About 400 Episcopal clergy and lay delegates will come to Columbia on Saturday to elect a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.
The election to find a successor to retiring Bishop Dorsey F. Henderson Jr. comes at a time when the U.S. church and the worldwide Anglican Communion are roiled in controversy over the role of gay and lesbian clergy.
Six candidates are on the ballot, including the dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Columbia, the Very Rev. Philip C. Linder. He had removed his name from consideration, shortly before nine candidates were winnowed to five, but agreed to resubmit it after a petition drive.
The other candidates include:
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- The Very Rev. John Burwell, rector of the Church of the Holy Cross, Sullivan's Island
- The Rev. David F.O. Thompson, rector of St. Bartholomew's Church, North Augusta
- The Rev. Canon Dr. Neal Michell, Canon to the Ordinary, Episcopal Diocese of Dallas
- The Rev. W. Andrew Waldo, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Excelsior, Minn.
- The Rev. Jerre Stockton Williams Jr., rector, St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Kerrville, Texas
The six candidates have answered questions, including how they would approach the blessing of same-sex unions, and participated in "walkabouts" with clergy and laity.
Two, Linder and Thompson, will be at the convention and will able to vote because they are residents in the diocese.
Peggy Hill, the diocese's canon for communications, said there are 240 lay people certified as delegates. At least two-thirds of the diocese's congregations have to be represented Saturday to obtain a quorum. At least two-thirds of the 155 resident clergy in the diocese also must be present to reach a quorum.
"It will just be a process that unfolds as it unfolds," Hill said, although she predicted the election would require more than one ballot. She said the day is set up for prayer and meditation between the ballots.
The Rev. Furman Buchanan, assistant to the rector of St. Martin's-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, said he appreciates that the process is done "in community and not in isolation."
"We take that seriously in the Episcopal Church," he said. "The bishop is not hand-picking favorites. It's always done at the parochial level and the diocesan level."
The diocese of Upper South Carolina is seen as a more moderate cousin to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which represents Lowcountry Episcopalians.
The leader of that diocese, Bishop Mark Lawrence, has been outspoken in his criticism of the 2003 election of Bishop Gene Robinson as the U.S. church's first gay bishop and the turn of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. toward a more liberal view of homosexuality. The U.S. church is part of the 40-million strong worldwide Anglican Communion.
In October, Lawrence called together priests for a summit to consider distancing the Lowcountry diocese from the national Episcopal church leadership. Burwell, one of the six candidates, attended the summit and voted with the majority to begin the distancing process from national church leadership.
That distancing, according to Lawrence, was not tantamount to leaving the church. But Burwell's participation might be a consideration as delegates Saturday come together to ponder the qualities they consider in the next bishop for the Upper Diocese. Delegates are also scrutinizing the writings of each candidate to understand their positions.
The Upper Diocese, under Bishop Henderson, has managed to navigate the upheaval in the church over gender relationships with little of the public drama that has distinguished Lawrence and Lowcountry Episcopalians. Many may want to find someone to continue to steer a conservative-moderate course.
Among questions posed to the Upper Diocese candidates was this: "If you were elected bishop of EDUSC how would you counsel a rector who was asked to bless a same gender relationship in his/her parish, and how would you lead us forward beyond our divisions?
In detailed explanations, all said they would not divert from church teaching to allow the blessing of same-sex unions.
Consecration of the new bishop is scheduled to take place May 22.