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SOUTH CAROLINA: Bishop-elect responds to questions about his stand on the Church's future

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
12/10/2006

The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina  

 
[Episcopal News Service]  The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop-elect of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, has written a letter addressed to bishops and standing committees, responding to concerns about his suitability to become a bishop given his stance on the future of the Episcopal Church.

The letter, Lawrence told ENS December 8, is a response to the numerous inquiries he has received.

The letter was posted December 4 on the Thinking Anglicans website.

The Rev. Carlson Gerdau, canon to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, noted that such inquiries and responses are not entirely unusual in the consent process.

Lawrence writes in the letter dated November 6 that "neither the Standing Committee of South Carolina nor I have made plans to leave the Episcopal Church."
 
"I shall commit myself to work at least as hard at keeping the Diocese of South Carolina in the Episcopal Church, as my sister and brother bishops work at keeping The Episcopal Church in covenanted relationship with the worldwide Anglican Communion."

Lawrence told ENS that "the whole point of that statement is quite clear, I think."

"If you have to explain a statement like that, it's like explaining a joke or a parable," he said.

Asked who will judge how hard the parties are working, Lawrence said: "We are all being evaluated and judged by someone in this whole matter. The Episcopal Church is being evaluated by the Primates. The Primates are being evaluated by the Episcopal Church and its positions. Everyone is in a place of having to respond to one another. That's what it means to be in communion. The communion flows both ways. That statement that I made is clearly a statement about communion. And so if I have to explain it, then there's a breakdown in facing that communion flows both ways."

"When one uses those turns of a phrase, which of course have deep biblical roots in them, they imply that there is mutual accountability," he added. "When Jesus uses those kinds of statements, when prophetic writers use those kinds of statements, when St. Augustine of Hippo makes those kinds of statement, there is a mutuality involved and the writer is bringing that to the forefront. And so, yes, I understand it's subject to misinterpretation but it's the most direct to bring about, I think, a reminder of mutual accountability."

Lawrence noted in the letter that "we in the Episcopal Church are in a grievous state."

"This demand for promises to Constitution and Canons when many of the great teachings of the faith are up for grabs strikes me at times like a theatre of the absurd," he said. "We decline each year in numbers and in our significance to American culture, while growing yearly more out of step with the vast majority of Anglicans across the world."

"When some like me make provocative statements to draw attention to the culture of denial that dims with regularity our too frequently myopic provincial eyesight, I am seen by some as unworthy for the episcopate and as a threat to our common unity."

"When I have spoken or written critically of [the Episcopal Church] it has not been from a posture of having rejected her, but from one of commitment, even investment of my life and my family's life in the Church's common call to serve our Lord," he writes.

In answer to one of the eight questions Lawrence addresses in the letter, he writes that the presence of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori at his consecration would be "a most unwelcome situation for the vast majority of priests and laypersons of the Diocese of South Carolina."

"I am sure you know how disruptive this would be for my ministry, the office of the bishop, and for the diocese," he writes.

Lawrence, 56, the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Parish, in Bakersfield, California, in the Diocese of San Joaquin, was elected September 16 and is scheduled to become the 14th bishop of the diocese on February 24.

Before that can happen, however, the canons of the Episcopal Church (III.11.4(a)) require that a majority of the bishops exercising jurisdiction and diocesan Standing Committees consent to Lawrence's ordination as bishop within 120 days of receiving notice of the election. That notice apparently went out November 9.

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 churches in Europe, which 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.

In the weeks following Lawrence's election, questions arose about his intentions concerning the diocese's membership in the Episcopal Church. Two affiliated groups issued statements of advice to the bishops and standing committees, and other individuals expressed concern either privately to Lawrence and the diocese or through postings on Internet commentary sites.

Some of those groups and people cited some of Lawrence's published statements. They include his 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.

"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.

Some people have also cited a Reader's Viewpoint column in the June 11 issue of the Living Church (which is not available through the magazine's website), in which Lawrence called the Episcopal Church "a comatose patient on life support" and wrote that it needs to "surrender" its autonomy as a "lifesaving action."

He wrote that the primates of the Anglican Communion "alone have a sufficiently representative authority to set theological boundaries and perimeters for the individual provinces until the Communion can do the necessary constitutional work to realize the intercultural, inter-provincial unity we have claimed for ourselves over the past two centuries."

Predicting that the use of such authority "will cause distress," Lawrence wrote that
Episcopal Church polity "will be supplanted by a new, emerging form of Anglican governance sufficient for the age of globalism."

"The American church's constitution and canons evolved in isolation, in an environment of strident nationalism. Its ethos is as much, if not more, the ethos of democracy rather than Anglicanism," he wrote. "It promotes the wrangling of political machinations and debates, not the seeking of theological consensus. I believe it no longer serves us well. Our very survival, let alone our growth, necessitates the surrender of our autonomy to the governance of the larger church -- that is, the Anglican Communion."

Lawrence's response to the search committee's initial questions for all nominees is available here.

The first group to question Lawrence's stance was Via Media-USA, which said on October 19 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" and urged both groups to withhold their consent.

"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," a Via Media statement said. "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)."

Lawrence characterized some of Via Media-USA's documents as containing "all sorts of innuendos, misquotations, misunderstandings."

Later that month, the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a Via Media-USA affiliate, stopped short of asking that bishops and standing committees not consent to Lawrence's ordination, but asked the two groups to seriously consider Lawrence's past statements, including answers to questions posed to nominees in the search process.

The South Carolina group said in 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."

Lawrence said December 8 that he can maintain relationships with the members of the Episcopal Forum.

"I don't count anyone an outsider unless they make themselves an outsider," he said.

The Diocese of South Carolina consists of about 29,630 Episcopalians worshipping in 75 congregations.