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SOUTH CAROLINA: Episcopal Forum calls for caution in consent process

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

South Carolina Bishop-elect Mark Lawrence  

[Episcopal News Service]  A second group of Episcopalians has called on bishops and standing committees to consider seriously South Carolina Bishop-elect Mark Lawrence's stance toward the diocese's continued affiliation with the Episcopal Church, as they decide whether or not to consent to his ordination.

Episcopal Forum of South Carolina's October 31 letter to diocesan bishops and members of diocesan standing committees stopped short of calling for rejection of Lawrence's September 16 election, as did letters sent to the same groups earlier in October by Via Media USA, of which the South Carolina group is an affiliate.

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 seven dioceses, out of the church's 110 dioceses and one convocation of European congregations, 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).

Under the canons of 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.

Calling itself "an assembly of Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina who are working together to retain and strengthen ties with The Episcopal Church," Episcopal Forum wrote, "It is important that you know, as you consider our concern, that the Diocese of South Carolina is not unified in its support of the Anglican Communion Network and its positions, nor is it unified in a desire to disassociate from The Episcopal Church."

The group's letter said that "only candidates who had declared themselves ready to sever their ties to The Episcopal Church were on the ballot" even though "several more moderate candidates were proposed by both nomination and petition."

"Mark Lawrence was broadly supported as an individual, and as the best choice available. However, his election is being touted in the diocese as a mandate for separation from The Episcopal Church," the letter said. "We want to emphasize the fact that that is not unanimous, nor do we accept it."

Citing statements Lawrence has made, including his responses to questions in the search process, the group said Lawrence's stance "would further isolate a substantial number of Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina."

"There is a climate of intolerance in this diocese toward Episcopalians who do not agree with the expressed position of the majority of clergy and lay leaders who are members of the Anglican Communion Network," the letter said. "We fear that climate would be exacerbated by the administration of a bishop with the perspective of Mark Lawrence who declares that separation from The Episcopal Church is necessary."

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."

The fabric of the Episcopal Church has been frayed "by our misguided passion to be culturally sensitive and intellectually flexible," Lawrence wrote.

"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 wrote. "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.

The South Carolina group said it its letter, "We question whether a person who repudiates our national Church and is working to replace The Episcopal Church with another organized church structure should be considered qualified to be a bishop in this or any other diocese."

"Please give our concerns your prayerful attention as you consider your consent to this election."

In letters sent October 19 to bishops with jurisdiction and all the Episcopal Church's diocesan standing committees, Via Media USA argued that Lawrence's episcopacy "would represent a threat to the unity of our church and to the cohesion" of the diocese.

"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," said the letter, sent to the presidents and members of diocesan standing committees.

"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)."