By Adam Parker
October 11, 2009
In the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, concerns over the recent actions taken in July at the General Convention, and over matters of Scripture, polity and authority, have prompted diocese officials to call for a special Oct. 24 convention at which five resolutions will be considered.
Resolution No. 2 calls on Bishop Mark Lawrence and the Standing Committee "to begin withdrawing from all bodies of The Episcopal Church that have assented to actions contrary to Holy Scripture, the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this Church has received them."
Opinions about this and other proposals and statements made by diocese officials vary. Some say the diocese doesn't go far enough; others say a withdrawal from the national church is unnecessary. Lawrence said any withdrawal that might be approved does not constitute a break from the church but, rather, a "protest of conscience." The Post and Courier's Adam Parker posed several questions in writing to Bishop Lawrence.
Here are the questions and answers:
Q: In a nutshell, what is your view of the relationship between the diocese and the Episcopal Church?
A: In a nutshell -- a strained detente.
Q: Resolution No. 2, one of five to be voted on at a special diocesan convention scheduled for Oct. 24, calls for a "withdrawal from all bodies of The Episcopal Church" that have failed to adhere to its canons, doctrines and historical practices. Is that the same as a call for disassociation from the national church? Or we could ask the question in another way: If the diocese votes to "withdraw from all bodies of the Episcopal Church," thereby refusing participation in the General Convention and governing bodies of the national church, does that signify a break?
A: No, this resolution is not "a call to disassociate from the national church." The diocese made a decision regarding that in 2006. This is a call for us to engage in more intrepid ways the radical trajectory the "National" Church has embraced. Flannery O'Connor once said in explanation of her odd characters and aberrant stories, "To the hard of hearing you must shout; to the near blind you draw large startling figures." That's what I see us called to do. The legislative and governing bodies of The Episcopal Church have grown nearly deaf and purblind -- I'm suggesting we speak in louder ways and draw figures that may actually be seen.
Q: You (and others) have said that the national church is walking apart, that it's abandoned in part or whole its doctrines, canons and traditional practices and therefore has relinquished its authority over the Diocese of South Carolina, which remains true to the original canons. And you have said you are ready to re-engage with the national church if it repudiates its recent actions and returns to the Anglican fold. Do you think there is any chance the national church will do so? If yes, why have you called for a withdrawal from it?
A: Actually, the term "walking apart" was used by the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others around the world. What I have said is the authority of national entities in The Episcopal Church has a limited and defined role within a diocese. But ... relinquished its authority? No, I never said that. What I have said is that the Constitution and Canons are what gives the General Convention its authority. When it passes resolutions contrary to those canons or without changing them, it has entered into a theatre of the absurd. Into an irrational way of legislating -- that is what General Convention did when it gave bishops permission to allow same-sex marriages without changing the canons that define marriage as between a man and a woman. Along with being unscriptural and confusing to the laity, it is a dysfunctional way to run a church.
Whether The Episcopal Church will repudiate its recent actions is doubtful at best -- but this is not about reading tea leaves. God has called me as a bishop of the church to proclaim the gospel in season and out of season, regardless of what others will or will not do. This includes protecting the faithful from false teachings.
Q: As you have explained, you are representing two main constituencies: those who want to leave the church, and those who want to stay. You have adopted language in your statements and letters that strives to appeal to both, But in suggesting to one group that you are willing to withdraw from the national church -- and even support individual parishes who want to act immediately -- while simultaneously arguing that this withdrawal does not constitute a separation but only a "protest of conscience," don't you risk compromising your theological and politic position? After all, sooner or later, some action or decision needs to be made, right?
A: Actually, I've never said I represent two main constituencies -- it's closer to four. But you ask "Sooner or later some action or decision needs to be made, right?" Are you kidding? I have to make decisions and take actions almost every day. There's no one defining moment in this fluid landscape. Certainly there are those within the Diocese who are weary of the extremist position taken by many in The Episcopal Church.
They have been ready to leave for some time. My job is to decide what needs to be done today -- right now. But I am not interested in some mere place to stand. We need to shape the future. I believe we can do that far better as a diocese if we are together. As one of the founding dioceses of The Episcopal Church we are rich in heritage; but heritage without a future is poor consolation. It is the future of the church and our culture that I want people to see is up for grabs and that it will go to the ones who are willing under God's providence to help shape it.
Many within The Episcopal Church have maneuvered us into an extreme agenda. They did it sometimes by protesting, sometimes by intimidation, sometimes by stretching the canons and teachings of the church, sometimes by disregarding or disobeying them publicly (usually without consequences). But they risked and they've seized control while most Episcopalians were snoozing. I'm becoming a rare commodity I guess -- an orthodox bishop within the church who is willing to risk. Now that heterodoxy is the dominant "orthodoxy" of The Episcopal Church, it is those who believe like me who must challenge an unthinking conformity. How long we can do this -- well that's the open question.
Q: In your August address to clergy, you said, "Should a parish find it needs to be served by alternative Episcopal care, I will work with them toward that end." Is it a breach of church canon law to facilitate, support or encourage individual parishes to leave the national church, potentially taking their property with them?
A: Your question suggests a complete misreading of my statement. My offer was made to those parishes in the diocese that may feel uncomfortable with engaging the "national" church in such an assertive manner as I've described. It is directed toward those who may feel themselves more in step with The Episcopal Church, not those who might want to leave the Church.
Q: Bishop David Anderson, president and CEO of the American Anglican Council, and strong opponent of The Episcopal Church, argued last month that you are caught between a rock and hard place. Leaving the national church now makes sense, Anderson wrote on his Web site, because the recent S.C. Supreme Court decision in the All Saint's Pawleys Island case, which favored the parish, bodes well for other congregations in the diocese. If you choose to stay, you risk a "steady erosion of some of (your) larger parishes," leaving you with fewer people willing to break from the national church, and reducing your options. Anderson goes on to write "that the strategic time for Bishop Lawrence to act is in the next three or four months. ... It may be that this is a Kairos moment that has now been presented to him." What do you think of Anderson's comments?
A: If one understands a Kairos moment as a convergence, an opportune time, then my entire episcopacy -- from candidacy, election, consent, consecration to the present -- has felt like a Kairos moment. I don't expect that to change. What I do know is the landscape changes weekly; it has already changed thrice since David Anderson made that statement and I have no doubt it will change again -- many of those who aren't on the ground here simply don't know all we have to take into consideration. That goes for people all across the theological spectrum. If some congregations decide to leave us, that will both sadden me and weaken the diocese. But I cannot control that.
Q: Though the new organization, which formed earlier this year, is not yet officially recognized by Canterbury, will you advocate that congregations in the diocese join Bishop Robert Duncan's Anglican Church in North America, or some other Anglican entity whose theology is more agreeable?
A: No. I pray for Bishop Duncan and my many friends in the Anglican Church in North America regularly. But why would I advocate for a congregation to leave the Diocese of South Carolina? The more we stay together the stronger we are.
Q: If the special convention votes to approve the five resolutions, what will happen next?
A: We will continue to look for ways to make believers who are informed, missional, evangelistic and faithful. We will look for ways to engage this culture both within and outside the church that is deconstructing the Good News of Jesus Christ with a false gospel that while appearing to be inclusive is in fact a pale imitation of the true freedom found in the Gospel. We will work with those both near and far who share a common faith in order to shape the emerging Anglicanism of the 21st century and help spread the message of forgiveness and transformation in Christ to every creature under heaven.
Q: If there is a point you'd like to make that hasn't been included in the answers to these questions, please feel free to add it.
A: The Anglican or Episcopalian scene in North America is in a season of stormy waters. The Anglican Church in North America has charted their direction in this sea-change. Those who are advocating what I have called a false gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity are listening to the sirens of the culture -- they'll go down in the whirlpool.
Those moderates within the Church who have made a practice of accommodating unscriptural innovations with as little institutional disruption as possible are steering us toward the rocks of shipwreck. No earthly helper can save any of us. My sights have remained on the port of call known as the Anglican Communion.
During the first consent process, I said I was tying myself to the mast of Jesus Christ and would ride out this storm wherever the ship of faith takes me. It brought me to this fair town of Charleston and this great Diocese of South Carolina. Its 30,000 members are in my thoughts every waking moment.
Likewise, the question of the Anglican way of being a Christian is a daily concern. It is one thing to tie oneself to the mast. It is quite another should a whole diocese tie itself there. For the sake of the diocese I wish it wasn't so stormy.