A Response to the reported Title IVdisciplinary process begun against Bishop Mark Lawrence

Written by:
Wednesday, October 5th, 2011

The recently announced disciplinary process against Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina is deeply disturbing on at least two fronts. First, it sullies the Gospel and the Lord of the Gospel; second, it promises to do serious damage to The Episcopal Church (TEC).

In the first place, the allegations against Bishop Lawrence, and the claim that they may amount to “abandonment” of TEC are so absurd as to cross the line into deceit and malice. The fact that these allegations are being made and taken seriously by the leadership of TEC in itself constitutes an affront to the commitments for which a Christian church stands – honesty, charity, care for the witness of the Church’s unity.

The main charge stems from Bishop Lawrence’s insistence on asserting the “sovereign” character of a diocese – any diocese, but obviously including his own – in relationship to the teaching and discipline of the church. Since Bishop Lawrence has repeatedly stated that the Diocese of South Carolina is remaining a member of TEC and is committed to doing so, this insistence as enacted through various diocesan resolutions, represents an interpretation of TEC’s polity, and of his own diocese’s in relation to it. This interpretation, it needs to be said, is one that is grounded in well-known, traditional, and publicly argued historical and legal claims, that have yet to be adjudicated in any final way by any court. And the interpretation of diocesan sovereignty is in fact held by many faithful members of TEC (the present writer included). Historians, theologians, and canon lawyers disagree about these matters and these disagreements are serious and bound to substantive documentary, not to mention theological, matters. It is morally repugnant to imagine Bishop Lawrence being disciplined, let alone deposed, because he has vigorously upheld one side of an unresolved internal historical argument among Episcopalians. The disciplinary procedure on this front not only smacks of, but is clearly reflective of coercive intolerance, once associated with the worst of America’s McCarthy era.

Attached to this major issue, the allegations also include a collection of smaller accusations – who Bishop Lawrence talked to, who he has associated with, who has mentioned him in their newsletters, criticisms he has made about TEC’s more general policies and doctrinal drift, the fact that he has not engaged in legal battles with a departing congregation, etc.. All of these are meant to show that Bishop Lawrence is in fact a crypto-schismatic, because he has had friendly, or at least non-adversarial relationships with members of ACNA and AMiA. Many of these small accusations are in fact reports or quotations taken out of context, and therefore deliberately distorted in their implications from the start. But more important: why would a Christian leader not have friendly and non-adversarial relations with other Christians especially those who have once been Episcopalians? Would that all of us engaged in relationships of charity and welcome! To put in motion a process of deposition over this kind of behavior is, by implication, to put on trial the very commandments of Jesus Christ. God forbid!

Of course, the more practical consequence of this disciplinary process is to weaken TEC itself. It is the case that Bp. Lawrence has walked a careful line in keeping the Diocese of S. Carolina within TEC even while many aspects of TEC’s official witness have deeply offended the faith of a good number of her members. Yet he has done so, and the people of his diocese have followed – a diocese that remains one of the few, if not perhaps the only, growing diocese in TEC itself. To reward such a difficult pastoral accomplishment with allegations of disloyalty and abandonment of the church is to declare openly and formally to all such faithful members of TEC who have sought a way to maintain their membership and witness in the face of much opposition that such membership and witness is no longer welcome and will no longer be tolerated. That may come as no surprise to people like me, but its fall-out will prove self-fulfilling: the “abandonment” of TEC by many ardent and resourceful Christians. Given the imploding financial and structural condition of the national church and of many other individual dioceses, this can only strengthen the church decline.

I personally stand beside Bishop Lawrence and the people of South Carolina. If he has abandoned TEC, then it must mean that I have as well. Will you drive all of us out, Bishop Jefferts Schori? I say as clearly as I can: Presiding Bishop, you have bankrupted your apostolic office, broken your vows, and sullied this church, of which I and others are still members despite your folly, and of which I am still proud to be a member precisely because of bishops like Mark Lawrence whose witness proves that God, in his mercy, has at least not abandoned us.

October 05 2011 01:15 pm | Articles