A majority of Episcopalians in South Carolina yesterday affirmed the diocese’s decision to withdraw from the structures of the Episcopal Church. This is not a surprising decision, though, if you’ve read previous posts here, you’ll know I find it a disappointing one.
The bishop, Mark Lawrence, says that the diocese is now, “an extra-provincial diocese within the larger Anglican Communion.” There are some formal extra-provincial dioceses in the Anglican Communion (the two dioceses in Sri Lanka, for instance) but South Carolina is not one of them. They are now a self-declared, free-floating ecclesial entity.
So here’s my question: what happens when Bishop Lawrence retires/resigns/is no longer bishop? How will the diocese replace him?
The reason the church has metropolitical structures–a hierarchy, that is–is for precisely this purpose. It takes three bishops to make one bishop. So you put groups of dioceses together–we call them “provinces” in the Anglican Communion–and they set rules for how they determine when three (or more) bishops will get together and make a new bishop.
That’s one reason why, incidentally, there have to be a minimum of four dioceses to form a province. A vacancy in one diocese does not harm the province’s ability to sustain its episcopacy.
South Carolina’s decision to be an independent ecclesial entity does not provide a path for the future of the diocese as it is now. Mark Lawrence cannot be bishop for ever. It’s hard to see how this decision can be sustainable in the long run.
While this may seem to be a quibbling point, it’s tied into a larger question about the hierarchical nature of the church, which has been simmering in the Episcopal Church lately. That question is, in turn, tied into a larger question about what the good news of Jesus Christ is. I’ll address that in a later post but for now it’s worth ruminating on what future this new entity in South Carolina sees for itself.