Analysis by Mark McCall
The reverberations continue from a sudden shift in the Diocese of South Carolina’s relationship to the Episcopal Church that occurred in October when the Disciplinary Board for Bishops certified Bishop Mark Lawrence for abandonment. This in turn triggered a resolution in the diocese resulting in automatic disassociation from the Episcopal Church. In November events unfolded along two parallel tracks: the Episcopal Church moved quickly to reorganize its own diocese and the diocese led by Bishop Lawrence held a special convention that previously had been called for 30 days within any punitive action against the bishop.
One of the obstacles to discussing this situation clearly is that both dioceses claim the right to the name Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. Without trying to grasp that nettle, it is clear if inelegant to refer to the two entities as the Episcopal Church’s diocese and the corporate diocese respectively, since the former aims to be recognized by the Episcopal Church and then to operate according to its constitution and canons while the latter operates according to the charter, bylaws, constitution and canons of the corporation that has comprised the diocese since 1973, when it succeeded the association formed in 1785.
Episcopal Church authorities moved quickly to reorganize a diocese around transitional structures put in place under the auspices of the Presiding Bishop. This was telegraphed on the websites of parishes staying with the Episcopal Church immediately after the public notice of the abandonment certification and announced formally on November 11. The primary interim structure is a Steering Committee, which will communicate with the Presiding Bishop and prepare for a diocesan convention in March. This committee in turn is advised by two bishops, two lawyers, and the rector of the largest parish remaining in the Episcopal Church’s diocese. The latter diocese claims to be the “continuing” diocese, but it refused to recognize a lawfully called special convention of the corporate diocese. To the same effect is the Charleston Post and Courier’s summary of Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for the church, that “those associated with the new corporate entity … have left the church and, therefore, have neither ecclesiastical authority nor a right to dictate what those who remain in the church can do.”
As noted earlier, the corporate entity is not “new,” but has instead been the legal form of the diocese of South Carolina since 1973. The corporate diocese held its special convention under Bishop Lawrence on November 17. Approximately 70 percent of the diocese’s congregations attended the special convention, and it voted nearly unanimously by voice vote (with one abstention) to affirm the decision to disassociate from the Episcopal Church. The significance of this vote is not its legal effect; the legal act of disassociation occurred in October. The significance lies instead in the considered determination by an overwhelming majority of the diocese to affirm that earlier act, not to re-associate with the Episcopal Church, and to continue as an extra-provincial Anglican diocese.
What now lies ahead? It is probably accurate to say that most people on both sides expect litigation but hope for reconciliation — even if they may not define the latter the same way. Both the Presiding Bishop in her pastoral letter of November 15 and Bishop Lawrence in his convention address two days later expressed this hope, albeit differently.
But if the expectation is litigation and the hope is reconciliation, what is realistic? Perhaps both. Litigation is likely, but the commencement of a lawsuit does not mean that it must be continued or become long, expensive, and acrimonious as it has been elsewhere. South Carolina has well-developed law on church disputes, a previous diocesan property case having already been decided by the state Supreme Court. Experienced lawyers know that most lawsuits are settled; some are even instituted for the sole purpose of settlement.
This fact and the events of October and November inform the hope for reconciliation. It is not reasonable to expect that the diocese and Bishop Lawrence will rejoin the Episcopal Church in the next few weeks as if the events of October never happened. Neither side contemplates that. But that does not necessarily mean a state of permanent hostilities and estrangement.
With this insight, one can hope for reconciliation built on three intermediate achievements. First, litigation could be settled amicably, saving both sides valuable resources and permitting a relationship of mutual respect in their separated state. Second, Bishop Lawrence could succeed in keeping his diocese largely intact as an extra-provincial diocese outside the Episcopal Church, just as he did in keeping it mostly “intact and in TEC” until the events of October. Third, progress could be made on broader reconciliation in the Anglican Communion where serious divisions persist. If these were to happen, it would not be unreasonable to hope for some form of reconciliation between the diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church in this broader context. It has happened before.
Mark McCall, Esq., is a senior fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute and has written several articles on canon law with Alan Runyan, counsel for South Carolina.