Commentary: Diocese has long history of moving away from church
As a native son in the Diocese of South Carolina, I am deeply saddened, though not surprised, at the recent actions of the Diocese of South Carolina (“the Diocese”) and its relationship with the Episcopal Church (TEC). Several articles in this paper have attempted to describe the situation. This is another view.
For over 40 years I have observed this diocese moving apart from TEC. The rhetoric of schism, division and separation began years ago under previous bishops. Bishop Mark Lawrence has now been issued a “certificate of abandonment” and the diocese would have us believe his actions are innocent and the results are all due to the presiding bishop and the so-called “national church.”
It is at least questionable that this diocese portrays itself as “right” and “orthodox” while almost 2 million other Christian Episcopalians are viewed as “wrong” and “sinful.” I do not support this unhappy division. While many in the diocese are rejoicing at this secession, there are clearly priests and parishes and laypeople who are not sure that this is correct or necessary.
It is possible that the diocese is not nearly as unanimous in its thinking as the leadership has believed. I am praying for divine intervention to prevent animosity, division and legal battles, all of which detract immensely from the mission of the church. The hour is late, and I write to encourage those who want to remain as Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina to make themselves known to the clergy and diocesan leadership.
I was at the General Convention when our presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, was elected by our House of Bishops and House of Deputies. The convention hall was overcome with what many thought to be an action of the Holy Spirit. In the presence of thousands of Christian Episcopalians, observing the workings of our bicameral structure, worshiping together, and sitting at table in sometimes difficult discussions, my experience was very positive.
The Diocese of South Carolina, however, chose to find fault with this process, as they have in the past, and separated themselves from the convention. Reports to this diocese from the deputations were generally scathing. TEC is not perfect, but neither is the Diocese of South Carolina, and I think it improbable that the diocese will find another alliance more perfect.
I am thankful that there are still some parishes in this diocese which refuse to break with TEC and consider themselves Episcopalians. The diocese has vilified the work and the people of the Episcopal Forum, even as its purpose was solely to press for unity and to keep the diocese in TEC.
There seems to be a natural tendency to resist union, especially among the more vocal secessionists. Along with that has been an increasingly un-Anglican and fundamentalist approach to scripture and “church.” A graceful and more moderate approach has been transplanted by “right thinking,” sin and judgment, and the “branding” of certain sinful people.
While most of the dioceses in the U.S. encourage open searches for priests in parishes with vacancies, this diocese has chosen to select priests who seem to fit the narrow line. With the full knowledge of the diocesan leadership, priests and parishes in this diocese have declared themselves “in impaired communion” (if not out of communion) with the Episcopal Church and have done their best to dissociate from it.
One of the effects of diocesan strategy, unfortunately, has been a rise in congregationalism.
Now the leadership of this diocese seems to believe that it can “leave” and take the people and property with them, and the larger church, to which they have been canonically tied, should just acquiesce. Some of our approved, good and orthodox Episcopal seminaries have been excluded by this diocese as “not where we should send our people.”
The effect of negative and divisive thinking in this diocese has been to foster the development of laity and priests with a mindset for division and schism. As a result, we now have a rather theocratic diocese, many moderate priests have gone elsewhere, and this diocese is polarized from the great majority of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Episcopal Church.
It is no surprise that the church is divided when, for 40 years, this diocese has been fostering and proposing division. It is sad to see the diocese continue to be so “right-thinking” and so willing to continue the rhetoric of division and schism when all around it are dioceses of a different mind.
In spite of his congeniality, Bishop Mark Lawrence seems to continue the separatist paths of previous bishops. His issuance of quitclaim deeds to the parishes has been the most recent presentment against him. I continue to hope for diocesan leadership more closely aligned with TEC that takes a more positive view of the Good News.
In the face of the recent diocesan actions, I write to encourage Christian Episcopalians in the diocese. The times ahead may be difficult, but there are brothers and sisters and all sorts and conditions of people in this diocese to stand with you. It remains to be seen how many clergy and parishes will actually leave and how the battles for leadership, land and buildings will play out.
The first and second commandment must be considered: “Love God, and Love your Neighbor.” Schism cannot be justified in favor of theological “correctness” without counting the very real human costs of secession. I believe that Jesus was “radically inclusive” and a lover of all people. There are still committed and caring Christians, and moderate and inclusive clergy and parishes in this diocese, and “the Episcopal Church welcomes you.”
The Rev. Dr. William L. (Roy) Hills Jr. is a retired priest in the Diocese of South Carolina and a priest-affiliate at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Charleston.