From The Living Church:
Posted on: February 25, 2010
Not long after appearing in a soft-spoken and impressive video about Lenten discipline, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori took issue with the Bishop of South Carolina on the proper response to any congregation that distances itself from the Episcopal Church.
For those readers joining this melodrama mid-story, here is a quick summary: Thomas Tisdale, Jr., a former chancellor of the Diocese of South Carolina, has asked the current chancellor for reams of documents regarding four congregations in various states of disaffection with the Episcopal Church. The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence is trying to address the pastoral needs of these congregations without threatening to sue them.
As the Presiding Bishop described Bishop Lawrence’s actions, her tone departed from the proposed discipline of Lent. “He’s telling the world that he is offended that I think it’s important that people who want to stay Episcopalians there have some representation on behalf of the larger church,” she said in remarks to the Episcopal Church’s Executive Council on Feb. 19.
This description should surprise anyone who has read Bishop Lawrence’s public letter in response to the former chancellor’s fishing expedition.
Bishop Lawrence did raise questions about the appropriateness of a hostile legal probe occurring within his diocese, and noted that he has not heard from the Presiding Bishop regarding this probe.
But he also explained the deeper motivation of his decision to delay the diocese’s convention for three weeks: “This is not a time for precipitous action; nor is it a time for congregations or members to strike out in unilateral directions destructive to the common life and witness God has called us to make in the world and the Church.”
If this is a bishop willfully disregarding the rights of Episcopalians within his diocese, he has a strange way of showing it. No: What Bishop Lawrence is disregarding is the Presiding Bishop’s lawsuit-happy response to any congregation that votes itself out of affiliation with the Episcopal Church.
We do not celebrate any departures from a diocese or from the broader Episcopal Church, but neither do we believe that filing lawsuits against fellow Christians is a matter of good stewardship.
The conflicts in South Carolina do raise serious questions of ecclesiology. We have trouble following the logic of congregations that wish to dissociate themselves from the Episcopal Church but want to remain in some form of communion with the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of South Carolina.
For that matter, we wish that any congregation separating itself from the Episcopal Church would give serious thought to sacrificing any claims to property. This is a costly action, yes, but it is a question worth raising when a parish is convinced that its decision to leave is inspired by no less an authority than the Holy Trinity.
If God inspires a congregation to set out, like Moses, in a quest for the Promised Land, surely God will provide for that congregation’s needs. Church of the Resurrection, West Chicago, is one example of a congregation that left its diocese on amicable — more specifically, Christian — terms, and soon found its humility rewarded with a new location for its continuing ministry.
Nevertheless, we do not live in a time when Episcopalians show much creativity or generosity in preventing legal disputes. Too often the attitude is one of squatter’s rights or, in the pious name of defending legacies, spending millions upon millions of dollars to crush one’s legal opponent. Ruthless strategies and self-valorizing language occur on both sides of property disputes.
This is carnal, it is sick, and it’s the very sort of hubris-laden sin that Christians ought to confront within themselves during Lent. We consider it welcome news when a bishop shows the vision of refusing to play the lawsuit game. The Rt. Rev. John W. Howe, Bishop of Central Florida, managed to do this while assuring that his diocese kept all affected properties. Bishop Lawrence is now staying out of court without saying, just yet, what will become of affected properties.
If a bishop’s refusing to sue rectors and vestries is sufficient cause to attract deposition-style inquiries on behalf of the Presiding Bishop, may Bishop Lawrence’s courageous tribe increase.
hat tip: Fr. Dick Kim