by Dan Ennis
When the history of The Episcopal Church in the twenty-first century is written, much attention will be paid to the large-scale effects of “Anglican Realignment.” In that history, the Diocese of South Carolina (for the moment, thanks to legal action, styled “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina”) will be included for illustrative purposes, alongside San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Fort Worth, as future church historians consider how Episcopalians responded to schism. Church history is often populated by bishops, deputies and chancellors, not by part-time vicars and retired canons, so supply priests may not merit a mention in some future chronicle of The Episcopal Church. Yet as the Diocese of South Carolina split in 2012, there was a period of instability as congregations fractured down ideological lines. In the rapid reorganization of the diocese that followed, supply priests were indispensable.
On September 18, 2012, the House of Bishops Disciplinary Board of signed a “Certificate of Abandonment” against Mark Lawrence, Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. On November 17, Lawrence publicly announced that the Diocese of South Carolina had “withdrawn” from The Episcopal Church. Fifty parishes and missions chose to follow Mark Lawrence. Twenty-one parishes and missions remained with The Episcopal Church. Questions of polity came to the fore: Could a diocese leave the national church? Can individual parishes leave a diocese? What happens to those in the minority of a congregation when a majority votes to leave or stay? In South Carolina, some communities were at that time served by a single Episcopal church, and in areas where that church chose to follow Mark Lawrence, many continuing Episcopalians were left without a local place of worship. Thus loyalist Episcopalians formed “worship groups” – small congregations that attempted to create and maintain an Episcopal Church presence in places where one no longer existed. By the time Provisional Bishop Charles vonRosenberg was elected to lead the diocese in January, 2013, many worship groups affiliated with The Episcopal Church had already formed and were conducting services.
The rapidity of the formation and development of worship groups was made possible by supply priests. The low-country of South Carolina is an attractive retirement destination, and there were many Episcopal priests in the region. Some supply priests, canonically resident in northeastern and midwestern dioceses, had not sought to exercise priestly office under the authority of Mark Lawrence, but after the schism they “went public” and were licensed by Bishop vonRosenberg. Through social media and world of mouth, news of the developing network of worship groups spread, and supply priests who had expected a quiet retirement pulled vestments out of the closet. If Mark Lawrence, estimating the size of his breakaway diocese, had assumed that continuing Episcopalians would be unable to recreate local congregations, the sudden availability of dozens of qualified Episcopal clergy who could minister to worship groups may not have been part of the calculations. Episcopal worship groups filled the void.
South Carolina’s supply priests faced unusual conditions. Services took place in rented or borrowed facilities. From nondenominational sanctuaries to covered porches, rented restaurants to converted classrooms, wedding chapels to synagogues, supply priests ministered to “popup” Episcopal churches all over South Carolina. One worship group, destined to go down in diocesan history as eccentric geniuses, held services on a dock. In such irregular facilities, the priest takes on special significance, setting a spiritual tone in venues that often had secular trappings. Veteran clergy drew upon long and varied experience. A supply priest who had served as a missionary in West Africa was not thrown because the air conditioner in the rented hall was on the blink. A supply priest who had been a chaplain in Vietnam was not troubled that the credence cloths were table runners from Target. A supply priest who had held services in jails during the civil rights era knew how to handle a shortage of prayer books. With high church aesthetics often out of the question, worship was often centered upon simple gestures and uncluttered presentation, and lay participation in liturgy consisted of “all hands on deck.”
Worship groups were served and saved by supply priests from all walks of church life. Pulpits were filled by bi-vocational curates, emeritus big-city rectors, former cathedral deans, and retired bishops (with Bishop vonRosenberg often serving as “chief supply priest” during episcopal visits to worship groups). Mere days after Diocese of South Carolina split, priests from across The Episcopal Church “crossed the border” and celebrated the Eucharist. Clergy from Dioceses of Upper South Carolina, East Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia were particularly prominent. The bishops of Province IV dispatched priests in support. With these clerical visitors came the prayers and support from congregations across the nation. Supply priests also reminded South Carolina Episcopalians that the church accommodates various theological opinions and worship styles. The arid confessionalism of the old regime was replaced by a vigorous range of viewpoints, and worship groups, often relying on many different priests over a course of a liturgical season, were inspired and challenged (and occasionally a bit scandalized). Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals, conservative and liberals, reconcilers and radicals, supply priests presented worship groups with a medley of opinions and practices that honored the broad-church Anglican tradition.
It wasn’t always smooth. Some supply priests, having returned to duty after years in retirement, were overtaxed by the grind of weekly preaching and weekday pastoral care. On occasion, a supply priest, long out of practice, might stumble through a rite, or forget a prayer. Most worship was a reminder that The Episcopal Church is blessed with a beautiful liturgy, but sometimes that beauty was dimmed when unfamiliar priests led ad hoc congregations, as the rhythm that can develop between a priest and laity who have long worshiped together could not be recreated on the fly. Some congregations, surprised and hurt at having been ejected from prosperous program churches, had unrealistic expectations, and supply priests were asked to reconstitute lost Sunday schools, Bible studies, and fellowship opportunities. Yet even when things were not perfect (that is, every Sunday) the reliance on supply priests did require the laity to take on enhanced responsibility for each other. In worship groups, wardens and committees undertook the secular work of organizational and financial oversight, allowing supply priests to “stand in their own office, and labor in their own calling.” Gone was the Diocese of South Carolina tradition of the rector-CEO.
Now a stable, growing diocese, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina has seen many of its supply priests return to their traditional supporting roles. In the four years since the schism, worship groups have become missions, some missions have become self-sufficient parishes, and more and more congregations have called full-time clergy to fill their pulpits. No longer in existential crisis, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina is a “normal” diocese, with the same opportunities and challenges that face the larger church. But with the passing of those improvisational days, we should not forget how the supply priests were there at the moment of crisis to bind spiritual wounds. Despite the 2012 split, Episcopal worship and communal life continued in a tradition unbroken since the eighteenth century. Precious relationships were formed between supply priests who were recalled to their vocations and grateful congregations who had learned the dangers of spiritual complacency. Many hands saved the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, but supply priests – the substitutes, the fill-ins, the break-glass-and-pull-lever clergy – were both a symbol institutional endurance and the foundation of a rebuilt spiritual community.
Dan Ennis is the former Senior Warden of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Conway, SC. Additional research for this article was provided by Ginga Wilder of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd Summerville, SC.
image: photo of the dock where the Episcopal Church in Okatie, SC first worshipped