Nullification revisited

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By James R. Mathes

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence wrote the essay, “A Conservationist among Lumberjacks,” in The Living Church, published online on October 1, 2010, which attempts to paint the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina as a protector of the Constitution of the Episcopal Church.

It is true that there are no new plots.

What Bishop Lawrence postulates is simply a twenty-first century reprisal of the 1828 nullification crisis in which the state of South Carolina attempted to nullify federal tariffs.

Bishop Lawrence feigns great sorrow at the changing landscape of the Episcopal Church. He writes, “I have grown sad from walking among the stumps of what was once a noble old-growth Episcopalian grove in the forest of Catholic Christianity.” Donning the mantle of ecclesial conservationist, Bishop Lawrence even quotes environmentalist, Aldo Leopold, “a conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke [of the ax] he is writing his signature on the face of his land.” The bishop adds, “far too many leaders in our church have never learned this lesson.” Indeed.

All of this is prelude to his main premise that the presiding bishop is threatening the polity of the Episcopal Church. He wants you to believe that the threat is manifested in three ways: because her chancellor has retained a South Carolina attorney to represent the wider Episcopal Church’s interests should they diverge from the Diocese of South Carolina’s interests; through the Title IV revisions from the 2009 General Convention; and by the manner in which the House of Bishops has dealt with bishops who have left the Episcopal Church.

If Bishop Lawrence were simply presenting these thoughts to spur debate about his concern regarding the polity of the Episcopal Church and his perceptions of threats to the same, I could imagine he and I having a lively conversation, perhaps when we next meet at House of Bishops. He might even convince me to support changes in the canons to preserve our polity. However I suspect that that is not what Bishop Lawrence is after. His essay is rather an attempt to justify resolutions being considered this weekend at the Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina, which among other things, claims “sovereignty” of diocese. He tips his hand in his essay when he claims that “the presiding bishop and her unelected chancellor [are] intruding into diocesan independence.”

An Episcopal diocese is no more independent of the Episcopal Church than a state is independent of the federal government. This is nothing short of an attempt to craft ecclesiastical nullification. And of late, we have had too much practice in that with four other dioceses claiming nullification on the road to secession.

Bishop Lawrence’s thinking is problematic.

First, there is no real threat from the presiding bishop unless you attempt secession, in which case she will simply do her job of preserving the diocese from those who choose to abandon it.

The Title IV revisions, while not perfect, are an effort to shift from a disciplinary model to a pastoral model of dealing with clergy conduct issues. There is no external threat to a diocese from the presiding bishop. In fact, due process is enhanced. I would invite Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina to join the wider Episcopal Church in living with these canonical changes and to offer changes at future General Conventions. This is the right way to deal with perceived imperfections.

And it is rather silly to raise procedural objections to Bob Duncan’s deposition. While I believe we followed our canonical procedures properly, Duncan’s previously prepared departure to the Southern Cone immediately acted upon and announced moments after his deposition made it clear that the House made the appropriate decision.

Indeed, what’s the complaint? Bob Duncan and the House of Bishops were in perfect agreement: he was no longer a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The issue for Duncan was that his deposition gravely weakened his flimsy legal position relative to his compliance with an out of court settlement relating to Episcopal Church property. As Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina prepare to move forward with their own canonical changes, I fear they may be playing a similar game.

Bishop Lawrence: be at peace. Your colleagues in our House of Bishops support you in leading the Diocese of South Carolina consonant with its particular theological perspective. We grieve with you those who have left the Episcopal Church. But know this — no one cut them out. They were not the victims of lumberjacks; they uprooted themselves. We pray that you will not do the same. It would be a regrettable repeat of history. In the end, we will wait for your next move. Please don’t fire on Fort Sumter.

The Rt. Rev. James R. Mathes is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.

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27 Responses to "Nullification revisited"
  1. Bishop Mathes, this highlights the degree of unhappiness a lot of us (and certainly myself) have with the assumption/assertion that the US government is to be used as a model for church governance, particularly with the dogged resistance to any larger bonds which invariably is coupled with that model. The result is a kind of sectarianism.

    And the fault that even a stupidly loyal Episcopalian sees is that they lend themselves to political ends. The history of enforcing prayer book rubrics ever since I was confirmed thirty years back is that one party is largely allowed to get away with violations, even of canons, while those who oppose them are held to the letter of the law. And I say this about changes which I favored.

    I would like to see the church move away from this juridical and power-based approach to dealing with our differences. I see the canonical changes as moving in the exact opposite direction.

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  2. I think the last paragraph of Mathes' statement (and the comment immediately above) is profoundly wrong, and profoundly unjust. Many, MANY, have be driven out of the DoSC and TEC due to the "theological perspective" of the DoSC.

    The issue is not local option. The issue is justice, and who stands on the side of justice with God, and who stands against it.

    Bryant A. Hudson

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  3. Sibling Wingate, you wrote,

    I would like to see the church move away from this juridical and power-based approach to dealing with our differences. I see the canonical changes as moving in the exact opposite direction.

    I'm not clear whether you think the revisions to Canon IV are more juridical or are more pastoral. Would you be willing to say more, here or elsewhere? I'm sure our Cafe editors would be interested, or I'd offer a "guest spot" at my blog.

    Marshall Scott

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  4. Dear Bishop Mathes,

    How proud I am that you are the Bishop of my diocese. You are so right. No one has been "driven out" of TEC. People left of their own accord and are sorely missed.

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  5. They are canons, so that would be putting us in the more juridical direction.

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  6. I, too, am proud of my bishop for his faithful leadership in the diocese and in the wider church. I have seen him navigate difficult waters of conflict without resorting to condemnation. He is clear on boundaries and disposed towards graciousness.

    Andrew Green

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  7. One must read +Lawrence’s essay as well as this one to get a balanced perspective. Having done so, it occurred to me that …

    TEC membership has been and continues to decline in a dramatic fashion. We had 2.06 million domestic members in 2008 – down by 2.8% since ’07. Each domestic Province contracted. Only Province 9 (Latin America) did not decline (0% change). Domestic church attendance also fell (3.1%) but it did increase in foreign affiliates.

    We had about 3.5 million members in the mid-60’s. That’s down close to 60% on a population-adjusted basis and those trends should terrify any competent leader. Your policies and offerings do not meet the public’s need and if the trend continues you are headed for extinction.

    The current centralizing policy of TEC actually expels formerly loyal members because they disagree with the evolving views of corporate leadership. Such a policy can be viewed as self-destructive.

    +Lawrence’s opinion that, “The presiding bishop has stated that she has responsibility for the whole church; yet this responsibility is to preside, not to rule. Her felt duty to protect the property of the Episcopal Church is one she has assumed …” is interesting on 2 counts. 1st: Her reasonable responsibility as a leader is to preside and persuade, not to rule in an authoritarian way as she and her councilor have chosen to do. 2nd: What is it her duty to protect, the physical property of TEC or its human flock as I suspect Jesus would recommend. The PB and her councilor seem to have chosen the former (property) but I must ask on what grounds? They seemingly are hubris and not compassion, at least to me.

    +Mathes seems to buy into “Corporate line” and demeans +Lawrence in the process. Recent TEC statistics show that his diocese is not growing – slowly declining in fact. So, I suppose that +Lawrence wins this discussion.

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  8. Well, Brother Lowrie, Bishop Lawrence is right, in that where he wishes to look he sees what is there. The problem is, of course, that he is selective where he chooses to look and what he chooses to see.

    For example, he pretends he can separate Constitution and Canons when considering the polity of the Episcopal Church. The fact is that we clergy ordained in the Episcopal Church are accountable to both, and our policy is described by both, and not simply by one.

    That being the case, then, Bishop Lawrence turns his microscope to the Canons on the Presiding Bishop. Reading those Canons is necessary, but not sufficient; just as I am accountable for many things in the Canons that aren't in the Title III sections on priests. He avoids the Canons on the Executive Council - precisely because he wants to pretend there is no executive function for the Episcopal Church as a whole. The Executive Council serves the Church between General Conventions, and "f) In its capacity as the Board of Directors of The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, the Council shall have the power to direct the disposition of the moneys and other property of said Society in accordance with the provisions of this Canon and the orders and budgets adopted or approved by the General Convention." (I.4.2.f) The Presiding Bishop is by Canon I.4.3 Chair and President of Executive Council, and so responsible for all that "property of said Society" - including in South Carolina. Indeed, the Bylaws of the Executive Council make explicit that the Presiding Bishop is Chief Executive Officer of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, which is to say the Episcopal Church. No, these things aren't in the Canons on the Presiding Bishop; but they are authoritative and effective nonetheless.

    Now, to claim "diocesan independence" requires disclaiming an executive function and an executive officer of the Episcopal Church. One can pretend that's the case; but that doesn't make it so.

    Marshall Scott

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  9. In the political realm Bishop Lawrence's position ended in a civil war. For him to rewarm those arguments with respect to the church will lead to the same outcome. South Carolina will lose again.

    Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina do not have the independent authority to reject the actions of General Convention. They sacrificed that when they originally acceded to the C&C and nowhere in them is "de-accession" envisioned.

    Saddest of all Bishop Lawrence was given the benefit of the doubt and extended the trust of the HoB and our Standing Committees. He has violated that trust. The convention of SC may have elected him, but he is only a Bishop by virtue of the action of the whole EPISCOPAL church.

    While we cannot unmake him as a Bishop any more than he can unmake SC's accession which formed it as a Diocese, we can and should sanction him for these actions.

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  10. It was a real failure of nerve on the part of TEC standing committees and bishops to confirm Bishop Lawrence's election (the second time). Many of us had warned that he would become the next Bishop Iker, and there was plenty of documentary evidence to this effect.

    It is ironic that the far right is also reviving the rhetoric of nullification at this time in the secular realm.

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  11. We had about 3.5 million members in the mid-60’s. ... Your policies and offerings do not meet the public’s need and if the trend continues you are headed for extinction.

    OK, Edmund L: I *think* I get the "We" in the above paragraph. But who is/are the "Your" and "you"?

    But beyond that: when someone speaks of a "balanced perspective" and then IMMEDIATELY veers into demographic numbers, I know I'm about to be SPUN!

    Having said this: since it's a given that we're going to be dealing w/ the people, not just the (soon to be ex-?)bishop, of the Diocese of South Carolina, is it really wise (for +Mathes) to draw up an analogy to Fort Sumter---what w/ the, um, peculiar ("War of Northern Aggression") take so common there? O_o

    JC Fisher

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  12. Bishop Mathes doth protest too much, methinks.

    Don Allen

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  13. Apparently Mr. Wingate (see above) has not heard about Discipline, which is indeed about rules of life together, Canons and Constitution. Doctrine and Discipline work in tandem.

    When people are ordained, they enter in Holy ORDERS... a set of rules and expectations about how they must behave. Bishop Lawrence cannot blow them off on doctrinal grounds, nor can they or the rest of the Discipline be dismissed because it is Discipline...to which they vowed obedience.

    Lawrence and the rest are Doctrinal totalitarians and Disciplinary anarchists.

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  14. The point which has been made by many in response to this is that the point of these changes is to create discipline where there was none before. Many have made the point that the deposition of Bishop Duncan was not made conforming to the canons. If you are a doctrinal anarchist and a disciplinary totalitarian, then what? I don't have to choose between the two in choosing what is right!

    And once again we visit the old hypocrisy. The existence of any Anglican church as a body unto itself cannot be justified without resort to justification of rebellion.

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  15. Wingate and all concerned with the growth of the Church,

    A recent Nielson study on the Episcopal Church revealed that the web sites that most discuss TEC are web sites that deal with mothering.

    Contrary to popular belief, most people who are newcomers to TEC seek it out precisely because it is more open and accepting than the churches of their youth. They're looking for a place where they can raise their kids and feel good about the beliefs articulated from the pulpit. They want something different from mainstream Christianity, something more thoughtful, experiential, mystical and beautiful. The Episcopal Church is a good fit for these people who do not see homosexuals as deviants and diseased. It's a good fit for people who are divorced and have been ostracized by their faith communities for it. It's a good fit for people who are questioning and unsure of what they think or believe, and have been scolded by pastors and preachers for their honest questions.

    With its welcoming, affirming message to LGBT people, it tells a host of others whom society may not call normal or perfect, that they too are welcome. If TEC continues its current trend of welcoming the castoffs of mainstream society, then it may not grow exponentially, but it will reach many people in need, offering them a place of hope and a community, a home.

    If Tyler Clementi had known a community of support such as an Episcopal Church can offer a young gay man, would he have chosen the same fatal course of action?

    [Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. We need your full name next time.]

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  16. All right, Sibling Wingate. Thanks for answering my question above.

    Bishop Lawrence spoke about changes to Canons in Title IV of the Canons, regarding discipline for those in orders. There have for some time been such Canons, both to describe infractions, and also to insure due process for those alleged to have acted wrongly. So, this has not been creation of new Canons, but revision of existing Canons.

    The goal of the revisions as presented at the 2009 General Convention was for the due process to become less juridical and more relational - allowing more opportunities for mediation, etc.

    However, there was also some clarification of the charges that could be brought against a bishop. Those changes came in light of the efforts of Bishop John-David Schofield to remove his diocese from the Episcopal Church. In light of the separation that seems to be coming with South Carolina (albeit so far within the Episcopal Church), it may be those specific changes that Bishop Lawrence finds so challenging.

    In any case, there has not been creation of a new set of Canons, but revision of an existing set, with at least the intent of making the process more relational and less legalistic.

    Marshall Scott

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  17. Hannah, I can find no evidence of any such study. Perhaps you could provide a citation.

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  18. C. Wingate, I can confirm the existence of that study and that Hannah is right about the internet activity thing. The Church's Office of Communications conducted it. It has been discussed among some communications folk, and I believe it was discussed at the recent House of Bishops meeting.

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  19. Charles (W) its always good to spar with you. TEC is hardly a doctrinal anarchist. We do have some arguments about Doctrine and that is well and good. But that group of people who think they have a lock on doctrinal truth have totally dismissed the discipline they pledged to support even as they propose the formation of discipline at an international level.

    And of course, not getting what they wanted at the international level we now hear that the vaunted Anglican Covenant is not sufficient for those who proposed it and changes will have to be made in what was supposedly a finished document.

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  20. Jim Naughton, not to put to fine a point on it but confirming the existence of it is inadequate. Where is it? What does it say? What is its methodology? I'm hardly willing to take the word of political participants; given the frequent problem with such studies, I see no reason to believe this one until I can see it myself.

    Michael, those who participated in those ordinations in 1974 thought, by all evidence, that they had "a lock on doctrinal truth", as did Spong and Righter on a later occasion. It is utterly inaccurate to attribute certainty to one faction and not to the other; the appeal of the innovators to ambiguities or whatever in the canons was strictly tactical, and now the point is to make sure that nobody else can use the same tactic.

    It is not any great secret that same-sex marriages have been going on sub rosa for some years now, even though a stickler for "discipline" would have those doing them inhibited or more even today. I would not be surprised to find out that this is going on in the diocese in which you are resident. Church order and discipline could be served by an orderly and disciplined separation, but the point as far as I can tell is for each faction to do harm to the other. This is a deep offense against Christian principles, and changing the canons isn't going to undo that.

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  21. Mr. Wingate, I am not telling you you have to take any one's word for anything. I just wanted you to know that the study Hannah made reference to does exist, and that it was conducted by Nielsen and that she represented the conclusions accurately. You don't have to believe me, but I suspect others will.

    And, not to put too fine a point on it, but your response was rude.

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  22. I'm sorry for the way that came out. I think, however, that if you've seen the study, you could give a title or some other datum that would allow me to locate it. If you haven't seen the study, you should be skeptical of what it says. I've spent too many years verifying these sorts of statements to take any of them for granted, regardless of whose position they are said to reinforce.

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  23. An eminently fair request, C Wingate. It will take a bit of time to write up my notes. It was market research based on interviews, although the Web research was the usual key word monitoring sort of thing.

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  24. @Michael Russell :

    Michael the actual meaning of sacred orders (ordines sacrae) has little to do with rules and regulations (which of course are unavoidable whenever people try to live together) but with the notion of section or place. These orders refers to different places (or roles) in worship. The three orders are manifestations of three aspects of the whole church.

    Juan Oliver

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  25. The Episcopal Diocese of SC is not flirting with 1861 nor taking our theological understanding of ecclesiology from the Confederate States of America. The direction of the new canons should give alarm to all clergy and laity.

    "No one cut them out." This is simply not the case. Would the Diocese of Los Angeles allow a priest who is in the SSC or perhaps Evangelical function as a priest in the diocese? I was told by a canon (not Diocese of LA) that since I was from the Diocese of SC that I would be a "Fish out of water" in his diocese. Theological politics is deeply rooted in who we allow to serve in a particular diocese. I know this first hand. But I can say this: Where has a Conservative Bishop deposed a liberal priest like the liberals have deposed conservatives? I bet Bishop Matthes that the Diocese of SC is more diverse than his. There may be more conservatives in the Diocese of SC but we love and cherish those who are liberal and we don't run them out. I'm certain our liberals out number the amount of conservatives in the Diocese of LA.

    Respectfully,

    Fr. Allen

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