Many of you have heard the sad news that broke yesterday about the Diocese of South Carolina. Bishop Mark Lawrence was informed via telephone call from the Presiding Bishop that the Disciplinary Board for Bishops has certified his “abandonment” of the Episcopal Church by supporting actions his diocese has taken that allegedly undermine a presumed obligation to acknowledge the hierarchical authority of General Convention and the Presiding Bishop. Under the canons, the automatic result of this finding is that Bishop Lawrence is “restricted” from exercising the authority of the ministry to which he has been ordained, and a special meeting of the House of Bishops will be convened to adjudicate the matter and, if a majority agree with the Disciplinary Board, to permanently depose Bishop Lawrence from the ministry of the Episcopal Church, declaring the office of Bishop of South Carolina to be vacant.
As a result of this development, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Carolina has announced its intention to ask a special convention of the diocese to approve its disaffiliation from the Episcopal Church. One can plausibly assume that Bishop Lawrence and the great majority of clergy and laity in the diocese have no intention of honoring the “restricted” status of his ministry. As for how the diocese will attempt to maintain a connection to the Anglican Communion, that can only be a matter of conjecture at this point.
Of course, we know from the experience of recent years roughly how the scenario will play out: the Presiding Bishop will convene an extraordinary “convention” of “loyal Episcopalians” from within the diocese, which will announce that it is the legitimate continuing Diocese of South Carolina, and choose a Provisional Bishop. Then that bishop and diocese, along with attorneys representing the Presiding Bishop, will spend millions of dollars suing in secular courts to recover control of church buildings and financial assets. To this point, the reorganized dioceses and the Presiding Bishop have been generally successful in their legal efforts (though important cases in Texas and California remain undecided). However, there is already a history in South Carolina that heavily favors those who will continue to actually occupy those properties.
This is a very serious, and a very disturbing, turn of events. Bishop Lawrence is a longtime personal friend, and a man whose intellect, love for our Lord, and passion for the gospel is without peer. While I am not fully on board with the some of the positions taken and decisions made by the conventions of the Diocese of South Carolina, and while I could find reasons to criticize the tone of much of the rhetoric coming from their direction, I am in essential theological sympathy with the witness made by that diocese as it has attempted to remain faithful to historic Anglican–which is to say, historic Episcopalian–faith and practice in a time when the majority in our church appear to be turning away from that tradition. More to the point, it strains every notion of common sense to apply the charge of “abandonment” in this case. This is a provision that is in canons to make it expeditious to deal with a priest or bishop who has openly decamped to another ecclesial body, or none; a cleric who stops showing up for meetings, stops worshiping as an Episcopalian, and disavows any association with the Episcopal Church. By contrast, since I became a bishop in March of last year, Mark Lawrence has attended every meeting of the House of Bishops except one, which a great many bishops also missed because it was held in Ecuador. He was present at General Convention. He has continued to lead a diocese that uses the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer in its worship. He has abandoned nothing, and to accuse him of doing so is ludicrous on its face.
There is much more that needs to be said, and many more implications of these events that deserve to be unpacked. I am in consultation with colleague bishops from the fellowship known as Communion Partners. I am not in possession of all the relevant facts, but am working to get them. The situation merits deep reflection and earnest prayer. The greatest tragedy, of course, is the discordant witness this makes to a broken world hungry for good news. We rightly shed tears of sorrow, begging for the grace of repentance and amendment of our common life. Lord, have mercy.