We are greatly encouraged by the decision of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops to dismiss charges of abandonment against Bishop Mark Lawrence. We appreciate the timely decision by the Board and the articulation by its President, Bishop Dorsey Henderson, of the legal basis for the decision to dismiss. We find reason for encouragement not only in the decision itself, which has been greeted with relief by those on all sides of the Church’s disputes, but also in the legal reasoning of the Board in those parts in which Bishop Henderson is speaking for the Board as a whole and not just for himself. We and others have previously expressed concerns over procedural questions raised by the Board’s investigation in this matter. This decision not only makes those procedural issues moot, it gives us new grounds for hope on five counts.
First, the Board’s decision is explicitly based on the recognition of a distinction between official actions of the Diocese of South Carolina and statements and acts by Bishop Lawrence as an individual. Bishop Henderson’s statement, here speaking for the Board as a whole, suggests that the Board probably regarded certain “actions by conventions of the Diocese of South Carolina” as “abandonment of the Church and its discipline by the diocese” (emphasis in the original). The Board, of course, did not state this conclusion so definitively, and we will address its qualifications below. But it is important to note that the Board acknowledged that the actions in question were official acts of “the diocese” even when they might constitute abandonment of TEC.
We have advocated for some time the traditional polity of TEC that recognizes the legal autonomy of its constituent dioceses. Although we have consistently urged those dioceses not to abandon TEC, we have recognized their autonomy and legal right to do so. One often hears it said that only individuals can leave TEC. It is encouraging to have the Board, the body responsible under the canons for the discipline of TEC bishops, state quite plainly that “actions by conventions of the Diocese of South Carolina” might constitute “abandonment of the Church and its discipline by the diocese.” For reasons we will elaborate further below, we believe this traditional understanding of TEC’s polity holds the key to greater unity in the Church in the days ahead.
Second, as already noted, the Board qualified its opinion as to whether the Diocese had abandoned TEC by adding that the undisputed actions of the diocesan conventions “seem … to be pointing toward” abandonment by the diocese. The facts concerning what the Diocese did are not in question; only their legal consequences. It is not clear whether the Board’s qualification on this issue is due to the fact that it lacks jurisdiction over the Diocese or also due to the view that the actions by the diocesan conventions do not yet constitute abandonment, but may only “point toward” such a possibility in the future.
We hope the Board has reached both of these conclusions. Findings of abandonment should be limited to those cases where there has been explicit disaffiliation with TEC. And in the case of the Diocese of South Carolina, there has been no suggestion of disaffiliation. To the contrary, it has very intentionally retained in its constitution an accession to TEC’s Constitution. It has with equal determination defended TEC’s constitutional polity as traditionally understood. We have undertaken a thorough review of the constitutional history of clergy discipline in TEC and can only conclude that no fair minded reader could find the position of the Diocese of South Carolina to be unreasonable on this issue. It cannot be a renunciation of the discipline of the Church to seek to uphold that discipline as specified in the Constitution by resisting unconstitutional encroachment on the Diocese’s exclusive authority.
TEC’s credibility has been greatly damaged in recent years by the abuse of the abandonment canon. We hope this decision signals a return to the traditional and proper use of this canon by limiting it to cases where there has been true abandonment. Deeming the principled defense of the Church’s discipline to be the renunciation of that discipline would only undermine the very discipline the Church seeks to protect.
Third, despite the Board’s expressed concerns about the actions of the Diocese, it concluded that Bishop Lawrence himself had not abandoned the Church or renounced its discipline notwithstanding his unequivocal support of the Diocese’s actions. Renunciation has traditionally been understood to include not only actions but statements. Indeed, under Title III, “renunciation of the ordained ministry” is defined as a declaration in writing to the Presiding Bishop. In the context of the abandonment canon, when the Board considers the standard of “an open renunciation of the Doctrine, Discipline or Worship of the Church” it necessarily reviews not only official acts but also any relevant statements by the bishop who has been charged with abandonment. Although the breadth of this standard makes it subject to abuse, this same breadth produces an extraordinarily broad exoneration when charges are dismissed. In the case of Bishop Lawrence, all matters related to the canonical changes by the Diocese of South Carolina, by far the most important part of the allegations against him have been adjudicated, and he has been cleared. Given the breadth of the “open renunciation” standard and Bishop Lawrence’s explicit and public support for the diocesan canonical changes, no further action by him in relation to these matters could revive these charges.
Indeed, the findings in respect of Bishop Lawrence are even broader. As we have noted before, under the new Title IV all clergy are required to report to the Intake Officer “all matters which may constitute an Offense.” The failure by the Board to refer these matters to the Intake Officer thus necessarily constitutes a finding by them, the body responsible for the trial of bishops under Title IV, that not only has there been no abandonment, neither has there been a violation of any of the other disciplinary canons. In other words, Bishop Lawrence has been given the broadest possible clearance.
Fourth, turning to the final sentence in Bishop Henderson’s statement in which he emphasizes that he is speaking only for himself, we note that the express reservation here underscores the fact that the rest of his statement is made on behalf of the entire Board. As to the substance of this sentence, we are unsure what Bishop Henderson means when he expresses his hope that the minority in South Carolina will be given a “safe place.” We are unaware of any allegations that dissident clergy have been disciplined or otherwise treated unfairly by Bishop Lawrence or the Diocese. There was a single allegation concerning a chapel comprised of dissenters from the diocesan majority, but this related not to any alleged discipline or persecution but only to whether this chapel would be organized as a diocesan parish or mission. Bishop Lawrence has in the past vigorously refuted this allegation, pointing out that he has worked closely with this chapel to provide them with priests, including the licensing of priests from other dioceses. In any event, this allegation was dismissed along with the others.
Perhaps Bishop Henderson was using the term “safe place” to suggest that Bishop Lawrence permit the dissenters to perform same sex blessings, call priests who are in same sex relationships or practice communion of the unbaptized, practices that are widespread elsewhere in TEC but prohibited in the Diocese of South Carolina. There is much esteem and affection for Bishop Henderson in the Church, but his hopes on this point are simply those of one bishop expressed openly to another. For our part, we have little doubt that Bishop Lawrence will continue to require that all under his episcopal authority adhere to traditional standards of sexual ethics, standards required by diocesan canons, regardless of any decision made to approve blessings at next year’s General Convention.
Finally, we note that Bishop Lawrence has largely succeeded in keeping his diocese intact and within TEC notwithstanding the intense disagreement with the current trajectory of TEC by an overwhelming majority of the diocese. We attribute this unity not only to Bishop Lawrence’s profound faith and leadership, but also to his decision to forgo attempts to coerce this unity. Paradoxically, the greatest unity has come not because it is enforced but because it is voluntarily offered. TEC as a whole has tried the opposite approach, and not surprisingly that has been met with the opposite results. Millions of dollars have been spent on endless litigation in an apparent attempt to erect a “Berlin wall” around TEC. The result has been the loss of almost a quarter of TEC’s attendance during the last decade. Although only four dioceses have voted formally to disaffiliate from TEC, the equivalent of over twenty average size dioceses has been lost in the last ten years.
How much of this could have been avoided had TEC decided to forgo attempts at coercion? TEC is blessed with a traditional polity of decentralized authority dispersed among autonomous dioceses, a polity ideally suited to today’s challenges and disputes. We hope the decision by the Board to dismiss charges against Bishop Lawrence signals a renewed recognition of these founding principles. The greatest possible unity in TEC will be found when dioceses exercise their authority to address the difficult issues facing the Church through their own local processes.