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Why Provinces Matter

Sic et non • First of three essays

These pages have of late been filled with debate about the departure of the Diocese of South Carolina from the Episcopal Church. The questions are complex. Can a diocese disaffiliate from the larger church? If so, what governs that departure? To an observer with a non-expert knowledge of the canons, it has been quickly confusing.

What is clear is that there are now two dioceses: one led by Mark Lawrence — no longer regarded as a bishop by the Episcopal Church — known as the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, and a rump Episcopal diocese in the process of reorganization. Lawrence’s diocese has said it may in time affiliate with a different Anglican entity. For now, it has declared itself an extra-provincial diocese in the Anglican Communion and has justified this decision on theological, canonical, and ecclesiological grounds.

On the surface, the argument appears to have merit. Anglicans claim in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral that the core of the faith is found in Scripture, the dominical sacraments, the creeds, and the historic episcopate. Each of these elements is present in a diocese. This seems to be the basis for the hope of some Episcopal bishops that individual dioceses might be permitted to sign onto the Anglican Covenant even if the Episcopal Church as a whole did not. No less an authority than Rowan Williams appeared willing to countenance the idea.

Yet a Lawrence-led diocese cannot remain an independent ecclesial entity indefinitely, for reasons that are central to what it means to be Anglican. For what happens when Mark Lawrence is no longer able to be bishop? How will he be replaced?

Surely a core justification for the creation of provinces in the Anglican Communion is that they allow the episcopacy to be perpetuated. It takes three bishops to ordain a new bishop. One function of provinces is that each has established internal processes that govern when three bishops are able to do this. That four dioceses are required for a province to be formed seems confirmation of this fact: a vacancy in any one see could not be filled without recourse to an external authority. This is part of what it means to say that provinces of the Communion are autonomous.

On that day when, for whatever reason, Lawrence is no longer able to serve as bishop of his independent diocese, his faithful will have no protocol to replace him. An ad-hoc arrangement is, of course, possible: the diocese has plenty of support from Anglicans in other provinces, not to mention Anglicans not in full communion with Canterbury. But such an arrangement would demonstrate that remaining an independent Anglican diocese is not a sustainable course.

Extra-provincial dioceses as are currently recognized in the Anglican Communion — Bermuda, two in Sri Lanka, and a handful of others — mostly fall under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This group of dioceses, which is the closest parallel to South Carolina’s current arrangement, enjoys primatial oversight in part, no doubt, to ensure that the episcopacy is perpetuated. Extra-provincial status is often seen as temporary. In the 1970s, the Diocese of Sudan was removed from the province in the Middle East and became an extra-provincial diocese under Canterbury, but this was a step on the way to the diocese being divided into four and the creation of the Episcopal Church of Sudan in 1976. Sometimes the “temporary” period has stretched into a generation or more, as in the case of the two dioceses in Sri Lanka, which wait for a united church to emerge on the island.

The South Carolina diocese’s history is instructive in this regard as well. The diocese was organized in 1785, before the creation of the Episcopal Church. This sequence is the ground for the right claimed by the diocese to withdraw its membership at any time, a right it exercised late last year. But little mention has been made of the history of South Carolina’s episcopate. The diocese’s first bishop, Robert Smith, was not consecrated until 1795. In the early 19th century, there were lengthy periods when the see was left vacant. This approach to the episcopacy calls into question the early diocese’s status as a true part of the church, at least as measured by the later standard of the Quadrilateral, the standard upheld by Lawrence. Moreover, three Episcopal bishops consecrated Smith, at a General Convention: yet another indication of the fundamental significance of wider, formal links that sustain the church. Rather than proving the case for withdrawal, the history of the episcopate in South Carolina demonstrates that claiming to be a free-floating ecclesial entity is impossible to sustain in Anglican polity, precisely because of the nature of episcopacy, a charism at the heart of what it means to be Anglican.

Hierarchy in the church is a bedeviling issue. The Episcopal Church itself has not provided persuasive reasons why hierarchy is necessary on a provincial level but unnecessary on a Communion-wide level. Surely for a church that defines its existence in terms of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, hierarchy cannot stop at the water’s edge?

As in Scripture, so also in ecclesiology: the pernicious hermeneutic of self-justification remains a constant temptation. This is regrettable. Ecclesiology is not a minor administrative matter that can be casually tossed aside. It is part of the core good news Christians have to proclaim. In a globalizing world that is dominated by discord and fracture, the Church makes the counter-cultural claim that in baptism we come to belong to the body of Christ. No other entity is shaped by a common willingness to die daily with Christ and be raised with him who is the author of true and abundant life. We believe we belong, and that this is good news. Anglicans work out the implications of this radical claim in the constellation of parishes, dioceses, provinces, networks, and institutions that comprise our global Communion.

The dispute in South Carolina could provide an opportunity — yet unrealized — to think seriously about the ecclesiological and theological convictions underlying Anglican churches. On that note, we might welcome the recent call in these pages for a retreat on the topic, organized by seminary deans. Prayerfully and reverently, one hopes, Anglicans may yet learn together to honor our theological convictions in our ecclesiological structures.


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