By Leander S. Harding
As a priest of the Diocese of South Carolina I have watched my bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, work with good faith and at great personal cost to keep the diocese, as he says, “intact and in TEC.” I believe that but for the personal deference the members of this diocese feel toward their bishop, many more parishes would have taken formal action to leave the Episcopal Church.
Bishop Lawrence is now the subject of complaints under the revised Title IV that he has abandoned the communion of this church. The list of complaints, dominated by thought crimes and guilt by association, reads like a long-lost text from the Joseph McCarthy era. The only charges with some small semblance of plausibility involve the rejection by the diocesan convention of the revisions to Title IV and the enactment of diocesan legislation removing accession to actions by General Convention which the diocese regards as contravening the Episcopal Church’s own constitution.
Leave to one side the confusion between the actions of the bishop and the actions of the convention. Had these pieces of legislation not been enacted a wave of parishes would have left the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. In my view the diocese has pursued a policy which has aimed at maintaining the highest degree of possible communion with General Convention, given the deep consternation of so many in the diocese at the direction of the Episcopal Church.
The developing impasse between the diocese and the canonical instruments of General Convention is a tragedy in the making. It is very possible that the result will be the unnecessary loss of dozens of parishes and tens of thousands of Episcopalians. It is a moment to take stock and to recall the purpose of the canon law of the church. The canon law of the church has the peace of the church as its ultimate aim. The course of justice will be perverted if this new and arguably unconstitutional canon is used as an instrument by those of a majority opinion to gain the upper hand over those with whom they disagree. These proceedings threaten to reduce to the vanishing point the ground from which any future reconciliation might grow.
Many who regard themselves as advocates of an inclusive church have felt that the canons and rubrics of the church could be properly interpreted in the service of what they have seen as a larger justice. The members of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops are unlikely to conclude that they can ignore their responsibilities under what many are now recognizing is a very flawed law. But they can choose to exercise their responsibilities with judgment and in service of an inclusive justice that makes room in the church for traditionalists and in service of the ultimate purpose of the law of the church: peace.
The Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding is dean of church relations and seminary advancement and associate professor of pastoral theology at Trinity School for Ministry.