From the Bishop: About South Carolina

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.


16 Comments

  1. John Richmond

    The actions of the Presiding Bishop and those like her are, as is almost always the case, deplorable. Thank you for your sane, thoughtful comments.

  2. Thank you, Bishop. I appreciate your thoughts and will hold you and all bishops of our church, most especially + Lawrence and my own bishop, +Jake, in my prayers. Lord have mercy, indeed.

    Joe Roberts, Western Louisiana

  3. Gerry Smith

    Outstanding assessment of this sad and unfortunate failure of leadership at 815. We in Springfield are blessed to have a thoughtful and courageous bishop such as yourself, Bishop Martins. I pray for God to englighten the hearts and minds of all the other bishops in the HOB and grant them wisdom as they deliberate and discern their response to these unfounded charges against Bishop Lawrence.

  4. Thank you Bishop Martins.

  5. I am in theological sympathy with Bishop Lawrence as well but I felt at the time that the cha-cha-cha with the quitclaim deeds would have this mostly predictable outcome.

  6. TJ Hudson

    Let’s be careful here. These are not the actions of the Presiding Bishop alone, nor of “815.” It is easy to demonize and begin ad hominem (or “ad feminem) attacks. TEC is following the canons to the letter. The House of Bishops is the proper place to decide what a bishop has or has not done. It is the absolute duty of the PB to deliver the message. In this case, because some don’t like the messenger, it is easy to lay all this on her. For the diocese to take this canonical action as an attack and then to take extreme steps is simply an excuse to do what they always intended to do (and I do believe that Bishop Lawrence lied during his confirmation process). Regardless of what SC does, the HoB will meet and give prayerful consideration to these charges. Either the actions of SC are an admission that the charges are entirely true, or they are trying to push the HoB to divest the Bishop. Either way, this is their game that is being played out, not TEC’s, not the PB’s, and not 815’s.

  7. Carol McRee

    Thank you, Bishop Martins for this excellent letter to your diocese. Please keep all of us in your prayers as we decide as a diocese how to move forward from here. Alas, you and other faithful bishops of the church may well be next on the PB’s hit lost. Her unjust actions just continue to deepen my depression about the future of the Episcopal Church. Keep the faith! God bless you and your diocese!

  8. God bless you Bp. Martins. My prayers are with you and all others (especially the CP bishops) who are seeking to sort out this mess.

  9. Brian Kellington

    Thank you for your thoughtful and evenhanded response to this sad development.

  10. Sally Hughes

    Our calling, when we act out in the secular world in response to the ultimate Good which God has already done for the world, we are led by the Holy Spirit not the Presiding Bishop!
    The Presiding Bishop is Politicizing the spiritual journey by practices which demand what each individual’s unique and personal redemptive struggle should look like.

  11. Gerry Smith

    TJ, whether or not this specific action is of the PB or 815 alone, her (their) part in this is certainly much more than a mere messenger. This entire mess is a culmination of failures within the leadership of TEC and we would certainly not be here if it weren’t for those failures. As for your accusation that Bishop Lawrence lied, I hope and pray that this is just a momentary lapse of your better judgement, unless of course you have solid proof to substantiate this claim. The fact is, +Lawrence has not acted alone either in any of the actions approved by his Diocesan Conventions. Instead of taking the heavy handed hostile approach employed by 815 towards those desiring to leave TEC, +Lawrence and the diocesan leadership were trying to find gracious and charitable ways to encourage its members to remain in TEC while living “in tension” (a phrase the PB has been fond of using) with the serious theological differences in TEC. If 815 were truly sincere about wanting us all to exist together within these “tensions”, they would have exercised proper Christian leadership and helped find a more appropriate solution here. However, I will give our leadership at 815 the benefit of the doubt and assume they may have the desire to lead in this way, but may simply lack the gifts of leadership necessary to do so.

  12. Jill Woodliff

    TJ Hudson, the presiding bishop does more than deliver the message. She and Clay Matthews could have dismissed the charges. As the charges had already been considered by the DBB (double jeopardy), a completely legitimate decision that it was best not to provoke the diocese further might have been made. Canons IV.5.4 and IV.5.5 state in part as follows (note that in the case of charges against bishops, Canon IV.17.2 (c) provides that “Bishop Diocesan” shall mean the Presiding Bishop):

    Sec. 4. Upon receipt of such information, the Intake Officer may make such preliminary investigation as he or she deems necessary, and shall incorporate the information into a written intake report, including as much specificity as possible. The Intake Officer shall provide copies of the intake report to the other members of the Reference Panel and to the Church Attorney.

    Sec. 5. If the Intake Officer determines that the information, if true, would not constitute an Offense, the Intake Officer shall inform the Bishop Diocesan of an intention to dismiss the matter. If the Bishop Diocesan does not object, the Intake Officer shall dismiss the matter…

  13. Bishop Daniel

    Jill, the canonical technicalities get really complicated here. The complainants in this case–a few laity and clergy from within the Diocese of South Carolina–used a different part of Title IV than the ones you quote–that is, the “Abandonment” canon. Under this canon, the matter goes directly to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops with no discretion on the part of either the Intake Officer or the Presiding Bishop. And once the DBB makes its determination, the PB must follow through as she did. That said, as Gerry Smith pointed out, the entire debacle could have been avoided with the right kind of leadership over the last several years. For the time being, my frustration and wonderment is with the DBB for not summarily dismissing the complaint as an egregious abuse of the abandonment canon.

  14. Jill Woodliff

    Thank you for the clarification, Bishop.

  15. Carol McRee

    What most people do NOT know is that Bishop Lawrence wanted a negotiated settlement with 815. That meeting was supposed to happen in mid October (October 11) AFTER the DBB had certified the charges against. He did NOT know that at the time the meeting was scheduled. Now why would the PB be willing to do that KNOWING that he was already “certified” as having abandoned the communion. The meeting did not happen because of events here in the Diocese (a former Chancellor had died and the service was being held that same day). It could have been rescheduled but was not. It is most likely that PB’s chancellor said to her- we have waithed long enough- It is beginning to look very bad for us that he has not been told what happened. SO the phone call came the next Monday- October 15. Please read the diocesan website: dioceseofsc.org for factual information about recent events.

  16. Carol McRee

    Also, it must be mentioned again that the new revised Title IV canons were NOT approved in the Diocese of South Carolina. So that complicates things even further.

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