A lesson from history for South Carolina

When was this man’s predecessor consecrated? And why does it matter?

Last autumn, the diocese of South Carolina left the Episcopal Church. A primary justification for this departure was that South Carolina was created as a diocese in 1785, before it acceded to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church in 1790. The departure, therefore, was a mere return to its pre-accession status. The implicit claim here is that a diocese only needs itself to be a church—with a bishop, the sacraments, the Bible, and the creeds, they’ve got all they need. Mark Lawrence, the bishop of the diocese, has pointed to the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral as evidence of this claim.

I have an article in the current edition of The Living Church that challenges this line of thinking. And I challenge that line of thinking by pointing to an historical fact: the first bishop of South Carolina, Robert Smith, was not consecrated until 1795—and at a General Convention. In other words, for nearly ten years, including the five before it acceded to the Episcopal Church’s constitution, South Carolina was without a bishop. By the standards its current leaders are now using to justify their departure, that makes it at best a proto-diocese.

(We should note that in the early years of the Episcopal Church—despite the name—several dioceses went long stretches without bishops, for a variety of reasons. South Carolina was not unique in this regard.)

This historical fact is the grounds for the larger claim of the article, namely that provinces—groupings of dioceses—matter to Anglicanism: we need them so that we can ensure our bishops are properly chosen and consecrated. The fact that Bishop Smith was consecrated at a General Convention demonstrates this. Moreover, I argue that this larger sense of belonging is actually part of the good news of the church. But read the article for the rest of the argument.

The Living Church editors also solicited two responses to my piece, which take different views. You can read one here. (UPDATE: The second response essay has also been posted.)

History matters, if only as a corrective to the self-justifying arguments that are so common in the church today. Would that we had more people in the church studying it.

A collegial episcopacy

One interesting aspect of the dispute between the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina is that it has largely been conducted between two people: Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop, and Mark Lawrence, the once and current bishop of South Carolina. Sure, Andrew Waldo of Upper South Carolina has been involved as well, but it all seemed to revolve around two people.

That may be what the canons call for (and it may not—like everything else in this mess, canonical process is in dispute) but it seems like a mistake. One of the gifts the Anglican/Episcopal churches have given to the catholic church is a collegial understanding of the ministry of bishops. Bishops make decisions best when they make them together. (Notice that doesn’t mean all the decisions bishops make are right.) This is why things like the Lambeth Conference and the various houses of bishops of the various provinces of the Anglican Communion are important. This collegiality of bishops is part of the larger process of synodical governance, in which bishops, priests, deacons, and lay people come together to discern where God is leading the church.

Events in South Carolina have moved so quickly that the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church has not had a chance to weigh in. Bishops last met in July and won’t meet again until the late winter. But surely, given the contested theological, ecclesiological, and canonical issues, their thinking is important. Instead, the actions of essentially two people have resulted in a major Episcopal Diocese losing the majority of its members.

I don’t put much faith in petitions but there’s a new one floating around online about the South Carolina situation that laments the situation and calls for it to be resolved without litigation. The reason I signed it is that I was attracted by this line:

We furthermore implore the House of Bishops – as guardians of our faith and common life – to take counsel with one another as a body; to seek, alongside other leaders of our Church, a new application of the discipline of this Church that will build up the body of Christ in South Carolina and The Episcopal Church.

I’m not saying that the input of the House of Bishops will “fix” things. I may be completely overstating the significance of collegiality. But I like the way it echoes Jesus’ teaching on conflict resolution in Matthew 16. And given the warm feelings everyone seemed to have at last summer’s General Convention and how everyone was getting along, surely the wisdom of this body might be of use in this situation?

So read the petition. And then think about signing it.

A self-declared, free-floating ecclesial entity

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.

Tick Tock in South Carolina

After a big news event, reporters will sometimes reconstruct the timeline of events that led up to it. This is called the “tick tock.” (You can see an example of it in this reporting on the announcement of the Paul Ryan selection in August.) Sometimes, the tick tock is only to satisfy the truly voracious news hounds. Other times, it can be revealing.

As I’ve been sitting with the news of the inhibition of Mark Lawrence, the bishop of South Carolina, I’ve been puzzled by the timeline of events that led up to it. So I thought I’d try to reconstruct it and see if we can learn anything from it. Here’s what I’ve come up with, based on publicly-available documents.

September 18: The Disciplinary Board of Bishops writes a letter saying they’ve concluded Bishop Lawrence has abandoned the Episcopal Church.

September 18: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina meets. The bishop is apparently asked a series of questions by the standing committee.

October 2: The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina passes a motion that they will disassociate with the Episcopal Church if anything happens to their bishop. This, apparently, is based on answers to their questions they received from the bishop.

October 3: The Presiding Bishop, Bishop Lawrence, and Bishop Andrew Waldo of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina meet to discuss their differences and seek some sort of workable plan for the future.

October 10: The Presiding Bishop is notified—via a letter in the mail—of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision.

October 15: The Presiding Bishop calls Bishop Lawrence and tells him he’s being inhibited.

October 17: Everything becomes public. The rest of us find out.

(The Diocese of South Carolina has also issued its own timeline.)

What is unclear to me is the meeting on October 3. Did Bishop Lawrence know that his Standing Committee had passed the automatic withdrawal motion? (Presumably he was at the meeting: there’s been nothing to indicate otherwise.) Did the Presiding Bishop know of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision in that meeting? (For that matter, when the Standing Committee passed the motion did they know of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops’ decision?)

Although I want to take everyone at their word, it strains credulity to think given this age of instant, always-on communication, not to mention the magnitude of the charges the Disciplinary Board of Bishops was preparing to make public, that at the October 3 meeting, neither the Presiding Bishop nor Bishop Lawrence had a hint of what was coming.

The resulting picture of that meeting is not that pretty. The Presiding Bishop and Bishop Lawrence get together to seek reconciliation. At least one—Bishop Lawrence—if not both have in their back pocket an “out” card. If this doesn’t go my way, each could say, I have the means to end this conversation, either by quitting the church or inhibiting. It’s like two gunfighters circling each other, each saying to the other, “Go ahead: make my day.”

And that, needless to say, is not how reconciliation works.