What Are ECUSA’s Choices in South Carolina?
In this post (the third of a series [see here and here for the earlier ones] examining all parties’ options with regard to the Diocese of South Carolina), I will evaluate the options from the point of view of ECUSA—or rather, the point of view of the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor, because they, and they alone, will determine what ECUSA decides to do. (And that fact pretty much sums up all you need to know about ECUSA these days.)
The choices available to them will depend on whether (a) the Diocese of South Carolina votes to leave the Church or not; (b) whether Bishop Lawrence tenders his resignation or not; and/or (c) whether a combination of those events occurs.
If the Diocese decides to hold a vote on whether or not to pull out of the Church, it will also need to tell those voting where the Diocese would go, if the choice is to leave. The obvious choice is ACNA, but that move would take some coordination with Archbishop Duncan, because of the sheer size of the Diocese and the episcopal slot to be filled by Bishop Lawrence. (Recall that the rector of what was formerly Bishop Lawrence’s largest parish has just been elected to serve as Bishop of ACNA’s Diocese of the Carolinas, whose territory overlaps with that of the Diocese of South Carolina.)
The Diocese could consider joining up with another Anglican province, but Bishop Lawrence is known to be disturbed already by the multiple and overlapping ecclesiastical jurisdictions in the area of his Diocese, and such a move would just exacerbate that situation, for no good reason.
If the Diocese does decide to leave ECUSA, therefore, it will face some complicated choices, and will need to conduct substantial negotiations. But from the Presiding Bishop’s point of view, such a decision will make things very simple, and her path will be clear.
Following a now well-tested strategy, she will (1) try to have the Diocese’s bank and investment accounts immediately frozen; (2) declare the see of South Carolina vacant, because of Bishop Lawrence’s voluntary “abandonment” of communion with ECUSA; (3) “derecognize” the diocesan Standing Committee and arrange to have a new one appointed from among members of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina and other dissident clergy; (4) call a “Special Convention” to elect a “provisional bishop” of the Diocese; and (5) see that the convention passes a resolution authorizing the bishop so designated to file a lawsuit in a South Carolina court to recover all of the real and personal property of the Diocese.
The lawsuit may have little chances of ultimate success, given the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in the All Saints Waccamaw case, but that would be of no consequence to the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor. The point would be to make the choice to withdraw as expensive as possible for Bishop Lawrence and his diocese. And if the ongoing litigation in San Joaquin and Fort Worth is any guide, there will be individual lawsuits brought against individual parishes, as well, in an effort to multiply the costs.
The ensuing legal tangle will drain millions of dollars from both ECUSA and the Diocese of South Carolina and its parishes, and matters of property and ownership will remain tied up in the State courts for five to ten years. But again, that will be point—from 815’s perspective (because it has the larger purse on which to draw).
So much is very predictable, given ECUSA’s track record to date. What is not so easy to predict is what ECUSA could do if the Diocese of South Carolina does not vote to withdraw from the Church.
As discussed in my two earlier posts in this series, such a choice would block the filing of any lawsuits by ECUSA, because the Diocese would not have gone anywhere. (That being said, the dissidents could still try to sue along the lines of Calvary Church’s lawsuit against then-Bishop Duncan, but once again, the courts of South Carolina will not make it as easy as did the Pennsylvania courts for any such lawsuit to succeed.)
Instead of suing in the civil courts, the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor would be tempted to try to vacate the see of South Carolina by bringing disciplinary proceedings against Bishop Lawrence. However, that path is fraught with constitutional and canonical entanglements, because the Diocese of South Carolina has refused to recognize the validity of the very canons under which ECUSA would purport to act.
The most that the Presiding Bishop and her Chancellor could hope to accomplish by “deposing” Bishop Lawrence under canons whose validity he does not recognize is to create the same kind of chaos which would ensue if the Diocese voted to leave the Church—but with one very big difference: the Diocese would not have left.
Even if the Presiding Bishop were able to get a purported “majority” of the House of Bishops to vote to remove Bishop Lawrence, therefore, the diocesan Standing Committee would still function as the Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese. It would not have voted to leave, so Bishop Jefferts Schori would have no grounds upon which to “derecognize” its members. And as the Ecclesiastical Authority, it would remain in complete control of the calling of any convention of the Diocese, as well as in full charge of all diocesan bank accounts and assets.
So what would the Presiding Bishop gain by the artificial deposition of Bishop Lawrence? Answer: exactly nothing, other than his no longer attending meetings of the House of Bishops (which he does not particularly relish attending in any event). The validity of the deposition would not be recognized in many other dioceses of ECUSA, nor in many provinces of the Anglican Communion, and Bishop Lawrence could continue to officiate as a bishop—on the grounds that his Diocese does not recognize the validity of his deposition, or of the canons deployed to try to remove him.
The Presiding Bishop, in short, will have served mainly to widen the chasms that already engulf her Church. At the same time, her impotence against the Diocese will prove only the point that she least wishes to make: that dioceses are where the power in the Church resides, and that neither she alone—nor the House of Bishops together—can force any diocese to do a single blessed thing.
I know that people will ask about how the Diocese could elect another bishop of its choosing, so I will add a few words on that topic. The first point to make is that unless Bishop Lawrence wants to step down, he would not have to. The civil courts would never entertain a lawsuit to remove him (see the Serbian Eastern Orthodox and Kedroff cases), and 815 would be powerless to bring local disciplinary proceedings within the Diocese itself. So Bishop Lawrence could stay right on doing what he has been doing. The Diocese could consider bringing in a retired bishop to assist with further ordinations, if future clergy wished to eliminate any questions of validity in their own careers.
If Bishop Lawrence does choose to retire, there is no reason why the Diocese could not proceed to elect a successor of its choosing exactly as it did before. If the majority of ECUSA’s standing committees and diocesans refuse to give their consent, then the Diocese can elect that candidate again, and force the issue (as it did with Bishop Lawrence). If an impasse still results, the Diocese can always invite in a bishop to exercise episcopal offices for as long as necessary, pursuant to Canon III.13.2.
The point is for the Diocese not to shirk from exercising its powers. So long as it remains in ECUSA, those powers are considerable, and render it virtually untouchable by 815. There is no need to rush into a decision which will just trigger a passel of lawsuits.
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