South Carolina Episcopalians are headed for a painful split now that a majority of Lowcountry Episcopalians have sided with an emboldened Bishop Mark Lawrence in his standoff with, in Lawrence’s view, an increasing liberal and theologically-wobbly national church.
But questions remain about Lawrence’s authority to engineer a secession of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina from the Episcopal Church, which was approved by a majority of delegates Saturday at a special convention called by Lawrence in Charleston.
At issue, too, is the status of those Lowcountry Episcopalians who don’t agree with Lawrence’s decision to disassociate. At least 12 congregations among the 75 in the Lowcountry diocese have expressed a desire to remain with the American church, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Bishop W. Andrew Waldo, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, had hoped to avert this moment. Over the past few months, he has remained in conversation with his fellow South Carolina bishop, a man with whom he shares a rich friendship.
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“I’ve known from the beginning before I was elected that the tensions between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church were many,” Waldo said Tuesday. “I always believed creative solutions were possible and, frankly, I don’t rule out creative solutions.” But he acknowledged “the window of opportunity has narrowed.”
With Saturday’s vote and Lawrence’s restriction by the national church, “We are in a time of immense canonical ambiguity and lack of clarity about what the next steps are going to be,” Waldo said.
Waldo had urged the national church to continue dialogue with Lawrence, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops as well as the church’s move to bless same-sex unions. But leaders in the national church, including its presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, apparently had reached a breaking point.
In September, the church’s 18-member Disciplinary Board found Lawrence had abandoned the communion of the church, not for his stance on homosexuality but for his endorsement of actions that gave the diocese authority to challenge the national church on issues of discipline and prepare for a takeover of the diocese, including Episcopal parish properties that aligned with him. Episcopal canons hold that each parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church.
On Oct. 15, Jefferts Schori notified Lawrence of the Disciplinary Board’s decision and his restriction as a bishop.
Since then, Lawrence has not acted as a bishop under restriction; instead he has seemed enlivened by supporters who are willing to leave the church with him.
Jefferts Schiori has said Lawrence cannot take the diocese out of the national church, as Lawrence asserted he did Saturday after the special convention.
“While some leaders have expressed a desire to leave The Episcopal Church, the Diocese has not left,” Jefferts Schori said in a letter dated Nov. 15. “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.”
Lawrence has begged to differ, suggesting the Diocese was planted before the national church was formed, which gives him leverage to claim he is bishop over the now solitary diocese. He said he would not resist those congregations who want to remain with the national church, although it is not clear whether they would align with the Upper Diocese.
“We have spent far too many hours and days and years in a dubious and fruitless resistance to the relentless path” of The Episcopal Church, he told delegates to the special convention. “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 spectacle of a renegade diocese has riveted the Lowcountry and engendered a mixture of disbelief, puzzlement and grief, said Steve Skardon, who edits the websitewww.scepiscopalians.com.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Skardon said. “I can now understand how the South seceded from the Union. It is pure gut-level emotion. There is no place for fact.”
Skardon argued that Lawrence “has a history of opposing authority that goes back long before he was a bishop. He once argued that the governing structure of the Episcopal Church should be abolished.” His website provides “news, encouragement, and support to traditional churchmen and women in South Carolina who no longer feel they have a diocesan home.”
Lawrence said there is no turning back, but there is still one huge non-theological elephant in the room: the valuable Lowcountry church properties that dot the landscape. Lawrence has said the congregations that want to leave the diocese are free to leave with properties intact.
The Lowcountry bishop also said he has been in conversation with officials from the Church of England as well as Anglican leaders here and abroad about finding an alternative affiliation. He said the diocese will take its time to determine its future. Waldo said he believes Lawrence is not concentrating on property, but rather his relationship with clergy and parishioners.
“I think a lot of things will become clearer in March after the House of Bishops has a chance to address the situation. Many of the various directions this will go will become clarified,” Waldo said.
Meanwhile, two bishop advisers are in Charleston to address pastoral concerns of the rectors and the congregations, Waldo said.
“They are not provisional bishops. They are just advisers,” Waldo said. “Right now with Mark’s restriction on ministry and the lack of recognition of the (diocesan) standing committee, there is a vacuum in ecclesiastical authority from the perspective of the Episcopal Church. I think pastoral care is being provided as best they can as they try to discern what’s next.”
In the Upper Diocese, Waldo said, “We have been calling to prayer over this for some time and will continue to do so.”
“I recognized there are many in our congregations who have relatives or friends or who attend affected churches in the lower diocese at various times of the year who are deeply concerned and in quite a bit of spiritual pain over what has happened and the brokenness.”