This post is an exercise in futility. So why bother? Because it is sometimes in such moments when truth can be most clearly spoken. There is nothing to lose in being direct, and nothing to gain by being subtle.
The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina has been “a thing” for some years now. The overwhelming majority in the diocese have been dismayed at a succession of decisions and actions taken by General Convention and the administrative leadership at a church-wide level. (I write as one who shares that dismay.) In response, diocesan leaders have taken steps to distance the diocese from the direction of the national church, while maintaining its historic formal connection (South Carolina is one of the original founding dioceses of the Episcopal Church).
Earlier this year, a small group of Episcopalians in the diocese–a handful of clergy and laity who feel themselves at odds with the tenor of the diocese–invoked a canonical process under Title IV of the national canons, those dealing with the discipline of bishops. They accused Bishop Mark Lawrence not of misconduct, but of abandonment of the communion of the Episcopal Church. Under Title IV, this sort of accusation goes directly to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops (DBB), bypassing the Intake Officer and Reference Panel, which is how an ordinary misconduct charge would be handled. Last month, the DBB, in a formal–and, frankly, inexplicable–canonical step, “certified” Bishop Lawrence’s abandonment of the Episcopal Church and notified the Presiding Bishop of its finding. The Presiding Bishop, in a canonical non-discretionary act, “restricted” Bishop Lawrence’s ministry until such time as the House of Bishops can render a final decision. This would have to take place at the next regular meeting of the HoB, which is next March, or at a special meeting, and no such special meeting has been called.
Meanwhile, the action of the DBB triggered a failsafe mechanism that the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina had apparently, though not publicly, put in place, such that any action of the national church against the diocese or its bishop would automatically result in the diocese’s disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church. and call a special convention of the diocese to take counsel for the future. That convention takes place this coming Saturday.
In a sequence of events that is reminiscent of the tragic beginning of World War I, earlier this week the Presiding Bishop declared the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee in the Diocese of South Carolina to be vacant, and established a process by which the “continuing” diocese would be reconstituted under new leadership. It must not go unremarked that there is absolutely no canonical authority for her to do this. While it might be argued that “new occasions teach new duties” and unanticipated circumstances call for improvisatory responses, the fundamentally rogue nature of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s actions remains.
In the Presiding Bishop’s defense, there is solid evidence that she had been a good-faith participant, with Bishop Lawrence and Bishop Andrew Waldo of the neighboring diocese of Upper South Carolina, in discussions pointed in the direction of creative avoidance of the impasse that has, in fact, ensued, discussions that were aborted by her receipt of the abandonment certification from the DBB. This reality only compounds the tragic dimension of the situation. How is it that we are so imprisoned by our own juridical processes that charity itself is suffocated?
Tragedy is the only word to describe all of this, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate its scope. South Carolina is a strong and thriving diocese. It has consistently been a statistical anomaly in an Episcopal Church that is steadily aging and deteriorating. All eyes have indeed been on South Carolina, but for the wrong reasons. Rather than arising from suspicion and malice, the attention should be springing from envy and a desire to emulate. Its loss will be no mere statistical blip, and will probably exceed the combined numerical total of the previously departed San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Quincy, and about half of Pittsburgh. For anyone who loves the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, or just loves Jesus, this is an occasion of profound sorrow.
So here’s my futility exercise.
To my beloved brothers and sisters in the Diocese of South Carolina, as you meet in convention this Saturday: For the love of God, step back from the brink. Lay aside that which is your right, in honor of him who laid aside everything for us, not counting equality with God something to be grasped. The entire Episcopal Church needs you, but none more so than we who have stood with you in witness to the revealed word of God and the tradition of “mere Anglicanism.” I am begging you: Do not abandon us. Let us together be Jeremiah at the bottom of the well, bearing costly witness to God’s truth. Let us together be Hosea, faithfully loving those who do not love us back, for the sake of the wholeness of the people of God.
To the Presiding Bishop: Katharine, for the love of God, step back from the brink. Rescind the announcements you have made about the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee being vacant. Give peace a chance. Create space for the seeds of future trust and love to at least lie dormant for a season in anticipation of future germination. When the Confederate dioceses formed their own church in the 1860s, the General Convention, in great wisdom, simply refused to recognize their departure, thereby greatly facilitating eventual reconciliation and avoiding the schism that other American Christian bodies experienced in the wake of the Civil War. You are renowned for your calls for nimbleness and imagination in the face of the challenges our church faces. This is the moment for you to exercise precisely that sort of leadership. The legacy of your tenure as Presiding Bishop will be written in the next three days. Will it be a legacy of juridical gridlock, or bold generosity for the sake of God’s mission?
I am reduced nearly to tears, and they may yet flow.
For the love of God.