Windsor Continuation Report and South Carolina

My recent essay that questioned the Diocese of South Carolina’s decision to leave the Episcopal Church has generated a fair bit of comment on blogs around the world, not to mention the two response essays in The Living Church itself.

There are two posts on the Anglican Down Under blog (here and here), though I quickly lost the thread of the discussion in the comments as it descended into a string of ad hominem attacks, or ones only loosely connected to the argument I was making in the first place. I do note that several people have noted in various places that South Carolina could quickly get three bishops together if it had to. I acknowledged this in the initial essay, but also noted that this would demonstrate the ad hoc nature of their existence.

But on the TitusOneNine blog, Christopher Seitz of the Anglican Communion Institute makes a perceptive—but I believe mistaken—claim:

This essayist misses the point that “extra-provincial” in the present period does not refer to the cases he lists, but emerges in the context of our conflicts and was proposed as a way forward by the Windsor Continuation Group. It is a category overseen by a primatial committee. We have information on this at ACI. Incidentally, even the PB of TEC supported it.

We might first note that while the report of the Windsor Continuation Group was “received” by the Anglican Consultative Council, little action has been taken on any of its recommendations. As a result, Seitz’s implicit assertion—that South Carolina has simply taken up some status available to it in the Communion—is not correct, nor is it what South Carolina has been claiming for itself in the last several months. Regardless of which primates supported the idea, it has not, to my knowledge, become an active and viable option in the Anglican Communion, as the absence of a primatial committee in South Carolina makes clear.

Nonetheless, I went back and read the WCG report. Here is what it has to say about extra-provincial dioceses:

100. One way forward – although initially dismissed by some of the parties concerned – would be for ACNA to seek for some clear provisional recognition which seeks to keep it in relation to the Communion, but which acknowledges its provisional and anomalous nature. WCG has explored on previous occasions the idea of “escrow” – the creation of a body which could take on the oversight of these groups on behalf of the Communion, but which recognises the provisionality of such bodies. The group wonders whether there is any mileage in the model of extra-Provincial jurisdictions? In at least one case, such jurisdictions have been recognised as provisional – e.g. in Sri Lanka Such a provision is fraught with difficulties. Such a scheme could not guarantee any particular outcome, the nature of which would be dependent on many factors, including the progress of the Covenant process. The provision would have to be hedged around with all sorts of restrictions, to avoid such a scheme becoming a haven for discontented groups, and institutionalising schism in the life of the Communion. Who would be the metropolitical authority? If all other obstacles were overcome, the WCG would favour a Metropolitical Council similar to that which operates for Cuba rather than linking the new entity to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

In other words, the WCG report itself highlights the need for metropolitical authority, which is precisely the point I was making in my initial essay. Rather than contradicting my claim, it seems the WCG accurately forecast the problems that would arise with such an unusual status.

(I would post these comments directly to the TitusOneNine blog, but it appears as if it is no longer taking new users.)

No commenter, to my knowledge, has responded to the historical facts I lay out in the essay concerning the South Carolina episcopacy—namely that South Carolina went many years without a bishop and its first bishop was consecrated at a General Convention. These seem of central importance to the current conversation.

Still, I welcome the conversation. It is noteworthy to me that none of the more reliably “liberal” Anglican/Episcopal blogs have entered this discussion, even though I think these ecclesiogical issues are of critical importance in ongoing debate about the future direction of the church.

On another note, here’s an example of another use of my writing. A group from the Diocese of Fredericton in New Brunswick, Canada went on a mission trip to Ghana and used my book, Grace at the Garbage Dump, to help them reflect on what they were experiencing. Read the full report here. Then download the study guide for the book and do the same on your next trip!

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.

The hierarchical nature of the church and the good news of Jesus Christ

Nine years ago, when Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire, conservative Episcopalians—not to mention Anglicans elsewhere in the world—were adamant that the Presiding Bishop at the time, Frank Griswold, “do something” to prevent New Hampshire from going ahead with the consecration. Bishop Griswold replied that, as the election and confirmation process had proceeded as to canon, there was nothing he could do.

This dispute was, inter alia, a dispute about the hierarchical nature of the church. The conservatives argued there was some level of authority above New Hampshire that could reverse the diocese’s decision. There was—the General Convention, which approved Robinson’s election—but beyond that, Bishop Griswold looked at the canons of the church and said he had no higher powers to “do something.”

Fast forward to the past few months and the debate over the departure of the diocese of South Carolina from the church. Many of those same conservatives are upholding the decision by South Carolina to withdraw from the Episcopal Church. The argument is that the basic building block of the church is the diocese and a diocese has no intrinsic need to be a part of anything larger. This is why the diocese of South Carolina has declared itself to be, essentially, a free-floating ecclesial entity. (This raises questions I thought about in this post.) The liberal Episcopalians who oppose the departure say that, in fact, the church is hierarchical in nature and a diocese isn’t a diocese without reference to some larger entity, in this case The Episcopal Church, a province of the Anglican Communion.

(I am using the words “liberal” and “conservative” here with reckless abandon and as shorthand for larger and more complex positions.)

Debates over the governance structure of a church can appear to be among the most naval-gazing topics of all, fodder for lunch-time debates at seminary, General Convention sub-committees, and not much else. But as this example shows, the polity of The Episcopal Church—and, in particular, its hierarchical nature—is currently under intense scrutiny. Not only is there the South Carolina example, there is the case of the several active and retired bishops who are under investigation because they filed a brief saying that the church was not hierarchical. The House of Bishops weighed in on the nature of the church at General Convention in the summer.

Rather than being so much naval-gazing, I think the questions raised by these debates actually have something to do with the good news the church has to proclaim. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’m going to think about hierarchy in the church, and then think about why or if it matters how hierarchical the church is.

The basic question comes down to something like this: how far up does the hierarchy of the church go? Everyone accepts the need for a bishop in a diocese. But do those bishops and those dioceses have to be part of some larger organization, like the Episcopal Church? And do those larger organizations have to be part of something larger, like the Anglican Communion? What does it mean to “be part” of something larger? What opportunities and constraints come with this?

The first thing to say is that there is a lot of hypocriscy on this issue. We’ve already seen some of this at work in the South Carolina instance. But that’s far from the only example. For instance, it is widely acknowledged that many priests and some bishops practice a kind of “open communion” in which people who are not baptized are invited to receive communion. This is in direct violation of the canons of the Episcopal Church. The teaching that baptism precedes communion was upheld by General Convention this summer. Yet it seems unlikely that anyone’s practice has changed as a result. The hierarchy of the church says one thing; clerics ignore it. Discipline for canonical violations is fine, seems to be the message, just so long as it is not for us.

Here’s another example: some of the same people who say South Carolina has to be part of something larger assert with equal vehemence that hierarchy stops at the water’s edge. That is to say, there is no hierarchy above the provincial level in the Anglican Communion. Anglicans from elsewhere in the world better not start interfering with the church. Conservatives, of course, have been happy to appeal to varying levels of hierarchy beyond The Episcopal Church in search of support for their views.

The prevailing situation, then, on the hierarchical nature of the church seems to be a hermeneutic of self-justification. This results in a condemnation of the other side and an exoneration of oneself. In a situation like this, how is one to proceed?

We might start by noting that hierarchy dates to the early church. Very quickly in the development of the church (when there were a lot more bishops, each overseeing a smaller area than they do now), a handful of cities—Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantiople, and Jerusalem—came to exercise a kind of authority over Christians in other places. These were the metropolitan sees, which is why you sometimes hear a senior bishop referred to as a metropolitan. He (or she) has authority over other bishops in his (or her) area. Hierarchy has been a part of the ordering of the church catholic from an early date.

(Importantly, of course, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church is not a metropolitan. He or she—as Bishop Griswold demonstrated—has no canonical authority over other bishops. But the idea of a local church belonging to something greater than itself is pretty old.)

Appeals to tradition, however, are hardly sufficient, especially when I am sure people more learned than me could quickly add complexity to my short sketch of the early church. Conversely, we might note that the claim advanced by many South Carolina supporters that a diocese is the basic building-block of the church has an intrinsic merit. Anglicans have traditionally affirmed four items as the ground for ecumenical reunion: a belief in Holy Scriptures, the creeds as a sufficient statement of faith, the dominical sacraments, and the “historic episcopate locally adapted.” This is known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. Clearly, those four elements of what it means to be a church are present in a single diocese. Why the need for hierarchical structures at all?

I answered that question in a previous post: a single diocese cannot perpetuate its episcopate. You need three bishops to make one bishop. That’s why groups of dioceses get together as provinces to set rules for how those three bishops will get together to do just that.

So it’s clear that hierarchy is a) part of the history of the church, b) necessary for the church as Episcopalians and Anglicans understand it, and c) a subject on which self-serving interpretations can quickly come to dominate. In a situation like this, it’s very easy to get drawn into naval-gazing.

But let’s not! There’s good news here but this post has gone on long enough. Stay tuned for the next post.

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.