The Diocese of South Carolina has been pushed out of the Episcopal Church of the USA. The involuntary secession of the 29,000-member diocese comes as charges have been brought against its bishop, the Rt Rev Mark Lawrence for “abandoning” the communion of the Episcopal Church.
On 17 October 2012 a statement printed on the Diocese’s Website said that two days earlier Bishop Lawrence had been notified by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that on 18 September 2012 “the Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified his abandonment of The Episcopal Church.”
Two retired priests and 14 lay members of the diocese, who are also members of the pro-national church pressure group the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, brought three charges against Bishop Lawrence. The Disciplinary Board of Bishops found that Bishop Lawrence had failed to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church.”
The bishop was accused of not ruling out of order a motion presented to the 2011 diocesan convention to amend the diocesan constitution; not dissenting from their adoption by the convention; and advocating their passage in his pastoral address to the convention.
Rather than bring Bishop Lawrence to trial and allow him to present a defence or legal challenge to the complaint, the board used a Nineteenth century canon designed to remove clergy from the ministry without trial after they had joined the Catholic Church. However, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has used the abandonment canon to discipline bishops who do not share her interpretation of the church’s doctrine and discipline — abandoning the communion of the church now meant being in disagreement with the presiding bishop.
Canon law expert Allan Haley notes the first two charges brought against the bishop raises the issue of double jeopardy as they were heard by the disciplinary board in 2011 and rejected. Mr. Halley added the third charge “shows how the Board has erased the distinction between the individual acts of a Bishop and the corporate acts of a Diocese. The real complaint is with what the Diocese did, and not with someone who spoke in favor of the resolutions.”
The diocese reported that Bishop Lawrence had been in talks with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori after the Disciplinary Board had returned its verdict of guilty on 18 September to “find a peaceful alternative to the growing issues between The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina.”
The diocesan statement noted: “We feel a deep sense of sadness but a renewed sense of God’s providence that The Episcopal Church has chosen to act against this Diocese and its Bishop during a good faith attempt peacefully to resolve our differences. These actions make it clear The Episcopal Church no longer desires to be affiliated with the Diocese of South Carolina.”
South Carolina’s diocesan constitution and canons do not recognize the authority of the disciplinary canons inaugurated by the national Church in 2009. The diocese had adopted a “poison pill” defence against the contingency of a theologically motivated attack by liberal clique currently controlling the Church’s offices in New York.
The diocese is also protected by South Carolina law. The state’s Supreme Court has struck down the national Church’s property rules, the “Dennis Canon”, holding they have no legal effect in the state. While the national Church has set aside a $3million war chest to fund litigation, canon law experts tell The Church of England Newspaper it is unlikely to prevail in a fight to seize church property.
The diocese noted “this action by The Episcopal Church triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the Diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the Diocese from The Episcopal Church.”
On 19 Oct 2012 Bishop Lawrence met with his clergy in private session to discuss the charges brought by New York. A spokesman for the diocese told CEN a statement would be released shortly on the meeting, while Bishop Lawrence declined immediate comment.
A special convention has been called for 17 November 2012 in Charleston.