “But it needs to be done with the diocese, Episcopal Church and larger Anglican Union, knowing what is at stake.”