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.