By Douglas LeBlanc
Little time passed Nov. 17 before Episcopalians began condemning the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina for separating themselves from the Episcopal Church.
The usual suspects of such commentary appeared: proclamations that Bishop Lawrence has lied for several years about his efforts to remain in the Episcopal Church, urgent calls to legal arms to protect ever-sacred property, and psychic insights into the motivations not only of the bishop but of the congregations that took the final legal steps toward separation.
People say amazingly candid things when talking among themselves. This is no less true on the comment thread of a weblog than in a diocesan convention taking decisive votes.
Further, charity and clarity are well-served when readers take the trouble to read a bishop’s formal remarks on such momentous choices. This is no less true of Bishop Lawrence’s address to the special convention held Nov. 17 than it is of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter to Episcopalians in South Carolina, issued Nov. 15.
Here, then, are passages from Bishop Lawrence’s remarks that address some of the concerns raised by his fiercer critics.
I trust you will understand that I have strived in these past five years, contrary to what some may believe or assert, to keep us from this day; from what I have referred to in numerous deanery and parish gatherings as the Valley of Decision. There is little need to rehearse the events that have brought us to this moment other than to say — it is a convergence of Theology, Morality, and Church Polity that has led to our collision with the leadership of the Episcopal Church.
Limits on inclusion?
I hope most of our delegates and clergy who have heard me address these matters know in their hearts and minds that this is no attempt to build gated communities around our churches as some have piously suggested or to keep the hungry seeking hearts of a needy world from our doors. Rather, let the doors of our churches be open not only that seekers may come in but more importantly so we may go out to engage the unbelieving with the hope of the gospel and serve our communities, disdaining any tendency to stand daintily aloof in self-righteousness.
… This has never been about who is welcome or not welcome in our church. It’s about what we shall tell them about Jesus Christ, his mercy, his grace and his truth — it is about what we shall tell them when they come and what we shall share when we go out.
The leaders of the Episcopal Church have made their positions known — our theological and creedal commitments regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture, the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ, and other precious truths, while tolerated, are just opinions among others; our understanding of human nature, the given-ness of gender as male and female, woven by God into the natural and created order, is now declared by canon law to be unacceptable; our understanding of marriage as proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer “established by God in creation” and espoused by Anglicans around the world hangs precariously in the life of the Episcopal Church by a thin and fraying thread; and our understanding of the church’s polity, which until the legal strategy of the present Presiding Bishop’s litigation team framed their legal arguments, was a widely held and respected position in this church; now to hold it and express it is tantamount to misconduct or worse, to act upon it — is ruled as abandonment of this church.
Those who are not with us, you may go in peace; your properties intact. Those who have yet to decide we give you what time you need. Persuasion is almost always the preferable policy, not coercion. By God’s grace we will bear you no ill. We have many friends among the bishops, priests and laity of the Episcopal Church, and we wish you well.
Let us be careful not to poison the waters of our communities with our differences with the Episcopal Church. Rarely have the spiritually hungry, the seeker, the unconverted or the unchurched been won for Jesus Christ through church conflicts, denominational discord, or ecclesiastical excesses. If we are to have the aroma of Christ we must live in his grace with faith, hope, and charity.
Imagine what this Diocese of South Carolina can accomplish for the Kingdom of God and the Gospel if so much of our common life is no longer siphoned off in a resistance movement. What can our diocesan and deanery gatherings become when our focus is first and foremost on our ministry at home and Christ’s mission in the world? If we can move beyond our parish silos and into relationships that foster mutual growth and mission a new day of possibilities awaits us.
And here are passages from Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori’s pastoral letter, addressing similar questions.
The decisions “announced” by leaders in South Carolina appear to be unilateral responses to anxiety about decisions made by General Convention and/or the actions of the Disciplinary Board concerning Bishop Lawrence.
The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina continues to be a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, even if a number of its leaders have departed. If it becomes fully evident that those former leaders have, indeed, fully severed their ties with The Episcopal Church, new leaders will be elected and installed by action of a Diocesan Convention recognized by the wider Episcopal Church, in accordance with our Constitution and Canons.
Disagreement about a variety of issues is normal in this Church, and has historically been considered a healthy sign of diversity. Since the time of the early Church we have recognized that none of us is fully cognizant of the mind of God. The major struggles of the first generation of Christians were over much-debated issues of inclusion — could the uncircumcised be full members? Who could be baptized?
Please know that The Episcopal Church wants you to remain!
Your presence adds to the ability of this community to discern the will of God, even if you disagree vehemently with one or another resolution passed by a particular General Convention. There will be another General Convention in less than three years, and another after that. Never in the history of Christianity have all the faithful agreed about everything, and I doubt very much that we will come to full agreement about everything before we join the saints in light at Jesus’ Second Coming!
Title IV and reconciliation
Bishop Lawrence was charged by several members of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina with having “abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church” by making or condoning actions which repudiate the polity (violate the canons or rules) of The Episcopal Church. These actions have to do with formally attempting to separate the Diocese of South Carolina, its congregations, and their property from the wider Episcopal Church without its consent. The Diocese of South Carolina is a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, and that status cannot be altered without the action of General Convention.
The disciplinary processes of this Church carefully considered the matters with which Bishop Lawrence was charged, and the Disciplinary Board found that he had indeed repudiated the polity of this Church. It then became my canonical responsibility and obligation to limit (“restrict”) his formal ability to function as bishop until the entire House of Bishops can consider these charges. Bishop Lawrence has an extended period (60 days) in which he can repudiate those charges, and I stand ready to respond positively to any sign that he has done so.
… The Episcopal Church and its leaders are working hard to keep the doors and relationships open to all who wish to be part of this body. We are far from perfect, but we do believe we have greater opportunity for repentance and redemption in dialogue with those who differ or disagree, because we believe God is likely speaking through those around us. Together we pray in hope of discovering a fuller sense of God’s leading.