Local parishioners appear ready to resolve the rift that has divided the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and the national church since 2003, after the Episopal Church consecrated an openly gay bishop.
The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the state diocese, and other conservative local church leaders have protested what they see as the national church's increasingly liberal leanings. The Episcopal Church last month declared that Lawrence had abandoned his sworn duties to uphold the constitution and canons of the church, and it restricted him from exercising his ministry.
That action put into effect previously prepared local resolutions that disaffiliated the diocese from the church and called for a special convention to be held Nov. 17.
Local parishioners appear weary of the bickering.
“People don't come to church to fight. Most of the parishioners have been very unhappy” about the division, said Bruce McDonald, a parishioner at St. James Church on James Island.
“It's a distraction. But there are sound theological reasons for us taking the position we do. We live in our culture, and we are affected by our culture. But the church shouldn't fashion doctrine to suit the culture,” McDonald said.
He and other traditionally minded Episcopalians feel betrayed by a national church they entrusted to provide biblical leadership.
“Bishop Lawrence is one of the most godly men I have ever met,” McDonald said. “It's very sad the amount of energy that might have gone into evangelism of the world that has been spent defending ourselves against our own denomination.”
Others don't like the bickering and leave the dispute in God's hands.
“I know God is in control of his church,” said Mimi Huss, a parishioner at The Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan's Island. “However, I wish we were all united on these issues that are dividing our Christian family.”
Yet the church needs to remain biblically based and not change to conform with popular culture, she added.
“Being a Christian does not mean our decisions will be easy or popular,” Huss said. “But if in all of our decisions we remain completely faithful to God's word, he will be pleased, and we will be blessed.”
For many, the ongoing fights over biblical interpretations have become impossible to reconcile.
“The media tends to focus on the gay issue,” Susanne Lemke said. “This is important, but let us not be distracted from the main issue.”
To her, the larger issue is over the national church's liberal leanings.
“It is the national church that has rejected and abandoned the truth of the Gospel,” Lemke said.
Parishioners on both sides agree that the dispute has drained energy and resources from the church's mission.
“It's sad, it's sad. But it's been a long time coming,” said Jan Van Norte, a member of the progressive St. Stephens Episcopal Church. “Let's get on with the business of what we're about.”
She is proud of the national church for tackling delicate issues, including the ordination of women.
Charlie Smith, an Episcopalian who has been at odds with his church, said the split is really about “ostracizing, excluding and diminishing the lives of thousands of church-going gays and lesbian Christians” and spreading hatred under the guise of biblical values.
Anne Hawkes, a lifelong Episcopalian, calls herself a “moderate liberal” and attends Grace Episcopal Church, which supports the national church.
She notes that she and her siblings are theologically divided. Her two brothers lean conservative, and her two sisters lean liberal.
“But we are still a loving family,” Hawkes said. “We don't think we need to part ways.”
To her, people forget in the bickering that God commanded his followers to love God and “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“We have to stay in relationship with each other and with God. All of this talk about pulling out is ridiculous,” Hawkes said. “We don't all have to agree with everybody.”
Editor's note: Earlier versions of this story misidentified Jan Van Norte. The Post and Courier regrets the error.