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.