What is going on in The Episcopal Church? Some answers to commonly asked questions
It’s a tumultuous time for mainline Protestant denominations. Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians all are grappling with divisive theological issues that center on the authority of Scripture, the nature of sin and salvation and the degree to which religious institutions can accommodate those who have been marginalized historically, such as gays and lesbians.
Bishop Mark Lawrence
Born March 19, 1950, in Bakersfield, Calif.
Earned a Master of Divinity in 1980 from Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.
Earned a Doctor of Divinity in 2008 and 2009 from the Nashotah House and the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., respectively.
Ministered in a variety of parish settings, including a newly planted suburban church, rural mission, inner-city church and downtown parish, in California and Pennsylvania.
Consecrated the 14th bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina on Jan. 26, 2008.
In recent years, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, under the leadership of Bishop Mark J. Lawrence, has distanced itself from the Episcopal Church. Diocese officials say the Church has “walked apart” from the rest of global Anglicanism, that its liberal leanings and “indiscriminate inclusivity” has compromised the integrity of the institution and ridiculed the gospel.
After a long series of back-and-forth actions that began when Lawrence first was elected bishop in 2006, the Church has moved to sanction him. The Post and Courier reported Thursday that a certificate of abandonment had been produced and delivered to Lawrence, and that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had restricted him from exercising his ministry as a representative of the Episcopal Church.
The issues are complex and often confusing. Here, The Post and Courier reduces them to seven essential questions, offering answers derived from many interviews and years of reporting on this story.
1.What does ‘abandonment’ mean?
Upon his consecration, a bishop pledges to uphold the constitution and canons of the Church. Failing to follow the rules sometimes is the result of oversight or mistake, but when it’s “an open renunciation of the Discipline of the Church,” he is said to have abandoned his episcopal duties.
What happens to a bishop accused of abandonment? There are three basic possibilities: He will be restricted from performing any acts as an ordained person, then dismissed from the church. He can resolve the problem and be restored to his position. Or he can opt to leave the church on his own.
2.Can a diocese leave the Episcopal Church?
Technically, no. Only people can leave the Church. A diocese is essentially a geographical designation, a domain where the Church sets up an administration. It includes parishes, schools and other institutions. All the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church under the terms of the Dennis Canon, and protecting the property is part of a bishop’s responsibility. When a bishop leaves the Church, others may choose to follow him, or choose to remain. In this case, though, local Church officials have created a stand-alone and independent corporate entity called “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” effectively transforming a geographical area into a church.
3. What will happen to Bishop Mark Lawrence if he breaks with the Episcopal Church completely?
It’s unclear. Lawrence has not explained publicly what he will do. Assuming he wants to continue in a leadership role, his options appear to be: A) join the Anglican Church in North America, an organization recently formed in response to what it perceives as the liberalization of the Episcopal Church; B) affiliate with an Anglican church body outside the Episcopal Church; or C) stay put. He has declared the diocese an autonomous Episcopal jurisdiction. It is conceivable that he will continue to lead, operating a self-sufficient “church” that stands, at least for now, apart from any larger institution.
4. What will happen to parishioners in the Diocese of South Carolina now?
The diocese announced it had “disaffiliated” with the Episcopal Church because of the actions just taken by the Disciplinary Board of Bishops and presiding bishop. Worshippers who attend parishes that changed their corporate charters and governing documents to remove reference to the Episcopal Church, declaring themselves part of the autonomous Diocese of South Carolina, and that filed quitclaim deeds that transferred ownership of the property to them, could be subject to legal challenges.
5.What are the potential legal challenges?
Since the property is supposed to be held in trust for the Church, the recent actions taken by diocese officials and some of the parishes could prompt a court fight. But Lawrence is relying on a 2009 S.C. Supreme Court decision in favor of All Saints Church on Pawleys Island, which had broken from the diocese (and Episcopal Church) a few years earlier. That decision cited an unusual deed transfer that occurred more than a century earlier, long before the Dennis Canon was adopted. It is conceivable that litigation will be avoided, however. Some wonder if the national Church has the resources and stomach for a legal battle that could take years and result in ownership of a lot of expensive-to-maintain and underused buildings.
6.Is this really all about homosexuality?
No. Ordaining gay bishops and blessing same-sex marriages concern those who consider themselves biblical Anglicans, but those issues have been characterized as the straw that broke the camel’s back. Other complaints made by conservatives concern the authority exercised by the presiding bishop, an assertive church inclusiveness that appears to some to redefine the basic Christian tenet of salvation, and the general liberal leanings of a Church overeager to accommodate social trends.
7.Can the theological questions be put in a nutshell?
First, dissenters in the Episcopal Church say that the Bible contains all that’s necessary for salvation, that it is the word of God and must not be contradicted or compromised. God’s revelation is absolute, needing no revision. Loyal Episcopalians argue that change is inevitable if the Church is to remain relevant in a dynamic society.
Second, the doctrine of salvation is at stake. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” Does this mean all non-Christians (and all Christians who equivocate on this point) are damned? Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has said that God made promises to Jews and Muslims that remain in force, and that people such as Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are “godly.” It’s not her job to figure out who gets to enter the Kingdom of God after death, she said, insisting, “I believe the whole world has access to God.” Furthermore, salvation depends not only on “getting right with God,” but on “getting right with our neighbors,” too, she said. Individualism is unbiblical when it trumps “the interests of others as well as principles of interdependence.” Many conservative Anglicans seized on these statements to accuse Jefferts Schori of denying the supremacy of Christ.