South Carolina Diocese Cannot Leave Episcopal Church on its Own, Says Presiding Bishop

(Photo Credit: Episcopal News Service / Lynette Wilson)Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori preaches at the opening Eucharist of the House of Bishops fall meeting in Quito, Ecuador on September 15, 2011.

The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has not left and cannot leave The Episcopal Church by its own action, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a letter to the Diocese on Thursday.

Rev. Schori said the General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, must give its consent to allow a diocese's alteration, dissolution or departure.

In October, the diocese said it had disaffiliated itself from the Episcopal Church. At the most recent General Convention in July, the diocese's bishop, Bishop Mark Lawrence and most of the delegation of the diocese left the gathering before its conclusion in protest of the Church's decision to accept a temporary rite of blessing of same-sex couples and to accept full inclusion of transgender people in the life of the church, including ordination.

In October, after the Church's disciplinary board charged Rev. Lawrence with abandonment of the church, and Rev. Schori restricted Bishop Lawrence's exercise of his ministry the diocese said the Episcopal Church's actions "triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the Diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the Diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a Special Convention" to be held Nov. 17.

Thursday's letter by Rev. Schori to the Diocese elaborated on steps The Episcopal Church is taking to replace the leadership of the diocese.

"The decisions 'announced' by leaders in South Carolina appear to be unilateral responses to anxiety about decisions made by General Convention and/or the actions of the Disciplinary Board concerning Bishop Lawrence," Rev. Schori wrote in Thursday's letter.

"If it becomes fully evident that those former leaders have, indeed, fully severed their ties with The Episcopal Church, new leaders will be elected and installed by action of a Diocesan Convention recognized by the wider Episcopal Church, in accordance with our Constitution and Canons," she added.

She also told parishioners and clerics in the state that "as long as you wish to remain in The Episcopal Church, no leader, current or former, can exile you, remove you, or separate you from it without your consent. The decision is yours alone."

Status of the Diocese

Rev. Schori said in Thursday's letter that Bishop Lawrence has been charged with having "abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church" over actions that "have to do with formally attempting to separate the Diocese of South Carolina, its congregations, and their property from the wider Episcopal Church without its consent."

She said the diocese is a "constituent part" of the wider Church and its status "cannot be altered without the action of the General Convention."

She noted that the Church's Disciplinary Board found that Bishop Lawrence had "repudiated the polity of this Church."

As a result, she said she had the "canonical responsibility and obligation to limit ('restrict') his formal ability to function as bishop until the entire House of Bishops can consider the charges. She said Bishop Lawrence has 60 days to repudiate those charges.

She wrote that clergy in the diocese remained members of the Episcopal Church until they renounced their orders or were removed by Title IV processes, a reference to the church disciplinary process in its constitution and canons. She said the clergy could draw a pension from the Church Pension plan until a formal separation.

Bishop Lawrence Says Parishioners Undermining Diocese

Bishop Lawrence, in a letter written to members of the Diocese on Nov. 14 in local newspapers, reiterated a previous statement that there would be a "Special Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina" at St Philip's Church in Charleston, S.C. on Nov. 17.

Lawrence wrote that the Episcopal Church was "taking steps to undermine this diocese."

"What we are faced with is an intentional effort by the ill-advised TEC organization to assume our identity, one that we have had since 1785," he wrote.

On November 12, a group called the "Steering Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" published an open letter with the seals of the Episcopal Church and the of the diocese to Episcopalians in the diocese stating that the diocese "is continuing." The letter lists 14 members of the committee.

"A steering committee of faithful Episcopalians has been formed to reorganize our continuing Diocese over the next few months," the group wrote. The committee is chaired by Hillery P. Douglas, Senior Warden of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Charleston.

"This committee will serve as the broad-based group in the Diocese that communicates with the Presiding Bishop during this period when the diocese has no functioning ecclesiastical authority," the group wrote.

Bishop Lawrence said the effort by "former parishioners" was "an agenda put forward by TEC's national litigation strategy team which has been used in other locations in similar ways" when dioceses and parishes have left TEC.

He said the parishioners were undermining the life of the diocese or his leadership as bishop.

"This misuse of diocesan seal and the diocesan name is denial of the good faith and fair dealing expected of all institutions engaging either in public communication or commerce," he wrote.

"Not only is it morally questionable; it is something for which they can be held accountable," he added.

Copyright © 2013 Ecumenical News