Yesterday our Presiding Bishop informed the Bishop of South Carolina that, on advice, she was accepting his renunciation of the ministry and depriving him of that which was bestowed on him in ordination. Others, including some progressives, have observed that, as Bishop Lawrence hadn’t requested permission to leave the ministry, the action seemed premature or even uncanonical.
Bishop Lawrence’s dismissal isn’t the matter I want to address today. He stands as a representative symbol of a larger group of people, babies, youth, adult, elderly, unordained, who by this action are now in the process of being disowned by the Episcopal Church. Hang on. Surely this not insignificant crowd could avoid their bishop’s fate by refusing to go along with those clergy and laity who voted to leave the Episcopal Church at last month’s special Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina? That’s true enough. It’s hardly likely. These loyal church people are in effect the consequence, the effect of years of conflict within our church and nation. A large number of them have their roots in the places where they live and worship, where their ancestors lived and worshipped, in parishes many of which are older than the Episcopal Church, some of them nearly as old as Anglicanism in its reformed sense. There were Anglicans in the Carolinas when the Church of England emerged from its Civil War. Stroll around Charleston and as one passes St. Michael’s or St. Philips, one might imagine being in Restoration England after Wren built his parish churches. Unlike most parts of the United States, in the old southern colonies, real and substantial roots and traditions are dug deep into the soil.
This history, however, isn’t the point. Those now living, caught up in this conflict, are baptized. That should be a significant point, a ‘given’ in any discussion about how a Christian body manages dissent and conflict. The ties that bind us aren’t tribal, or structural or canonical. They are sacramental. Our church doesn’t own the sacraments. It exposes them, makes them available, in obedience to our Lord’s will and commandment. Our church’s clergy point to them, open them, in familiar acts of obedience. That obedience runs deeper than any oaths to man-made canons or structures.
In the process of stating that, as Mark Harris put it, Mark Lawrence is now Mr. Lawrence, the action taken begins the process of our church saying to thousands of lay people, we don’t recognize the ecclesial reality of your assemblies, the authenticity of your sacraments or of your clergy. Of course we cover all this in ifs and buts, of qualifications and disclaimers, but, face it, at least as far as we are concerned, the great majority of our sisters and brothers in Christ in South Carolina and headed into limbo. They are schismatics.
For years now Episcopalians in South Carolina, in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, and individually elsewhere have been saying to the Episcopal Church a couple of very simple things.
1. You have legislated the progressive opinions of a majority of those with power and influence and have elevated that legislation to the level of core doctrine, beliefs to which we must assent or acquiesce to remain in fellowship with this church.
2. You have refused to make adequate space for dissent and in the process you have narrowed the comprehension Anglicans have enjoyed for centuries. In your zeal for justice and contempt for what you term bigotry, you have driven us to a point beyond conscience. When we have reacted, yes, let’s be honest, often as badly as we have been treated, we’ve been preached at, shamed and disciplined.
When it comes to the essential morality of what has happened — I’m not using morality as in sex — few on either side have much to boast about. We’ve hurled insults as readily as we’ve sought to make theological justification for our positions. We look like our political parties. That’s no accident. We live in two worlds and as we spend more time in society and ‘culture’ as we do in the Kingdom: the world seems to triumph.
Is it too late? It’s never too late. If those who manage the Episcopal Church don’t believe in conscience that they can make room for conscientious dissent, isn’t it their duty to make caring space for dissenters? If those of us who cannot square our consciences with the new canonical provisions, should we not do all we can to respond to any initiatives by the Episcopal Church to give us room.
After nearly ten years of constant turmoil, of defections and schisms, of new canons and tighter central control, as our church dwindles in membership and finances, as we have exported our quarrels worldwide and split the Communion, isn’t this a moment to stop? If the people who have left in South Carolina, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and elsewhere, and I mean the people, the lay people, are lost sheep, what does Jesus require of us? The answer to that seems easy to discover.