What Could ECUSA Try Next with Bishop Lawrence?
When one reads the strong, clear pastoral letter which Bishop Lawrence sent to all of his South Carolina parishes earlier today, one has to wonder at the past attempts to hinder his ministry, or to block it altogether. First, after the Diocese in September 2006 chose him overwhelmingly to be their Bishop on the very first ballot, the carping and the cutting from the revisionists began almost at once.
Sure enough, the Presiding Bishop later declared that his election had not been properly ratified, and voided it. (Nearly all of the Dioceses whose Standing Committees refused to approve his election had voted through their deputations at GC 2003 to approve the election of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.) Whereupon the Diocese of South Carolina elected him a second time. After the DSC deployed a masterful new strategy to persuade doubters, the rest of the Church finally confirmed Bishop Lawrence’s election, and in January 2008 he was consecrated as the 14th Bishop of South Carolina in a ceremony in which former Bishop Alden Hathaway gave an unforgettable sermon. The Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, did not take part in the laying on of hands, even though canonically she is the “chief consecrator”; reportedly she had a “scheduling conflict.”
A little over a month after his consecration, however, Bishop Jefferts Schori dropped in on his Diocese for a two-day visit, which received very mixed reports. Bishop Lawrence’s introduction to ECUSA’s House of Bishops came shortly afterward, when he witnessed the Presiding Bishop push through the illegal depositions of Bishops Cox and Schofield (who had been Mark Lawrence’s bishop when he was at St. Paul’s in Bakersfield before his election). Despite being the newest Bishop in the House, he had no qualms writing Bishop Jefferts Schori (along with his Standing Committee) shortly afterward to protest the illegality of the votes.
That fall, Bishop Lawrence was present again as the Presiding Bishop led the House of Bishops in illegally deposing Bishop Duncan of Pittsburgh—this time, she overruled his and other Bishops’ objections made from the floor, and he had the temerity to write to his Diocese about the problems with the vote afterward.
It is a measure of the annoyance which Mark Lawrence and other Bishops caused over the illegal depositions of Bishops Cox, Schofield and Duncan that the Presiding Bishop has not brought another resolution to depose a sitting bishop before the House since the vote to depose Bishop Duncan in September 2008. Instead, she resorted to trickery, by claiming that verbal statements made by Bishop Jack L. Iker of Fort Worth, or letters written by other bishops which expressly disavowed any intent to renounce their holy orders, were actually under the Canons their “voluntarily renunciations” of ministry in the Episcopal Church (USA). That maneuver allowed her to certify that they were each deposed without having to trouble the House of Bishops about the matter.
In September 2009, the South Carolina Supreme Court handed down its decision against the Dennis Canon, and invalidated its attempt to create trusts in church property unilaterally. Now Bishop Lawrence drew her ire for not doing anything: he declined to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, expressing his view that the case had wasted enough of the Diocese’s time and resources over the past eight years. At the same time, his largest parish, St. Andrew’s in Mt. Pleasant, withdrew from the Diocese, and he did not take any steps in court to prevent that, either. (They would have been useless, in light of the State Supreme Court’s ruling, but giving in graciously to court decisions did not fit in with the Presiding Bishop’s scorched-earth strategy.)
By 2010, Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese loomed very large on the Presiding Bishop’s radar screen—especially since by then she had managed to rid ECUSA of many of its more senior orthodox bishops. In February of that year, Bishop Lawrence’s chancellor received a letter from a South Carolina law firm which the Presiding Bishop had her Chancellor engage to conduct a fishing expedition to develop evidence with which to present him (under the former provisions of Title IV of ECUSA’s Canons) to the Trial Court for Bishops in proceedings that could lead to his deposition. Bishop Lawrence mustered his supporters, and responded to the Presiding Bishop respectfully, but forcefully: he let her know that she had no business hiring attorneys and poking around in his own Diocese. Once again, after the kerfuffle died down, she backed off.
In 2011, the Presiding Bishop allowed local dissenters in the Diocese of South Carolina to carry the water for her. They had been encouraged to write the Executive Council about their concerns over the Resolutions which the Diocese had enacted at a Special Convention, called to counter the attempts at undermining its authority by the Presiding Bishop. The Council obligingly referred them to a Resolution it had passed in June 2007 declaring that all attempts by dioceses to disavow their allegiance to the national Church were “null and void.” At their direction, Council Secretary the Rev. Canon Straub wrote to inform them that it was the Council’s opinion that their Resolution would encompass any actions taken by the Diocese of South Carolina. When the dissident South Carolinians sent Bishop Lawrence a copy of Canon Straub’s letter, he replied that the Council, in effect, was all wet.
But by now, the new version of the disciplinary Canons (Title IV) had gone into effect. Among other unconstitutional features, they granted to the Presiding Bishop unprecedented supervisory and pastoral powers over all other Episcopal bishops, and in effect transformed her into a metropolitan over the Episcopal Church (USA). One of the Resolutions the Diocese of South Carolina had passed at its Special Convention had declared that the Diocese did not recognize the validity of the new Title IV, and would continue to handle disciplinary matters under the previous version. Once again, Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese had placed themselves in the forefront of standing for the historic polity of the Church, but in doing so, they necessarily stood athwart the Presiding Bishop’s grand agenda. So she swung once more into action—not directly, of course, but letting the dissident South Carolinians again be her tools.
The story of the childish charges they brought to the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, as its first major case under the new Canons, and the Board’s mishandling of both the charges and the ensuing publicity, need not be retold here. Suffice it to say that the Presiding Bishop and her new Canons lost considerable face with those who could tell a kangaroo court when they saw one. And to rub salt in her wounds, as it were, the dissident Episcopalians in South Carolina let her know that Bishop Lawrence had quietly handed over deeds to every parish in the Diocese—which effectively disclaimed any and all trust interests in their properties on the part of the Diocese or the Church, in light of the invalidity of the Dennis Canon in South Carolina.
And now we are almost one year later. The 77th General Convention finished its business, but once again, not without crossing Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese’s deputation once too often with its steady pushing forward of the gay and lesbian activists’ pan-sexual program. Most of the deputation went home early before the Convention adjourned, as did Bishop Lawrence. And today, we have his pastoral letter.
Where things will go from here is as much up to the leadership of ECUSA as it is to the Diocese of South Carolina. Resolution A049 enacted by General Convention on proposing a rite for individual bishops to use in their own diocese to bless same-sex civil unions contains the following paragraph (my bold emphasis):
Resolved, That this convention honor the theological diversity of this church in regard to matters of human sexuality, and that no bishop, priest, deacon or lay person should be coerced or penalized in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disabilities, as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support for the 77th General Convention’s action with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships;
Bishop Lawrence has made known to the House of Bishops, and is making known today in writing to his entire Diocese, his conscientious objection to the action of GC77 “with regard to the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships.” If the powers that be at 815 Second Avenue honor the language just quoted above, there should not be any attempts to discipline or sanction Bishop Lawrence for that objection.
Nevertheless, A049 is just a Resolution of General Convention, and so expresses its mind only at the time of passage. As such, it has no canonical force, and instead serves to estop those Bishops (including the Presiding Bishop!) who voted in favor of its passage from now acting contrary to their vote.
In related matters, it should now be noted that all of the ten Bishops currently serving, or just elected to serve, on the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, together with the Presiding Bishop, will be disqualified from participating in connection with either the pending charges against nine other Bishops filed on the eve of General Convention, or any charges that someone not estopped by having voted for A049 might try to file now. The reason is that the entire House of Bishops, including the Presiding Bishop, took part in discussing those charges, as well as engaging in a separate private conversation with Bishop Lawrence on his point of personal privilege, as mentioned in the last paragraph of his pastoral letter.
Canon IV.19.14 requires that any person on any disciplinary panel convened under the new Title IV “shall disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which his or her impartiality may reasonably be questioned ... [or] when ... the member has personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts concerning the proceeding ...”. This language should be enough to disqualify any episcopal members of the Disciplinary Board who sat in on the private sessions of the House of Bishops on these matters.
Finally, there is potential for a constitutional crisis of major proportions should anyone in the Church even try to proceed under the new Title IV with respect to anything that the Diocese of South Carolina or any of its clergy may do. The reason for that statement is simple: the Diocese of South Carolina has not adopted, and will not adopt, the new Title IV because it regards those Canons as beyond the powers of General Convention to enact and remain consistent with ECUSA’s Constitution. (Nor will it recognize the validity of the Convention’s amendments to the Canons dealing with access to ordination and to all lay positions for transgendered persons.) As noted many times before on this blog, the Canons of General Convention are without any binding force on any Diocese that refuses, on constitutional grounds, to recognize their validity.
And short of a Constitutional amendment to make General Convention the supreme legislative and judicial authority in the Episcopal Church (USA), there is nothing that anyone in ECUSA can do about the right of Dioceses to judge for themselves the validity of acts of General Convention. It is the same situation we had in the United States when it was under the Articles of Confederation; Congress had no power to impose any of its laws on an individual State against its will—because there was no Supremacy Clause in the Articles.
Indeed, it was by reason of their experiences with the stalemates thus generated between Congress and the several States that the Founders included a Supremacy Clause in the new Constitution drafted in 1787, and finally ratified in 1789. And tellingly, some of those same Founders chose not to include a Supremacy Clause for General Convention when they participated in 1789 in drafting ECUSA’s Constitution, also adopted by the several Dioceses in that same year.
Finally, to clinch this point, historians of Church polity should note that General Convention did propose adding a “Supremacy Clause” to the ECUSA Constitution in 1895, but that proposal was shot down in flames at the General Convention of 1898—after the individual Dioceses had had a chance to review what General Convention proposed to do. (Back then, deputies sent to General Convention still represented their own Dioceses, and voted as the diocesan conventions instructed them to do. A good part of the reason that General Convention and the staff of 815, as well as all of the Church’s multifarious Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards, are so disconnected from the pewsters back home is precisely that they no longer feel any responsibility but to vote and to act as they perceive the “Holy Spirit” guides them.)
If a collision is coming, it will have to be one that the national leadership has actively sought by its actions to date, and that it will seek by its actions to come. Will that leadership be wise enough to pull back before it commits itself to still more? We shall have to bide our time, and see.
In the meantime, please pray for the Diocese of South Carolina, and please pray for the leadership of our Church to see and to do the right thing. In this regard, what could be more appropriate than today’s appointed collect?
O LORD, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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