Dumbing Abandonment Down
  • Wednesday, October 31, 2012

By Mark McCall

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori notified Bishop Mark Lawrence on October 15 that the Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified that he “abandoned the Church” by certain actions he took in 2010 and 2011. Few would deny that was an eventful exchange: pursuant to the abandonment canon, the Presiding Bishop restricted his ministry, which suspends him until the House of Bishops can meet to vote on whether to remove him completely. These steps immediately triggered existing decisions by South Carolina’s standing committee that separated the diocese legally from the Episcopal Church and called a special diocesan convention within 30 days.

These sudden developments raise many questions, including why the disciplinary board took this step, how those opposed to Bishop Lawrence and South Carolina justify the summary imposition of the ultimate ecclesiastical penalty, and what those sympathetic to South Carolina are to make of the diocese’s response.

The place to start in grappling with these questions is with the specific charges leveled by the disciplinary board, which has welcomed several new appointees as others completed their service. The first charge relates to changes made in 2010 and 2011 to the diocesan constitution that modified but did not remove the “accession clause,” the provision that recites that South Carolina accedes to the Episcopal Church’s constitution. The second charge concerns an amendment to the corporate charter — the diocese is incorporated under South Carolina law — replacing a reference to the Episcopal Church’s constitution with one to the diocesan constitution. Neither of these first two charges was new. Both were considered by the disciplinary board only last year when it refused to certify Bishop Lawrence for abandonment after concluding that those were the actions of the diocese, not the bishop.

In this year’s reconsideration of the topic, the board reversed itself and found fault with Bishop Lawrence for failing to rule the convention resolutions out of order without “dissenting” from them and for signing in his capacity as corporate officer the approved charter amendment for filing as required by state law. These were actions of the bishop and were said to be in violation of Canon I.17.8 (a canon that simply requires clergy to obey the canons) and that part of the “ordination vow” that it found (after several steps of unpacking) to require clergy both to obey the canons and, in IV.4.1(c), to “abide by” their vows. The board never identifies any specific canon Bishop Lawrence disregarded by these actions other than the one that requires obedience to the canons. After a year of scrutiny the essence of these charges against Bishop Lawrence is this: he violated the canon that requires obedience to the canons and the ordination vow to keep his vows.

The abandonment canon is a relic of the 19th century when a bishop sailed to Europe and was received into the Roman Catholic Church by the Pope; he advised his diocese of this news by letter from Rome. It was provocative only four years ago when the abandonment canon was used against Bishop Robert Duncan just days before his diocese voted for the second and final time to withdraw formally from the Episcopal Church. We are a long way from abandonment in the traditional sense when it is now discerned two years after the fact from a parliamentary ruling and the ministerial act of signing as required by law a corporate document already approved by the corporation. Any canonical violation may now be deemed abandonment.

To step back from the canonical fine print, the larger question is whether South Carolina intended to leave the Episcopal Church by these acts. The answer quite obviously is no. It is obvious for three reasons. First, even the disciplinary board never claims that the diocese either withdrew or attempted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church by these actions. It claims only that the modification of the accession clause violated the Episcopal Church’s Constitution. But South Carolina’s legal counsel correctly advised the convention before it voted on these resolutions that seven dioceses have no accession clause at all and another 15, like South Carolina after the 2010 vote, accede only to the Constitution.

Second, the advocates of the resolutions, including Bishop Lawrence, said explicitly on the floor of the convention that “we are not deciding to leave the national church by passing these; in no way are we deciding that” (the Very Rev. John B. Burwell) and “we are called to resist what many of us believe is a self-destructive trajectory within the Episcopal Church; and to resist until it is no longer possible” (Bishop Lawrence).

Third, South Carolina has continued to participate in the life of the Episcopal Church since these resolutions were passed two years ago, including participating in the House of Bishops and General Convention. It is puzzling how bishops who sat next to Bishop Lawrence at General Convention in July could then vote in September that he had abandoned the church back in 2010.

The only other charge against Bishop Lawrence is that he gave quitclaim deeds to the parishes of the diocese after the state Supreme Court ruled against the diocese in an earlier case and stated “we hold that neither the [diocesan assertion of a trust interest] nor the Dennis Canon has any legal effect.” This third charge differs from the first two in that it actually identifies a substantive canon that Bishop Lawrence is said to have violated: IV.4.1(e), the requirement to “safeguard the property and funds of the Church and Community.”

Bishop Lawrence has often noted that ever since he became bishop there has been a group of strong parishes in the diocese whose only questions were “Are we leaving, or are we going? And the second is like unto it: When?” It is in no small measure due to Bishop Lawrence’s pastoral response to the challenging court ruling allowing a parish to withdraw with its property that he has managed to keep his diocese almost completely intact. It is telling that with one exception the diocese’s parishes stayed in the Episcopal Church with Bishop Lawrence, neither leaving after the court ruling in 2009 nor after the issuance of the quitclaim deeds in 2011, but only leaving when the disciplinary board concluded in 2012 that allegations of canonical violations constituted abandonment of the church.

This points to the most troubling question of all concerning the disciplinary board’s decision. Among the new Title IV provisions is IV.4.1(f), which requires all clergy to “report to the Intake Officer all matters which may constitute an Offense.” This comes immediately after subparagraph IV.4.1(e) pertaining to property. It appears members of the disciplinary board scrutinized these matters for more than a year and concluded that Bishop Lawrence had violated certain canonical provisions, yet not one thought to comply with the canon requiring them to report this to the Intake Officer so that the normal canonical process could be used.

This is not a technical issue. Had they proceeded as required by canon — there is no exception for matters that might also constitute abandonment — they might have spared the church the havoc we are now witnessing. Title IV after all is said to be a more pastoral way of dealing with possible canonical violations. If Bishop Lawrence is alleged to have violated subparts (c), (e), and (g) of Canon IV.4.1, why did the disciplinary board not comply with subpart (f)? Why did it not comply with mandatory disciplinary procedures that might have permitted a pastoral response instead of pursuing a process designed solely to remove a bishop summarily from the rolls of the church? Having first concluded that the disputed actions were those of the diocese, not the bishop, the board must have known the consequences “abandonment” would entail.

How have Bishop Lawrence’s theological opponents reacted to these developments? One prominent assertion has been that the automatic response of the diocese triggered by the disciplinary board’s action proves that Bishop Lawrence “lied” and intended to leave all along. But this claim fails both the tests of logic and simple chronology. The automatic disaffiliation put in place by the diocese could only be triggered by hostile actions of the Episcopal Church. It was an insurance policy to protect the legal integrity of the diocese in case of attack. It no more reflected an “intention to leave the Episcopal Church” than the purchase of accidental death insurance reflects an intention to die. If the diocese had later decided of its own initiative to withdraw from the Episcopal Church then the standing committee’s conditional decision would have been irrelevant because no action or decision by the diocese could trigger disaffiliation. And the facts show that the standing committee made its decision on October 2, 2012, the day before Bishop Lawrence met with the Presiding Bishop to discuss “creative solutions” to the long-standing tensions. One does not have to be clairvoyant to see that this was a protective mechanism thought to be prudent in light of the imminent meeting, rather than a decision to leave.

This leads to a final question occurring to some of Bishop Lawrence’s many supporters: would it not have been better for the diocese to accept the judgment of the church, no matter how arbitrary and capricious, than to rely on the legal protection of the automatic disaffiliation? This raises issues of ecclesiology much too profound to be answered in this essay or by this author or by this single case. What church is our point of reference? Is it the diocese, the provincial church (TEC), the larger Anglican Communion, or even the singular Catholic Church of the creed (or some combination of these)? Bishop Lawrence has succeeded in keeping his diocese — a “particular church” in catholic ecclesiology —  substantially intact, and has already received the support of many of the Anglican Communion’s churches. Alternative courses likely would have seen his diocese splinter into several pieces.

South Carolina has indeed sacrificed its relationship with the Episcopal Church. But no less an authority than the Archbishop of Canterbury has noted in the past that “the organ of union with the wider Church is the bishop and the diocese rather than the provincial structure as such. … I should feel a great deal happier, I must say, if those who are most eloquent for a traditionalist view in the United States showed a fuller understanding of the need to regard the bishop and the diocese as the primary locus of ecclesial identity rather than the abstract reality of the ‘national church.’”

To be sure, Archbishop Williams was speaking of catholic ecclesiology in general rather than of this situation. But his reflection confirms that the action taken by Bishop Lawrence and the diocese is a reasonable response, as measured by the ecclesiology of a leading catholic churchman, to the extraordinary challenge they faced.

Mark McCall, Esq., is a senior fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute and has co-authored several articles on canon law with Alan Runyan, counsel for South Carolina.


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