The Presiding Bishop has released a pastoral letter to the people of the Diocese of South Carolina. If one wishes to see an olive branch in her words, I believe there is one there to be seen. The first and last paragraphs tilt in a conciliatory direction … or at least give it a glance. And Bishop Katharine’s writing is usually nothing if not clear, which is a virtue in itself.
Inasmuch as its purpose may have been to reach out to the alienated majority of Episcopalians in the diocese, however, the letter falls sadly short. By invoking the standard narrative that “individuals can leave but dioceses cannot,” the PB only raises the level of alienation.
It is a word of law when a word of grace is required. It is a judge’s letter when a pastor’s letter is required. It is written from a safe place by a leader who, in this hour, needs to be out on a limb, in a risky place. It is a document when what we need is a song. It is prose when poetry is called for.
We’re about to go off a cliff. The loss of a diocese as large and vibrant (to say nothing of ancient) as South Carolina–and it is the loss of a diocese, however the institutional fragments are picked up post-apocalypse–is calamitous, and will have repercussions communion-wide and beyond. A friend of mine observed that this is how World War I got started–a series of automatic triggers getting pulled, with no one able to summon the imagination to Just Say No.
We need leaders–both the Presiding Bishop and Bishop Lawrence, along with those who advise and support them–who are willing to go off script (which will probably start with asking all lawyers to leave the room), to behave counterintuitively, to act outside of character. We need a Camp David moment, when Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin were able to do just that (it should be added, at great personal cost). All the problems of the Middle East did not get solved there, as we know, but there have at least been 35 years of peace between Israel and Egypt. Bold and self-emptying generosity on the part of key players in our current mess will not solve all the problems of the Episcopal Church. But even if all we get is 35 years of peace between South Carolina (and those in others dioceses who stand with them theologically) and the majority of the Episcopal Church, it seems worth taking a few risks.
Let me be blunt: If we cannot get this right, we have no business being in ecumenical dialogue with anyone. And we might even question whether we have any business telling the world we have good news to proclaim. It is the gospel itself that is at stake here.