I'm beginning this post in my head, but I'm going to end it in my heart--or, more accurately, perhaps, in my gut.
Under what circumstances is it appropriate to sever formal institutional ecclesial communion? This is a question I have lived with and struggled with for years turned into decades. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I come at this question from a fundamentally Catholic perspective, which is to say that I understand the Church as an essentially visible organism. Institutional disunity is real disunity. My friends of a more Protestant bent (Anglican and otherwise) are able to be less anxious about schism, pointing to an underlying spiritual unity among believers that smooths out those rough places where we are still at odds with one another at a visible level. Catholics enjoy that luxury to a rather more limited extent.
For better or for worse, my lodestar on this question has been a rather obscure 19th century Church of England ecclesiologist by the name of William Palmer, particularly his 1838 Treatise on the Church of Christ. Palmer sets a rather high bar for justifiable schism. In order to separate oneself in good conscience from the ecclesial body in which one finds oneself, that church must have, in effect, ceased to be a church. And how does a church cease to be a church? By advancing heresy that is substantial, formal, and perduring. This means that a break can't be over a relatively inconsequential theological nicety. And it can't be over the mere presence of error or false teaching in a church, even if that false teaching is expounded at the highest levels of leadership, and even if it is over a question of major theological importance. This is because, by Palmer's standard, the false teaching, to be a matter that justifies schism, must be formal--that is, embedded in the official formularies of the church; namely, the core liturgical sources. But even major formal heresy doesn't "unchurch" a church, according to Palmer, because, in order for that to happen, the major, formal heresy must endure over multiple generations. Only when all three of the tests are met--substance, formality, and duration--does an ecclesial body lose its ecclesial identity, and thereby release its members from the obligation of continued communion.
There is widespread theological error in the Episcopal Church. It is held and taught at the highest levels. And it is not minor error; it concerns the essence of divine revelation itself, and, most recently, manifests itself primarily in the area of theological anthropology--What is the human person? What is the nature and extent of the "fallenness" of human nature? What is the transcendent significance of the fact that we are created "male and female"? And while I think it's fair to say that actual heresy is not expounded widely, when it is, it is tolerated and its proponents tend to suffer no sanctions.
But ... and this is as important a but as one can imagine ... this major error is not--yet, at any rate--formal. It is material, but not formal. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer is not a perfect document, but it is an orthodox expression of the Catholic faith as we have received it in the Anglican tradition. There are authorized liturgical texts that are theologically problematic (Enriching Our Worship, for one, and, certainly, I Will Bless You and You Will Be a Blessing). But these are not core liturgical documents. It is not only possible, but easy, to worship regularly using the texts and rubrics of the Prayer Book in a way that is orthodox by every criterion. It is possible--if a priest wishes to do so--to lead worship, teach, and provide pastoral care in a manner consonant with the tradition of classical Anglicanism in most dioceses of the Episcopal Church.
Nor has such theological error as we have in the Episcopal Church yet met the test of duration. There just hasn't been enough time. So, even if we were in formal error--which I contend we are not--Palmer's conditions, which I have now acknowledged as my own conditions, would not yet have been met, and, indeed, cannot be met within my lifetime, given that I'm in my sixties. So it looks like the Episcopal Church is stuck with me, and I with the Episcopal Church. I suspect that neither of us is always necessarily overjoyed by that fact, but there it is, nonetheless.
It is the aggregation of these considerations that shapes my view of recent events in South Carolina. With the caveat that I am not "on the ground" there, and have the luxury of observing events from a distance, even though I am in complete theological sympathy with the diocese with respect to the enormities inflicted on Episcopalians who swim in the mainstream of the Anglican tradition, I believe the action taken by their special convention on November 17 was not only unnecessary, not only ill-advised, not only a strategic and tactical blunder, but profoundly wrong.
OK, that's my head talking. Now I'm going to attempt to engage my heart and my gut (as much as an INTJ is capable of).
I am in grief, and it only compounds my pain to say what I've just said--in effect, to presume to render judgment--about people who are not abstractions to me, but who represent relationships that I treasure. So I'm going to speak to my friends in South Carolina, while allowing others to eavesdrop: I think I understand, at a feeling level, why you did what you did. I suspect you are feeling a sense of release and freedom today, and an optimistic vision of the future, having sloughed off the oppressive yoke of 815. So I'm here to tell you--your freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is borne by your friends, many who are outside of your diocesan family, but also some within it, who do not wish to take the action determined by the majority. We remain your friends--at least I remain your friend--but our standing in the church you have left is now significantly weaker than it was a few days ago. If the understanding of TEC's polity that those in your diocese have so articulately propounded--namely, that the Episcopal Church has no higher authority within the boundaries of the Diocese of South Carolina than the Bishop of South Carolina--is true, then your departure, ironically, makes it more challenging for the rest of us to continue to contend for that interpretation. (And need I mention that some of us have contended for that interpretation at a personal cost that is as yet undetermined?) The vote of your convention only deepens the chaos and intensifies the polarization that has gripped the Anglican Communion. I know you are people who love and serve the Lord with all your heart, so it is with trepidation, and through tears, that I say to you: I don't think this is of God. I don't think what you have done pleases God. If my language seems indelicate or intemperate, chalk it up to my feeling hurt. Hurt by you. Of course, I believe God is a consummate opportunist, so I expect what you have done will be redeemed, turned into good, somehow and at some time. But is not the fruit of righteousness.
Now I turn my attention in the other direction, and I'm going to use we/us first person plural language, because ... I remain an Episcopalian.
We are immeasurably impoverished as a result of this fiasco. South Carolina is one of our founding dioceses. It is a vibrant and healthy diocese, and the only one to have shown a persistent pattern of numerical growth over a period of several years when the Episcopal Church as a whole has been steadily shrinking. Their departure only hinders our witness to a society that desperately wants to hear a word of hope and reconciliation from the disciples of him who came into this world to break down all dividing walls of hostility. It also further weakens our position with the Global South majority of worldwide Anglicanism. It is tragic in every dimension.
And we ourselves bear the lion's share of responsibility. There are already voices in our midst that are calling Bishop Lawrence a liar. But Mark Lawrence is no liar. I would bet everything that is sacred to me that he took the vows of his ordination to the episcopate in pristine good faith. If the rest of us would simply have left him and his diocese alone, November 17 would never have happened. He inherited an extraordinarily delicate pastoral and political situation in the diocese when he became bishop. Many of the larger and wealthier parishes were already eager to bolt. Indeed, one soon did. Every word that proceeded out of the bishop's mouth was immediately scrutinized by forces representing all points of view, both within the diocese and beyond. In time, the diocese took action to circumscribe its position with respect to national canons that it, in good faith, believed contrary to TEC's own constitution. These actions were eventually used to pull one of the series of failsafe triggers in the whole ugly sequence of events--the certification of Bishop Lawrence as having "abandoned" the communion of the Episcopal Church. Ironically, the very basis for the certification was in fact an attempt by the Bishop and diocesan leaders to do exactly the opposite, to keep the diocese in TEC while throwing a bone to those who were pressing for departure. If outsiders--and fifth column forces within the diocese--had recognized this for what it was and just let it lie ... again, the watershed event of this past weekend would not have happened.
The complaint against Bishop Lawrence that so egregiously abused the Title IV canons on abandonment was filed by a very small group. I don't know any of them, but I can only speculate that they are of a "progressive" bent and felt themselves marginalized in the overwhelmingly evangelical and conservative climate in the diocese. I cannot begin to imagine what they thought they were accomplishing by starting this avalanche. A reconfigured Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina that is theologically in line with the mainstream of TEC? Seriously? From the standpoint of their own narrow self interest, could they have made a more short-sighted move? Then there's the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, the group that received the complaint and determined that it had merit. Their decision defies any notion of common sense, especially given that the same board, though differently composed, had previously exonerated the Bishop on the same charges, based on the same evidence. Title IV is clear that the routine protections to which we are accustomed in secular criminal proceedings do not apply. But there remains in most of us an intuitive suspicion of anything that smacks of double jeopardy.
Many on the starboard side of North American Anglicanism smell a conspiracy here. They imagine the Presiding Bishop, and her chancellor, as master puppeteers, using groups like those in the diocese who filed the charges, and the key players in the Title IV process, as shills for their overarching nefarious agenda of driving out conservatives and quashing all dissent in TEC. I have resisted such conspiracy theories, and still do, and have said as much to those who propound them. But I have to admit that the timing of events keeps me coming back for another look. Even stipulating that the Presiding Bishop's hands were canonically tied once she received notification of the DBB's finding of abandonment, the seeming lack of public anguish on her part while having to carry out a distasteful duty is jarring. And if, as has been implied, this turn of events caught her by surprise (coming, as it did, between two scheduled meetings between her and Bishop Lawrence and Bishop Waldo of Upper South Carolina to try and reach a creative solution), it is astonishing that coordinated actions between 815 and a "steering committee" of "remainers" within the diocese, even to the point of naming a de facto Provisional Bishop, could have gotten up and running so quickly.
So what should we do now? We should ....
- Resist the temptation to burn bridges. We should inform the Diocese of South Carolina that, just as we did during the Civil War, we are not recognizing their defection. The standard party line from 815 has been "When individuals leave, we mourn but wish them well. When real estate and money leave, we fight to get them back." We need to reverse that, and say, "We don't want your money or your buildings, we want you, and we will fight to get you back. So there will be no depositions and no lawsuits. In the meantime, tell us what we can do to get you to reconsider." In other words, we need to keep a path to reconciliation open. It's what Jesus would do.
- Own our share of the mess. The marriage canons require that, when a previously-married person with a former spouse still living seeks the Bishop's permission to have a new marriage solemnized in the church, that person must give an account of his or her share in the breakdown of the previous relationship. We owe as much to ourselves, to the people of South Carolina, and to God. There is no innocent party in this transaction. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God." We can't control what anybody in South Carolina says, but we can control what we say, and we need to name our collective complicity in the breakdown of this relationship.
- Minister to those who are left behind by the departure of the diocese. I am given to understand that majorities in somewhere near 20% of the congregations of the diocese do not wish to make the trip out of TEC. Of these, all but a handful are conservative, in theological accord with Bishop Lawrence and the rest of the diocese while in disagreement with recent tactical decisions. Their pastoral needs deserve attention. Perhaps we can enlist the services of bishops in one or more of the neighboring dioceses to take these parishes under their wings as an extraordinary temporary measure. What is clear is that there is not a sufficient residue to justify the pretense of a "continuing" Diocese of South Carolina. Perhaps, with a generous expression of forbearance and humility on our part, and a generous outpouring of divine grace, we can woo the diocese back into the fold. If that happens, these parishes can rejoin their ancestral home. If not, we will need, in time, to redraw diocesan boundaries to take them in and provide for future mission work in the Low Country. But let us forego the charade in which we have indulged in San Joaquin, Fort Worth, and Quincy (Pittsburgh being a signal exception, with a critical mass of "continuers" to provide for continuity and viability). We'll all be happier, and God will be honored. Only the lawyers will be poorer.
Of course, I don't honestly expect my advice to be taken by those with the power to actually do something creative with the hand we've been dealt. But if we just continue reading our lines from the script, we know the story won't have a happy ending, because a tragic ending is already written into the script! If we want something else, we need to throw the script away and start to improvise. Pray, brothers and sisters. Pray.