SOUTH CAROLINA: Special convention distances diocese from Episcopal Church

October 23, 2009

A majority of delegates attending a special convention of the Charleston-based Diocese of South Carolina voted Oct. 24 to distance themselves from the Episcopal Church and to seek "missional relationships with orthodox congregations isolated across North America."

About 300 Episcopalians gathered at Christ Church in Mt. Pleasant, a suburb of Charleston, approved four of five measures that, among other things, declared General Convention Resolutions D025 and C056 "as null and void."

The two resolutions focused on human sexuality and reaffirmed the Episcopal Church's commitment to the Anglican Communion. Resolution D025 affirms "that God has called and may call" gay and lesbian people "to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church." Resolution C056 calls for the collection and development of theological resources for the blessing of same-gender blessings and allows bishops to provide "a generous pastoral response to meet the needs of members of this church."

Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina told delegates that the special convention was a protest against "false teaching, that I have called the Gospel of Indiscriminate Inclusivity [that] has challenged the doctrine of the Trinity, the Uniqueness and Universality of Christ, the Authority of Scripture, our understanding of Baptism, and now, that last refuge of order, our Constitution & Canons." The full text of Lawrence's speech may be read on the diocesan website.

The special convention was restricted to congregational delegations. Visitors and representatives from news organizations were barred from attending.
The full text of South Carolina's five resolutions may be read here.

According to the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the diocese, 86.7 percent of those voting approved the first resolution, which reaffirmed diocesan commitment "to upholding and propagating the historic Faith and order" of the church "as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Creeds, the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and the theology of the historic prayer books." It omitted mention of the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church.

In a vote by orders, clergy approved 87-17 with one abstention a second resolution authorizing the bishop and standing committee to "begin withdrawing" from all bodies of the Episcopal Church "assenting to actions deemed contrary to Holy Scripture, the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them, the resolutions of the Lambeth Conference which have expressed the mind of the Communion, the Book of Common Prayer and our Constitution and Canons, until such bodies show a willingness to repent of such actions."

In the lay order, votes were tallied according to delegations of parishes and missions, Harmon said. Parishes voted 39 to 8 in favor of the resolution; 13 out of 16 mission delegations approved it. Two missions had divided delegations and one abstained altogether from the vote.

Harmon has characterized this resolution as "a withdrawal from some of the national councils of the church. It's about as far as you can get but still be in."

Comparing the situation to a wife in a troubled marriage moving to a room down the hall, Harmon said, "It's intended to save the marriage and she is still in the marriage and she is still in the house. You're trying to do something that is inherently contradictory in order to be heard."

But Steve Skardon Jr., who is a member of Grace Church in Charleston and editor of the South Carolina Episcopalians website, which "is intended to provide encouragement to those in South Carolina who find meaning and purpose in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as expressed in the work of The Episcopal Church," said Saturday's vote reflected a growing discomfort with the direction of the diocese and Lawrence's position.

"Today, we got more votes than we have ever gotten, from lay or clergy," Skardon said in a telephone interview.

"Many people clearly were uncomfortable with a lot of the language that was used. The vote was 4 to 1 in favor of the bishop's position, but to say we've got close to 20 percent opposing it is a good thing. Despite the politics that have taken over in a lot of these churches, we still have traditional Episcopalians in them, but their voices and votes don't count."

He also noted that Lawrence "went out of his way several times to say repeatedly that he saw the convention as a protest against General Convention and not about leaving the Episcopal Church." He estimated that, another one-fourth of South Carolina Episcopalians are undecided about choosing sides.

"There's a wait-and-see attitude right now," he added. "There's a lot of uncertainty about where the bishop is taking us. I am feeling encouraged in making it clear that there is a very real, loyal group of churches and individuals in this diocese who support the Episcopal Church and that's going to increasingly be a problem for the bishop. The diocese is not united on this thing, it's very fractured."

Harmon agreed that the diocese was struggling and said there was a compassionate attempt during the convention to take the dissent seriously. "The hard part is that nobody's trying to do exactly what we're trying to do," he said. "This is best seen as a radical statement of loving protest. It's clear that the existing mechanisms are not working.

"But," he added, "the other thing is that we're going to engage in mission and with the rest of the communion. The mission of the church goes on and our energies will go to those places." He said that South Carolina is one of the few dioceses experiencing growth, citing a 23.1 percent increase from 1997 to 2007.

Delegates approved a fourth resolution endorsing the Ridley draft of the proposed Anglican Covenant as it presently stands, in all four sections, "as an expression of our full commitment to mutual submission and accountability in communion, grounded in a common faith."

The Episcopal Church's Executive Council said at its October 8 meeting that the majority of the General Convention deputations and individual deputies who expressed an opinion do not support the disciplinary process outlined in the latest draft of a proposed Anglican Covenant (see related story).

South Carolina delegates voted 182-117 to table the fifth and final resolution, which stated "that this Diocese will not condone prejudice or deny the dignity of any person, including but not limited to, those who believe themselves to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered.

"Nevertheless, we will speak the truth in love as Holy Scripture commends for the amendment of life required of disciples of Christ," according to the resolution.

In an August 13 address to the clergy, Lawrence said the diocese is engaged in a doctrinal "war," and encouraged listeners to "wake up and choose sides."

Lawrence opposed the 2003 consecration of the Bishop Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire, an openly gay man. In 2006, the diocese rejected the authority of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

He has said he is not considering breaking away from the Episcopal Church, at least not for the present, but hopes rather to "awaken" the 30,000 members of his diocese to the challenges he perceives and then to similarly engage the larger church.

The Diocese of South Carolina formally organized as a diocese in 1785 and currently includes about 30,000 Episcopalians in the lower and eastern part of the state.