In letters sent October 19 to bishops with jurisdiction and all the Episcopal Church's diocesan standing committees, Via Media USA argues that the episcopacy of the bishop-elect of the Diocese of South Carolina "would represent a threat to the unity of our church and to the cohesion" of the diocese.
The Very Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, 56, was elected September 16 on the first ballot out of a field of three nominees as the 14th bishop of South Carolina. He is the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Parish in Bakersfield, California, in the Diocese of San Joaquin.
Both South Carolina and San Joaquin are part of a group of eight dioceses out of the Church's 111 that have requested a relationship with a primate of the Anglican Communion other than the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, citing 2003 and 2006 General Convention actions. The process is being called alternative primatial oversight (APO).
In response to one of three questions presented to the South Carolina candidates prior to a series of meetings with the diocese, Lawrence said he approved of the APO requests, calling them "a temporary gasp for air" that is needed while the Communion works out a new "Anglican ecclesiology."
Via Media USA's letters argue that "Father Lawrence's episcopacy would represent a threat to the unity of our church and to the cohesion of the Diocese of South Carolina."
"The case against consenting to Father Lawrence's election is not based on his theology or personal beliefs, but on the way these are likely to affect the polity, and hence the unity and integrity, of this church," the letter sent to the presidents and members of diocesan standing committees says.
"Father Lawrence has endorsed separating the Diocese of South Carolina from the Episcopal Church and has advocated that the authority of the General Convention be surrendered to the primates of the Anglican Communion. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how Father Lawrence could be asked or expected to take the vow required of each bishop in The Episcopal Church to 'guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church' (BCP page 517)."
Via Media USA's letter to bishops contains similar language. Both letters, dated October 17 and mailed October 19, should arrive in recipients' mail in the next few days. The letters should be posted on the group's website soon.
The letters included copies of an essay by Pittsburgh Episcopalian Lionel Deimel, a member of Via Media USA-affiliated Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh. The letters ask that recipients read and consider what they describe as Deimel's "carefully reasoned discussion."
Christopher Wilkins, Via Media USA's facilitator, said October 20 that the group decided to write the letters after considering Lawrence's written and spoken comments, made before and since his election, about the tensions between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. It seemed to the Via Media USA members that consent to Lawrence's election should not be given, he said.
Wilkins said there are people in the Episcopal Church, including Lawrence, who want to be part of another church. "It seems time to recognize where we are," he said.
Lawrence was elected to succeed Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr., 72, who was consecrated on February 24, 1990.
Under the canons the Episcopal Church (III.16.4(a)), a majority of the bishops exercising jurisdiction and diocesan standing committees must consent to Lawrence's ordination as bishop within 120 days of receiving notice of his election. (Episcopal elections that occur within 120 days before the start of General Convention require consents from the houses of Bishops and Deputies during Convention.)
In section III.16.4(b), those bishops and standing committees consenting to a bishop-elect's ordination (by majority vote of the standing committee) "in the presence of Almighty God, testify that we know of no impediment on account of which [name of priest] ought not to be ordained to that Holy Order".
Lawrence's consecration is planned for February 24, 2007.
It is not altogether unusual for people to advocate against consents. In April of 1976, 70 priests and laymen from 35 dioceses signed a letter urging bishops and standing committee presidents to refuse to consent to the election of John Shelby Spong as bishop of the Diocese of Newark, citing what they called Spong's unorthodox theology. Spong's election eventually received the needed consent.
Other bishops have faced contentious debate during the consent process, including the Episcopal Church's first woman bishop, now-retired Massachusetts Bishop Suffragan Barbara Harris in late 1988 and early 1989, current Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker in 1993 and current Quincy Bishop Keith Ackerman the following year.
The last time a person elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church did not receive the needed consents from a majority of the diocesan standing committees and the bishops exercising jurisdiction was in 1875. The Rev. James DeKoven, who was elected bishop of the Diocese of Illinois, was denied confirmation by the church's standing committees because of his devotion to Anglo-Catholic beliefs, specifically that Christ is actually present in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Although DeKoven never made it to the episcopal ranks, he did make the list of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, with March 22 as his feast day.
Via Media USA has chapters in 12 Episcopal Church dioceses, including the eight dioceses requesting APO arrangements. Via Media USA and its affiliates want to promote the faith, unity, and vitality of the Episcopal Church, according to the group's website.
The other dioceses requesting APO are Central Florida (Orlando-based), Dallas, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy (Illinois), Springfield (Illinois), and San Joaquin (California). Only Quincy's diocesan convention has ratified an APO request.
Salmon was part of a group of bishops who met September 11-13 in New York City to discuss the Alternative Primatial Oversight (APO) requests, but which came to no agreement.
The constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Communion's main policy-making body, makes no provisions for alternative primatial oversight. Neither do the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.
The fabric of the Episcopal Church has been frayed "by our misguided passion to be culturally sensitive and intellectually flexible," Lawrence wrote in his South Carolina responses.
"I am personally saddened for those gay and lesbian Christians within the church that so much of the debate has focused upon homosexual behavior and relationships," he said. "It has too often given way to bigotry or to an easy self-righteousness among heterosexuals. Nevertheless, it is for now the place where the battle lines have been drawn."
"This present crisis in the Anglican Communion is a sign that among other things we have entered into an ever-flattening world. We need to have an Anglican ecclesiology that takes seriously this new era," Lawrence wrote.
"At this point the 'conservatives' are being progressive, and the 'progressives' strike me as digging in their heels for the past," he wrote.
Prior to the South Carolina election, the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a Via Media USA-affiliated group whose mission is to "preserve unity with diversity in the diocese," [http://www.episcopalforumofsc.org] told the diocesan electors that the group was "concerned that the new bishop be committed, without reservation, to the ordination oath signed by every new bishop to conform to the 'doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church."
"We understand that commitment to include respecting the democratic actions of the General Convention, and the elected leadership of The Episcopal Church as it is now constituted. In recent years our diocesan leadership has voiced opposition to actions of General Convention and the Church's leaders," the group said in an open letter that ran in the Charleston Post and Courier newspaper. "The Diocese of South Carolina has joined fewer than 10% of all Episcopal dioceses in an alliance, The Anglican Communion Network, that threatens to lead us out of The Episcopal Church."
The other two nominees in the South Carolina election were: the Rev. Canon Ellis English Brust, 48, chief operating officer and chaplain to the president of the American Anglican Council (AAC), headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia; and the Rev. Stephen D. Wood, 42, rector, St. Andrew's Church, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
Brust has since announced that he will join the Anglican Mission in America, a group formed in 2000 which opposes many of the actions of the Episcopal Church.