The pathetic battle over diocesan seals

Last week, the conflict among Episcopalians in South Carolina reached a new low with a court battle (and restraining order) over the right to use the seal of the Diocese of South Carolina. We used to fight over doctrine or LGBT equality, even property (of course, we still do). Now we fight over diocesan seals.

If anyone on the outside would care enough to take notice, I’m sure this would open up a whole line of jokes. I can imagine the cultured despisers in Charleston issuing bon mots over their chardonnay or whiskey, if they even pay attention any more to the internecine battles of dying institutional Christianity. I can imagine, too, how this battle might become a marketing campaign for Episcopalians (of whatever variety) who are embarking on evangelism (we’ve got the truth and the true seal!). I can imagine how generations alienated from the institutional church for all sorts of reasons including our propensity to fight among ourselves, will laugh, and ignore, and seek meaning and purpose in life elsewhere than in the good news of Jesus Christ.

What pains me about this is not the conflict, although that is very painful. What pains me most is the energy and expense spent on a battle that no one will win, energy and expense spent in a futile effort to retain the signs, seals, status, and prestige of empire. For a seal is nothing more than that—a symbol of power—used over the centuries by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to impose its will on the people. Blessed by empire, a seal tries to preserve imperial power. And that, ultimately, is what this battle is about.

We saw earlier this week at the inauguration Episcopalians praying, worshiping, kowtowing to empire, praising the president while our drones continue to destroy innocent lives in Yemen, and the poor here at home languish. We see in South Carolina last, desperate efforts by Episcopalians on all sides to grasp at and retain power, wealth, and privilege.

In South Carolina and elsewhere, the Episcopal Church, which proclaimed its commitment to restructuring and “putting everything on the table” at General Convention last year with restructuring resolutions and task forces, rejected a possible future in order to preserve a past that is long gone. What would happen if instead of speaking of “continuing dioceses” or “faithful remnants,” the Episcopal Church used these situations to experiment with new possibilities? What if we gave up the power, prestige, and wealth of the past (and present) and seek to be the people of God, the body of Christ, in new ways, no longer bound to the power and property of previous centuries? What if we imagined and dreamed a new church, new ways of being church into being? What if we let go of the past, of all that it means, and venture forth on new journeys, trying to live faithfully to the gospel of Jesus Christ in new ways, new ministries and new missions? What if “we had the same mind in us that was in Christ Jesus, … who humbled himself, even to death on the cross?”

What would happen if we gave up our power, prestige, property, and seals?

What a Mess!

Mark Lawrence responds to yesterday’s developments. Money quote:

“Quite simply I have not renounced my orders as a deacon, priest or bishop any more than I have abandoned the Church of Jesus Christ — But as I am sure you are aware, the Diocese of South Carolina has canonically and legally disassociated from The Episcopal Church,” Lawrence said in a letter posted on the diocese’s website after the presiding bishop’s announcement. “We took this action long before today’s attempt at renunciation of orders, therein making it superfluous.”

Some circular reasoning here, I think, in that he claims his actions make the declaration of renunciation “superfluous.”

Other commentary on the spiraling crisis. From Mark Harris:

I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if one of the first dioceses to undergo the stress of division had come to the General Convention and petitioned to leave the General Convention, gave the grounds, showed that a large majority of the people and clergy were for it, and made suggestions as to how all could be responsible to the trust or common ownershop concerns. Could General Convention have said, go with our blessings, but know that we will continue in the area where you are to keep and Episcopal Church presence. I don’t know. But no diocese has to my knowledge ever petitioned General Convention on any level to a parting of the ways.  Instead leaders have gone with their followers, called themselves the Diocese and generally ended up in a spitting contest with The Episcopal Church leadership.

From Anthony Clavier:

When it comes to the essential morality of what has happened -I’m not using morality as in sex – few on either side have much to boast about. We’ve hurled insults as readily as we’ve sought to make theological justification for our positions. We look like our political parties. That’s no accident. We live in two worlds and as we spend more time in society and ‘culture’ as we do in the Kingdom: the world seems to triumph.


Is it too late?  It’s never too late. If those who manage the Episcopal Church don’t believe in conscience that they can make room for conscientious dissent, isn’t it their duty to make caring space for dissenters? If those of us who cannot square our consciences with the new canonical provisions, should we not do all we can to respond to any initiatives by the Episcopal Church to give us room.

Update on the Episcopal Church in South Carolina

I had some trouble figuring out what to title this post, since everything, including what to call the various parties involved in the dispute, is being contested.


At least I’m not being as tendentious as the the Episcopal Church’s Office of Public Affairs, which entitled its press release today “Presiding Bishop accepts Lawrence’s renunciation.” It’s not at all clear to me that what Bishop Lawrence did or said in his convention address of November 17 constitutes renunciation of his ordination vows. The Episcopal Cafe story is here.

The article goes on to say that the PB’s actions were fully supported by members of her Council of Advice.

I grant that this is a difficult situation but I fail to see what is being accomplished in these actions or in earlier ones, such as the PB’s “pastoral letter” that read more like a legal document than attempt to listen, mend fences, or pray for reconciliation.

Tobias Haller wonders whether the PB is jumping the gun. He points out that the canons require a written declaration of renunciation:

While I believe that Mark Lawrence has abandoned the communion of The Episcopal Church, I do not think he has renounced his ministry, at least in the manner laid out by Canon III.12.7, which requires a written declaration to the Presiding Bishop expressing a “desire to be removed.”

If there is a way forward, or a Christ-like presence in this controversy, it seems to me the statements of the Diocese of Upper South Carolina are bearing witness to Christ’s reconciling love. Here’s a resolution passed by that Diocese’s Standing Committee on the situation: SC Ltr Res

Bishop Waldo wrote a pastoral letter. In it he writes:

Looking to the future, we do not know how things will unfold across the state. We do not know what individuals and congregations within the Diocese of South Carolina will do. We do not know how the leadership of The Episcopal Church will proceed.

We do know that friendships and relationships across the state will persist. I do know that I will stay in contact with my brother, Mark Lawrence, and those within this diocese who have appreciated and agreed with his theological perspective. I will also stay in contact and dialogue with those who have felt that The Episcopal Church has moved courageously in its theological developments. And, I offer my support to those within the Diocese of South Carolina who wish remain within The Episcopal Church. Both Bishop Mark Lawrence and Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori are aware of my offer.

My deepest hope is that in the long-term we, in our brokenness, will steadfastly hold on to the possibility of reconciliation and restoration, even if it takes us a generation. This is precisely the kind of dialogue to which our diocesan strategic visioning process calls us. I will continue to foster such dialogue and to be the bishop of all in this diocese, regardless of where members are on the theological or political continuum.

Therefore we must continue to pray for those whom we love and for those whom we struggle to love, whether they live within or beyond this diocese.

The complete text is here: Advent 2012 – for posting


Further Developments concerning the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina

The Presiding Bishop has written a “pastoral letter” to the clergy and people of the Diocese.

Dan Martins, Bishop of Springfield, has written a moving plea to both sides to step away from the brink. He adds in an update that contrary to a number of sources earlier in the week, the Presiding Bishop has not declared that Bishop Lawrence and the Standing Committee have vacated their positions.

Bishop Martins wrote:

To my beloved brothers and sisters in the Diocese of South Carolina, as you meet in convention this Saturday: For the love of God, step back from the brink. Lay aside that which is your right, in honor of him who laid aside everything for us, not counting equality with God something to be grasped. The entire Episcopal Church needs you, but none more so than we who have stood with you in witness to the revealed word of God and the tradition of “mere Anglicanism.” I am begging you: Do not abandon us. Let us together be Jeremiah at the bottom of the well, bearing costly witness to God’s truth. Let us together be Hosea, faithfully loving those who do not love us back, for the sake of the wholeness of the people of God.

To the Presiding Bishop: Katharine, for the love of God, step back from the brink. Rescind the announcements you have made about the offices of Bishop and Standing Committee being vacant. Give peace a chance. Create space for the seeds of future trust and love to at least lie dormant for a season in anticipation of future germination. When the Confederate dioceses formed their own church in the 1860s, the General Convention, in great wisdom, simply refused to recognize their departure, thereby greatly facilitating eventual reconciliation and avoiding the schism that other American Christian bodies experienced in the wake of the Civil War. You are renowned for your calls for nimbleness and imagination in the face of the challenges our church faces. This is the moment for you to exercise precisely that sort of leadership. The legacy of your tenure as Presiding Bishop will be written in the next three days. Will it be a legacy of juridical gridlock, or bold generosity for the sake of God’s mission?

Bishop Martins writes eloquently and passionately about the importance of the Diocese of South Carolina remaining in the Episcopal Church. I share his commitment to unity but am still wondering what the point of forced unity would be (or the legal battle set off by the diocese’s departure).

“dreaming a new church into being” –and the Diocese of South Carolina

The official word is that the Title IV Disciplinary Board has certified that Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina has “abandoned” the Episcopal Church. The news article is here. Crusty Old Dean provides background on the notion of abandonment. He also points out that we’ve all seen it coming but no one seemed able to prevent it.

And now the war of words escalates.  Mark Harris asks Bishop Lawrence to admit he lied during the process that led to his consecration as bishop. The Episcopal Lead assembles the evidence pro and contra. The Diocese of South Carolina cries foul and criticizes the “assault” on their bishop.

I find it interesting that these events are taking place this week against a backdrop of the first meeting of TEC’s Executive Council after General Convention 2012. There were also stories about the work that took place this week: conversations about budget, mission, and restructuring. All of that talk about “putting everything on the table,” the end of Christendom, imagining a new way way of being church for the twenty-first century.

Ah, that word–restructuring. It seems to me that here is a prime opportunity to think creatively about structure, the way we do business, and imagining what a twenty-first century Episcopal Church might look like.

Here’s my question. Why not let the Diocese of South Carolina go? It’s been clear for at least a decade that they don’t want to be part of the Episcopal Church. Their recent actions suggest the plan is to incorporate as a separate denomination (The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of South Carolina).

What’s coming next is years of litigation, increased acrimony, conflict played out in the press. The lawyers will make money; bloggers will get lots of website hits; there will be anger, pain, and bad publicity all around.

So why not stop it all now? Why not imagine what a church would be like that could allow those who want out to go, leaving behind all of those who want to remain in the Episcopal Church? Let them have their property and go their separate way. And after they go, let’s imagine what an Episcopal mission might look like in the low country of South Carolina–an Episcopal mission freed from the oppressive traditions of slavery, racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.

Why not put our limited resources toward that vision of a future church rather than paying lawyers and fighting to hold on to a vision of an eighteenth or nineteenth century Church?

South Carolina secedes!

Curious that the only story about this comes from the Diocese of South Carolina’s website:

On Monday, October 15, 2012, Bishop Mark J. Lawrence, the 14th Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina was notified by the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, that on September 18, 2012 the Disciplinary Board for Bishops  had certified his abandonment of The Episcopal Church. This action by The Episcopal Church triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the Diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the Diocese from The Episcopal Church and called a Special Convention. That Convention will be held at St. Philip’s Church, Charleston, on Saturday, November 17, 2012.

I wonder when the story will hit the Episcowebs.

Goings-on in Anglican-land

The last few days have seen several developments related to matters Anglican and Episcopal. On this side of the pond, the Diocese of South Carolina has acted to remain in the Episcopal Church, but not of it (or vice versa, precisely what they are trying to do remains unclear). On the other side of the pond, the General Secretary of the Anglican Communion, Kenneth Kearon, has disinvited representatives from the Southern Cone from attending certain meetings because of that church’s boundary-crossing and intervention in North America (no word on Rwanda or Nigeria). And an Anglo-Catholic Bishop has announced his intent to join the Ordinariate being set up by the Roman Catholic Church for disaffected clergy in the Church of England (in other words, he’s swimming the Tiber). In addition, the Diocese of Sidney is going ahead with its long-announced plans to introduce Eucharistic celebration by deacons.

There is plenty of comment on all of these developments and usual, you can follow the hullabaloo at Episcopal Cafe and Thinking Anglicans. For the latter’s coverage of the Ordinariate, click here. For its article on the letter from Kearon, go here.

With the regard to the actions of the Diocese of South Carolina, Bishop Mark Lawrence’s vitriolic letter against the Presiding Bishop is available on-line. So too is a response from Bishop James Mathes of the Diocese of San Diego. A number of commentators, including Bishop Mathes, draw a parallel between this development and the events leading up to the Civil War. I have no idea what precisely is taking place. I know little about that diocese except through encounters with students I had while teaching at Furman. I know they were warned by their clergy about those liberal Episcopalians in the upstate–a warning that amused me to no end.

It is clear to me that realignment of some sort, or perhaps several sorts is underway in the US church, but across the world as well. One thing that has struck me while reading those who fulminate against the Diocese of South Carolina’s actions, is their commitment to the diocese as the basic unit of the church. Granted it has been that for over a thousand years, but it is not necessarily a biblical notion, nor one practiced in the earliest church. In fact, the diocese as such is borrowed from the imperial restructuring that the Emperor Diocletian undertook in the late third and early fourth centuries.

Readers of this blog know I am interested in how Christianity is being affected by contemporary cultural changes, and how those changes will lead to restructuring.  It seems to me that all of these developments are contributing to that restructuring in the Anglican world, and that what will emerge down the line is something very different than the Anglican Communion we have had for the last few decades