At a special convention hosted by St. Philip’s Church on Saturday, the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence asserted his leadership of a sovereign Anglican diocese that he said has been the victim of a wrongful intrusion by the Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
This has never been about who is welcome or not welcome in our church. It’s about what we shall tell them about Jesus Christ, his mercy, his grace and his truth — it is about what we shall tell them when they come and what we shall share when we go out.We have spent far too many hours and days and years in a dubious and fruitless resistance to the relentless path of TEC. And while some of us still struggle in grief at what has happened and where these extraordinary days have brought us, I believe it is time to turn the page. The leaders of TEC have made their positions known — our theological and creedal commitments regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture, the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ, and other precious truths, while tolerated, are just opinions among others; our understanding of human nature, the given-ness of gender as male and female, woven by God into the natural and created order, is now declared by canon law to be unacceptable; our understanding of marriage as proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer “established by God in creation” and espoused by Anglicans around the world hangs precariously in the life of the Episcopal Church by a thin and fraying thread; and our understanding of the church’s polity, which until the legal strategy of the present Presiding Bishop’s litigation team framed their legal arguments, was a widely held and respected position in this church. Now to hold it and express it is tantamount to misconduct or worse, to act upon it is ruled as abandonment of this church.Bishop Mark Lawrence, from his special convention address
He said his time in the Lowcountry — he was first elected bishop in 2006 and ultimately consecrated in January 2008 — has been spent in the “Valley of Decision.”
“I trust you will understand that I have strived in these past five years, contrary to what some may believe or assert, to keep us from this day, from what I have referred to in numerous deanery and parish gatherings as the Valley of Decision,” Lawrence said in his convention address.
An unhappy convergence of theology, morality and church policy has led to a collision with the leadership of the Episcopal Church, he said.
“We move on. Those who are not with us, you may go in peace, your properties intact. Those who have yet to decide, we give you what time you need. Persuasion is almost always the preferable policy, not coercion.”
Delegates at the convention voted overwhelmingly to pass three resolutions, the first affirming that ties with the Episcopal Church are severed, the second and third amending the constitution and canons to reflect local autonomy.
The diocese has 71 parishes and mission churches; 55 were represented at the convention. Only four parishes and two missions abstained from voting for the resolution changing canon law because their members were still in a discernment stage.
About 16 parishes did not participate in the voting at all, apparently because they remain aligned with the church.
A few clergy also expressed concerns about severing all ties to the Episcopal Church, but a vast majority voted firmly in favor of disassociation.
Lawrence and others have cited history to justify their actions. “The Diocese of South Carolina, established in 1785, predates the establishment of the Episcopal Church (TEC), which was established in 1789,” officials stated in a fact sheet distributed before the convention. “It existed before TEC. Though it has disassociated from TEC its identity has not changed.”
In his address, Lawrence asserted the Diocese of South Carolina remains part of the Anglican Communion and has received words of encouragement from Anglican leaders worldwide.
“So for now and the foreseeable future, having withdrawn from our association with TEC, we remain an extra-provincial Diocese within the larger Anglican Communion, buttressed by the knowledge we are recognized as a legitimate diocese by the vast majority of Anglicans around the world,” he said.
People in the diocese who are remaining in the church said Lawrence was mischaracterizing the church and diocesan history.
The diocese did not exist before the Episcopal Church, only a group of parishes (geographies) that were part of an established church in the region, the Church of England, said Barbara Mann, past president of the Episcopal Forum, a group loyal to the church.
After the Episcopal Church was founded, those parishes joined to become a founding diocese.
Though Lawrence and his colleagues have announced their independence, church officials do not recognize their claim, according to Steve Skardon, a cradle Episcopalian and critic of the breakaway efforts. “A diocese is to the church what a state is to the nation,” he said. There is no constitutional provision for secession.
To Skardon, who maintains a website devoted to the politics in the local diocese, the legal and administrative posturing is “all about property.”
In a pastoral letter to the diocese released last week, Jefferts Schori stated the church’s position on separation.
“While some leaders have expressed a desire to leave The Episcopal Church, the Diocese has not left,” she wrote. “It cannot, by its own action. The alteration, dissolution or departure of a diocese of The Episcopal Church requires the consent of General Convention, which has not been consulted.”
Local officials argue otherwise. Lawrence has said efforts by a newly formed steering committee loyal to the church are fraudulent and malicious attempts to usurp the name, diocesan seal and oversight of those who no longer wish to be associated with a church that has abandoned “the doctrine, discipline and worship” of traditional Anglicanism.
Melinda Lucka, current president of the Episcopal Forum, said the local diocese now is a distinct, unaffiliated corporate entity. “It can’t be in the diocese, because it no longer belongs to the Episcopal Church,” she said.
Last week, a new steering committee was formed to begin the process of reconstituting an administration of what the church calls a “continuing diocese.”