Episcopal Church Makes Its Move In South Carolina

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote for the Wall Street Journal editorial page about how The Episcopal Church had upped the ante in property disputes with departing congregations and clergy. While the church and its dioceses had long been litigating against departing congregations, they added a new feature in recent months: departing congregations who wished to pay for their church property and remain in it also had to disaffiliate from anything Anglican. They couldn't have a bishop in an alternative polity, they couldn't contribute financially or otherwise to any alternate Anglican group and they couldn't call themselves Anglican. Thus far, four congregations have agreed to the demands. (I believe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is the only reporter who has covered this "disaffiliation" story for mainstream news pages.) Some of the people I spoke with who'd agreed to disaffiliate told me that they were surprised at the end of lengthy negotiations to be presented with the demand and were too weary to fight it. Others told me that they simply wanted to do what it took to stop getting sued. Other congregations refused the demand, as Rodgers has written about. I spoke with a member of a departing congregation, for instance, who said that she and fellow parishioners responded to the demand by cleaning up their sanctuary for the last time, turning over the key, and walking away. The Episcopal Church responded to my piece with "talking points" and a letter from a bishop whose diocese has seen quite a few departing congregations, members and clergy. Following my piece's publication, I've heard from dozens of disaffected or departed Episcopalians who've told some pretty amazing stories about how the Episcopal Church has fought any conservative unrest.

Just as my "disaffiliation" story was going to press, though, word came out of South Carolina that The Episcopal Church was investigating the conservative bishop there for "abandonment," even though he hadn't left the Episcopal Church.

The story hit the Anglican and Episcopal blogosphere like a storm. But we didn't see too many stories at first. Here's an Associated Press take on it that's worth looking at, though. Here are a few preliminary thoughts, though I'm sure the Episcopalian and Anglican readers may have other critiques of this piece:

CHARLESTON, S.C. — After years of controversy over Episcopal Church policy of ordaining gays and sanctioning same-sex unions, the conservative bishop of one of the oldest dioceses in the United States finds himself the focus of a rare investigation to determine whether he has abandoned the church.

A church disciplinary board is investigating Mark Lawrence, the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, based on information passed to the national church from parishioners in the diocese.

While the diocese has distanced itself from the national Episcopal Church because of gay ordination and other concerns, Lawrence has repeatedly said he wants it to remain in the Episcopal Church.

A couple of points. While it is an historical anomaly to investigate bishops like this, it's been somewhat common in recent years for The Episcopal Church to do so. We've seen this rule used to kick out the bishops of Pittsburgh, Quincy, Forth Worth, San Joaquin and a select few retired bishops as well.

Further, it's wrong to state that the complaints were "based on information passed to the national church from parishioners in the diocese." That may be true but the accusers are publicly anonymous. If the AP has information as to who the accusers are, it should include that. However, later in this same article we're told that they are unknown. Similarly, the most likely local accusers -- those publicly fighting the bishop -- have denied that they made the accusations. That information is also later in the article.

"We are working with circumstances that are very, very sensitive about which people have very, very strong convictions," said Bishop Dorsey Henderson, president of the disciplinary board. His recommendation could go a long way toward deciding Lawrence's future.

Henderson said it is rare that there is an investigation into whether a bishop has abandoned the church and stressed that right now it's an investigation and no charges have been made.

It's not wrong to quote Henderson saying this but this item is certainly in dispute. Canon law is a tricky thing but from what various canon lawyers have told me, allegations against a bishop that are officially investigated by the Episcopal Church are considered charges. Technical minutiae perhaps, but noteworthy. And, in fact, the next paragraph says that the end of the investigation could end with certification of abandonment. All that stands between the South Carolina bishop and being deposed are two votes, it sounds like.

The article includes some helpful information about the size and history of the diocese. It was one of the original dioceses that formed the Episcopal Church, for example.

We get some details on the charges. Or non-charges. Whatever:

A recent letter from the disciplinary board to Lawrence mentioned, among other things, that it has information that diocese has eliminated mention of the national church in the diocesan charter purpose statement and passed a resolution that the local diocese is a "sovereign diocese."

The letter also said Lawrence had done nothing to stop local parishes seeking to leave the Episcopal church. Two have done so, one since Lawrence became bishop in 2008.

OK, what simply must be mentioned here is that the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2009 in favor of one of these break-away parishes and in so doing said that the Dennis Canon (the trust instrument through which the Episcopal Church claims parish property for itself) had no effect as the title was in the name of the parish. Perhaps there are differing interpretations of this ruling but from my read it seems as if the South Carolina Supreme Court has held that the Dennis Canon is invalid within South Carolina to override a property deed that is in the name of the parish if there is nothing other than the Dennis Canon evidencing a trust claim. So parishes in South Carolina that hold title free and clear in their own names (which is likely most of them) are completely free to go. This article should have mentioned that there is nothing Lawrence can do under South Carolina law to prevent the parish from leaving even if he felt that was what he should do.

The article also makes an error here:

In 2003, the national church consecrated its first openly gay bishop and three years later, the Diocese of South Carolina and two others opposing consecration of gay bishops voted to reject the authority of the national church's presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the church.

I believe the dioceses that made public statements about rejecting Katharine Jefferts Schori's authority as presiding bishop were Forth Worth, Quincy and Pittsburgh.

There were some helpful explanatory parts of the article, such as this:

Earlier this year at the diocesan convention in Beaufort he said "it is my expressed hope that this year of 2011 will be free from constitutional and canonical challenges from the national leadership of the Episcopal Church, and that we in the Diocese of South Carolina can get on with the work of growing our parishes, strengthening the lives of our parishioners and churches, and planting new congregations."

Henderson said that Lawrence is being investigated under new church law that defines abandonment as abandonment of the Episcopal Church. The old rules used to just specify the church.

"Bishops are now held to a standard that they profess their loyalty to the Episcopal Church in the United States and not to the Anglican Communion," [Frank Kilpatrick, a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of "The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible and Authority are Dividing the Faithful] said. "That's an important distinction because a lot of these churches are leaving because they think the Episcopal Church has abandoned the Anglican Communion."

The accused bishop didn't respond to requests for comment but I can't help but think the story would have benefited from just a bit more perspective of the typical South Carolina Episcopalian. Still, a helpful read on a huge story that deserves mainstream coverage.

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