I attended this year’s Episcopal Church General Convention as a visitor and saw a vibrant Christian church at work. There were daily worship services, legislative sessions held with dignity and mutual respect by bishops, clergy and lay deputations, and hard-working committees that heard comments on resolutions and toiled over the language of the resolutions before they were approved and sent to the House of Bishops and House of Deputies for final voting. As a mainstream Episcopalian, I found the experience to be uplifting.
In commentaries that I have read post-General Convention, some have expressed opposition to a few of the many actions; others have voiced support. Historically, the Episcopal Church has faced difficult social and theological issues, such as slavery, race relations and the ordination of women, and it has now addressed issues relating to gender and sexual orientation. The church, then and now, has responded in a kind and loving way.
Some say that the actions of this Convention were not strong enough; others argue that the actions were unbiblical. I find myself unable to ignore that historical Scripture arguably was based upon underlying customs and laws at that time. Watching the actions of the Episcopal Church was seeing a church that operates biblically, through history and tradition, with reason applied.
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, left the Convention, having objected to some of its actions, most notably the resolution to bless same-sex relationships. Resolution A049 is not mandatory, and it does not authorize same-sex marriages. It leaves the decision for the blessings to individual bishops within the church.
There are some who feel that the Episcopal Church has “left” the traditional church doctrines and polity. I am of the opinion that the leadership of this diocese over the past few decades has moved away from mainstream, traditional Episcopal doctrine and discipline. I have seen the local diocesan leadership and decision-making bodies vote to sever the legal relationship with the Episcopal Church, “differentiating itself” from the church.
For the past 25 years, the actions of the Diocese of South Carolina have moved it away from the Episcopal Church, slowly at first, with subtle changes, and then with rapid momentum. In 2004, the voting leadership of the diocese, known as the Diocesan Convention, became a part of a conservative, evangelical splinter group then known as the Anglican Communion Network. Symbols of the Episcopal Church, such as the Episcopal shield and signage, began disappearing from the diocesan website and from parish buildings. Seminarians were discouraged from attending traditional Episcopal seminaries such as Sewanee, Virginia Theological Seminary or the General Theological Seminary, and sent primarily to Trinity School for Ministry and Nashotah House Theological Seminary.
Perhaps the most drastic of all changes occurred in October 2010 and February 2011, when the accession to the Canons (laws) of the Episcopal Church was abolished, and accession to the Constitution of the church was qualified. The diocese charter was amended, proclaiming this a “sovereign diocese.” Five known parishes changed their by-laws to abolish accession to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. One parish broke away entirely.
We in this diocese are faced with the possibility that more parishes will leave to align themselves with other denominations. Of the 110 dioceses in the Episcopal Church, four have experienced the kind of break that we may be facing (San Joaquin, Calif.; Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and Pittsburgh). Parishes in those dioceses left the church, but the dioceses remained. New bishops were elected and new priests were hired.
The difficulty in diocesan divisions arises when challenges are filed by breakaway parishes or loyal Episcopalians over the ownership of parish property. Leaders of the national Episcopal Church are obligated to safeguard property that has been held in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Ideally, there should be a way to amicably separate if parishes want to leave.
I feel strongly that the Episcopal Church is alive and well and is based upon a strong commitment to the Christian faith. It will weather this storm as it has weathered all others.
Melinda Adelle Lucka is a local attorney in the Charleston area, a member of the Ecclesiastical Law Society and president of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina.