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At South Carolina special convention, eerie echoes of "nullification" history

By E. T. Malone Jr.
[Episcopal News Service]  "This is not just another crisis around issues that time will cure," Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr. told over 300 lay and clergy delegates attending a special October 2 convention of the Diocese of South Carolina at St. Paul's, Summerville.

The atmosphere was eerily reminiscent of the mood in Charleston on the eve of the firing upon Fort Sumter in 1861 that launched the South's military effort to form itself into an independent nation. It was a lovely early autumn day, a well-groomed, prosperous-looking assemblage in a light and sunny, high-ceilinged new church meeting hall. And revolution was in the air...

Andy Brack, a lay delegate from St. Stephen's, Charleston, was even quoted in the Charleston Post and Courier referring to the majority at the convention as "secessionists." Undoubtedly, the nature of the Episcopal Church being what it is, there were delegates in the room who were descendants of men who signed the Ordinance of Secession in Charleston on December 20, 1860, when bells tolled from every steeple.

Called by the standing committee and bishops, the special convention was to consider three resolutions repudiating the actions of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in confirming the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, a gay man in a long-term relationship, as bishop of New Hampshire and in adopting a resolution that has been interpreted as permitting local option blessings of gay relationships.

Despite emotional opposition from moderate clergy and lay delegates, all three resolutions passed by wide margins.

A last-minute fourth resolution, calling upon the Diocese of South Carolina to "continue as one united body...fully participating in the Episcopal Church of the United States of America" was defeated by a 229 to 38 margin.

Discussion is ended

Although some delegates called for continued discussions of human sexuality issues, the Rev. Richard Belser, rector of St. Michael's, Charleston, declared, "I think the discussion is ended. It ended in Minneapolis. We need to do something to speak out against [General Convention's actions]."

Some delegates seemed stunned by what had taken place at General Convention. "The vote's been taken. The game's over. It's scary," said one layman.

Bishop Salmon, in an address to the convention delegates, said the actions of General Convention had "abolished the space of mutual respect that has allowed people of differing views to co-exist...the middle has been replaced by a battleground."

He and other speakers cited anecdotal evidence of widespread dismay in Episcopal congregations throughout the South, with church signs draped in black in several dioceses, a black flag flown from the cathedral in Birmingham, Alabama, a funeral for the Episcopal church held at one Georgia parish the Sunday after General Convention, and prisoners in Florida refusing to see Episcopal church pastoral visitors.

A permanent deacon who ministers to bikers and street people said, "We as deacons have to take the gospel outside the church, into the streets. I don't believe we can take the results of General Convention into the streets."

Ecumenical repercussions

Several speakers expressed concern about ecumenical repercussions of General Convention's actions. "We must let not only the national church but our communities in South Carolina know where we stand," said one delegate, an attorney.

"I voted against the election. I think that election has been disruptive to the Anglican Communion," Salmon said.

The Rev. Charles D. Cooper, rector of St. John's, Florence, said, "There are Christians in other parts of the world who are in mortal danger because of the actions of the last General Convention."

The Rev. Richard Lindsey, rector of All Saints', Hilton Head, was one of the few voices attempting to stem the tide of negative comment. "The game's not over," he insisted. "What we do today is not the end. General Convention was not the end. This is an issue that cannot be legislated. This diocese is hurting and we need to come together to share the love of Christ and its brokenness."

Wrong message?

Agreeing with him was the Rev. Jack Nietert, vicar of All Saints', Hampton, who said, "We shouldn't turn our backs on one another when things go wrong. These resolutions are designed to separate us, not bring us together."

The Rev. Tommy Tipton of Holy Cross/Faith Memorial, Pawley's Island, read a statement from 17 clergy who were opposed to the standing committee's resolutions. He said that the resolutions sent the message that homosexuals were not welcome.

Salmon took issue with Tipton. Noting that he had gay members of his own family, he said, "Our debate is not whether gays and lesbians are welcome in the church...If they are not, no one is. Rather, the debate is around the question of a new creation," a theological innovation permitting extramarital sexuality.

Diocesan theologian the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon told the delegates, "You and I are a threat to this new movement. If we don't have intervention, we are deeply in trouble."

New understanding of marriage

Salmon argued that General Convention had presented a new understanding of marriage in which the mystical union between Christ and the church had been replaced by a "committed relationship defined by those who make it." He concluded, "That is not acceptable."

He has visited London twice recently in conversations with Anglican Communion officials. He has asked for intervention, he said, from the Archbishop of Canterbury, "because we're not going to get it from within" [the American church]. Salmon characterized the Episcopal Church as "dead stuck" on the question of human sexuality and incapable of resolving its impasse within intervention from outside.

He received a standing ovation at the conclusion of his address.

At the close of the convention, Stephen Drayton, a lay delegate from St. Stephen's, Charleston, one of the more racially and theologically diverse parishes in the diocese, said, "This is a very painful thing that has happened here today. I sit on the commission on ministry and I have eyes full of tears."

Salmon replied, "We are not talking about being against somebody, but opposing a kind of activity that is not normative or moral. I think not to put the truth on the table is not loving anybody." Salmon said in his address that he has "no intention of allowing" same-sex blessings in his diocese.