[Episcopal News Service] Episcopalians in South Carolina were “saddened” when others in the Diocese of South Carolina on Nov. 17 affirmed an earlier decision by the diocesan leadership to leave the Episcopal Church, but they said they also were “encouraged that many people, lay and clergy, are choosing to remain.”
The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina also said in a statement from its president, Melinda A. Lucka, an attorney in the Charleston area, that “the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina continues in full communion with the Episcopal Church.”
Two days before the Nov. 17 meeting, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a pastoral letter to Episcopalians in the diocese offering prayers and support for those who wished to remain in the Episcopal Church, and noting that the diocese “continues to be a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, even if a number of its leaders have departed.”
Jefferts Schori did not issue a statement after the Nov. 17 meeting.
A steering committee has been formed “to guide and assist in the reorganization of the diocese,” according to a list of its members here. Bishop John Clark Buchanan, who lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, and Bishop Charles vonRosenberg of Daniel Island, both retired Episcopal Church bishops, are listed as advisers to the steering committee.
Hillery Douglas, a Charleston businessman and senior warden of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church there, chairs the steering committee. The committee hopes “to ensure that all Episcopalians in this diocese are able to remain in the Episcopal Church,” Douglas said after the Nov. 17 meeting.
Despite the votes last month and on Nov. 17, he said, “Episcopalians will continue to worship together in this diocese,” he added.
Tom Tisdale, a former diocesan chancellor who has worked for the presiding bishop in the diocese in the past, agreed. “The invitation to return will always be there without condition,” he said. “But we are looking to the future.”
The continuing diocese has created a website, which includes a listing of 12 parishes and congregations in which a majority of the members have said they are remaining in the Episcopal Church. There are 78 congregations in the diocese.
Lawrence and the diocesan leaders loyal to him long have engaged in a series of moves to distance the diocese from the Episcopal Church, actions ultimately stemming from disagreements over human-sexuality issues and theological interpretation. Those actions came to a head after Jefferts Schori restricted Lawrence’s ministry on Oct. 17 after the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified to her that he had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church.”
The board cited three instances, including Lawrence’s support of diocesan convention resolutions in 2010 meant to repudiate most of the diocese’s adherence to the church’s constitution and canons, his action to amend the diocese’s corporate charter to delete all references to the church and obedience to its constitution and canons and his directions to Diocesan Chancellor Wade Logan to send a quitclaim deed to every parish in the diocese. A quitclaim deed generally transfers ownership of the property from the party issuing the deed to the recipient. The “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4) states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church.
On the same day the disciplinary board acted, the diocesan Standing Committee announced that the board’s action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”
During that convention on Nov. 17, Lawrence asked for and received affirmation of his actions and those of the Standing Committee to disaffiliate the diocese.
The convention passed three resolutions. The first resolution affirmed Lawrence’s actions and those of the Standing Committee, severing any relationship with the Episcopal Church. The resolution also had the convention declare Lawrence the diocese’s “rightful bishop” and “declare that as God has sent Bishop Lawrence to be our bishop, only he [God] has the authority to declare otherwise.”
The second resolution amended the diocesan constitution to remove all mention of the Episcopal Church or its General Convention. This resolution technically requires a second reading and approval. The third resolution removed all references to the Episcopal Church from the diocesan canons.
The first two passed on voice votes, while the third passed by vote of 96 percent in the clergy order (71 yes votes and 3 abstentions) and 90 percent in the lay order (47 yes with 5 abstentions), according to information here.
Forty-two parishes attended the special convention along with 12 missions, sending a total of 170 lay delegates.
During the voting on the resolutions, the Rev. Daniel Hank of Barnwell, who abstained, said that despite personal conflict with the Episcopal Church, “the unity of the church is not the work of human hands nor of human minds, but the work of the Holy Spirit accomplished through the sacraments.”
“The mother church is the flesh that bore us, brought us into this world as Christians,” he said. “I have diligently searched Scriptures and prayer book and have found no ceremony where one can divorce one’s mother.”
Copies of the resolutions are here.
The South Carolina diocese had set its next annual convention for March 8, 2013, and the continuing diocese plans to adhere to that date. Leadership positions will be filled and other actions taken to move the reorganization along. Meanwhile, the steering committee, while not the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese, will serve as a way for South Carolina Episcopalians to communicate with the wider Episcopal Church and take other steps to allow the diocese of reorganize and function, according to a question-and-answer section on the continuing diocese’s website.
The steering committee is working via several subcommittees, including a pastoral-care subcommittee for lay and clergy; a convention subcommittee to prepare for the March convention; a communications subcommittee; a clergy subcommittee to assist priests with their ongoing ministries; and an administration subcommittee to handle human-resources issues.
“People have questions, but once they’ve understand what’s going on, we have seen a tremendous amount of support to continue the Episcopal diocese,” said Holly Behre, communications subcommittee chair. “Right now, we are working on our infrastructure to get an alternate voice out there for loyal Episcopalians.”
The Rev. Wilmot T. Merchant II, chair of the administration subcommittee, said he intended to continue the church’s mission.
“I am not prepared to leave, because you will always have family disagreement,” he said. “There has never been a time when the church was argument-free, especially when it comes to biblical interpretation. The Episcopal Church has historically stood with people on different sides of issues, and we have survived.”
Bishop vonRosenberg hosted a clergy day two days before the Nov. 17 meeting. They day was open to all diocesan clergy, and about 70 met to worship together and to ask questions of the steering committee. Some of those questions concerned the nuts and bolts of the reorganization process, such as the diocesan name, property possession, the status of pledge dollars, who could consider applications by new congregations for recognition and whether the Episcopal Church supported the committee. Clergy also asked how to care pastorally for parishioners who had been given what some people deemed incorrect information about events surrounding the disaffiliation and wanted to remain Episcopalians, and how to help congregations whose members were split but wanted to worship together.
The Rev. Marshall Huey, rector of Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church Charleston, said during the clergy day he appreciated that “there has been not one disparaging remark about our brothers and sisters who have chosen a different path.”
“We have a growing parish and are united in our resolve to take in as much information as we can before making an informed decision,” he said. “I feel like a child watching his divorcing parents fight it out. I am hurt by it and grieved by it. It is damaging to our Christian witness.”
VonRosenberg assured those at the clergy gathering that “the church will be okay and, eventually, may even thrive.”
“As the Episcopal Church, we are connected to caring people and to institutions of support beyond South Carolina,” he said.
The bishop urged clergy to take care of themselves in this time of confusion and stress.
“The active clergy in the parishes are the ones on the front line of this confusing time,” he said. “So they are trying to be pastoral caregivers for folks who are confused themselves … Keep the fire of that first love for ministry burning. Let others remind you of why you got into all this in the first place.”
How the diocese reached this point
Lawrence and the diocesan leadership have been distancing themselves from the Episcopal Church for at least three years, including through the actions cited by the disciplinary board. Questions were raised about Lawrence’s intentions, however, from the time he was nominated in 2006 to become the diocese’s 14th bishop.
When Lawrence first was elected bishop in September 2006, he faced numerous questions about whether he would attempt to convince Episcopalians in the diocese to leave the church. In a Nov. 6, 2006, letter to the wider church, he wrote that he would “work at least as hard at keeping the Diocese of South Carolina in the Episcopal Church as my sister and brother bishops work at keeping the Episcopal Church in covenanted relationship with the worldwide Anglican Communion.”
Lawrence did not receive the required consents to his consecration in 2007 because some standing-committee consent forms were canonically improper. He subsequently was re-elected, received the consents required for all bishops-elect and was consecrated January 26, 2008.
In October 2009, the diocese authorized Lawrence and the Standing Committee to begin withdrawing from churchwide bodies that assent to “actions deemed contrary to Holy Scripture, the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them, the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference which have expressed the mind of the communion, the Book of Common Prayer and our constitution and canons, until such bodies show a willingness to repent of such actions.”
That authorization came in response to two 2009 General Convention resolutions passed two months earlier that focused on human sexuality and reaffirmed the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the Anglican Communion. Resolution D025 affirmed “that God has called and may call” gay and lesbian people “to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.” Resolution C056 called for collecting and developing theological resources for blessing same-gender relationships and allows bishops to provide “a generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church.”
A diocesan news report at the time said, “These resolutions seek to protect the diocese from any attempt at unconstitutional intrusions in our corporate life in South Carolina and were in response to the revisions to the Title IV [disciplinary] canons of the Episcopal Church.”
Lawrence and most of the diocese’s deputation left the 2012 General Convention on July 11, objecting to the passage of resolutions that they said violated the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church.
The resolutions in question were A049, which allows for optional and provisional use of a rite to bless same-gender relationships, and D002 and D019, which affirm the full inclusion of transgender people in the life of the church (including the ordination process).
However, the Very Rev. John B. Burwell, the sole South Carolina clergy deputy who remained, told Episcopal News Service in an interview after the House of Deputies’ last session on July 11 that “we are not leaving the Episcopal Church.” And Lawrence made it clear the next day, noting that “a deputation to General Convention has no authority to make such a decision.”
Soon after convention, Lawrence added C029 to the list of resolutions deemed objectionable. The resolution had in its original form called for a “study of the theology underlying access to Holy Baptism and Holy Communion” and eventually was amended to state that “baptism is the ancient and normative entry point to receiving Holy Communion.” Another resolution (C040), which would have allowed unbaptized people to receive Communion, did not make it out of committee.
Lawrence said that the amended C029 resolution “still moves the church further down the road toward encouraging the Communion of the unbaptized, which departs from 2,000 years of Christian practice” and “puts the undiscerning person in spiritual jeopardy.”
Lawrence said the resolutions about transgender people would lead to an abandonment of norms because “gender may be entirely self-defined, self-chosen,” thus “condemning ourselves, our children and grandchildren, as well as future generations to sheer sexual anarchy.”
“So long as I am bishop of this diocese I will not abandon its people to such darkness,” he promised.
A summary of events surrounding the latest South Carolina actions is here in a Nov. 9 fact sheet issued by the church Office of Public Affairs.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Sarah Moïse Young is a freelance reporter based in Charleston, South Carolina.