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South Carolina Episcopalians
To the senior warden at St. Philip's, Charleston:
I recently read a letter attributed to you this summer on the pending re-integration of former Lawrence congregations into the Episcopal Church. It was a complicated letter that has sparked dialogue that might benefit from another perspective. I can't speak for anyone but myself, and offer the following not as rebuttal or counter-argument, but simply as observations on some of the matters you raised:
1. On winning and losing ...
“After six years of litigation, the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TEC and TECSC) seek to declare victory in the legal battle with the Diocese of South Carolina.”
The Episcopal Church has never viewed itself as being in a battle with you or your congregation. Bishop Lawrence has used unfortunate combat jargon, and even the word "war", to describe his relationship with the Church and those in this diocese who did not leave with him. However, I hope your congregation will remember that the leadership of the Church has never characterized either his actions or those of his followers in ways that might suggest we are enemies.
The outcome of your litigation is neither victory nor defeat for either side. It destroyed one of the most vibrant witnesses to the Gospel in the Episcopal Church and in eastern South Carolina, divided many parishes beyond repair, ran off thousands of faithful worshippers, and needlessly wasted millions of dollars in fees to law firms and public relations agencies.
We have all lost.
2. On future legal actions...
“All of the talk in the room (at Bishop Adams’ listening session) led listeners to the belief that the SC Supreme Court had given TEC and TECSC the victory and all that was left was the implementation of this decision by the Dorchester Circuit Court, which most assuredly would be happening soon. This is an incomplete assessment of the situation. No mention was made of the other lawsuits in both state and federal court which will likely take several more years to litigate. There was no mention of the many challenges that will arise as the Circuit Court attempts to implement the SC Supreme Court’s five deeply divided opinions, including some issues which may ultimately be appealed again to the high court.”
With respect, the case is over.
I and many others understand the pain and frustration those in your congregation feel. However, the state Supreme Court has ruled, and the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed that ruling to stand.
The reality now is that St. Philip’s is without question part of the Episcopal Church and always has been. There are no further appeals. The challenge for you and others at St. Philip's is whether you want to remain there as it moves forward in re-establishing an Episcopal ministry in the Anglican tradition.
Outstanding legal issues. There are only three outstanding legal matters to be addressed by the courts, and none of them is likely to take years.
The first is a false advertising case through which Bishop Adams is seeking an injunction to force Bishop Lawrence to stop portraying himself as a bishop of an Episcopal Diocese. The same idea would apply to his followers who are continuing with him to perpetuate that myth.
There is only one Diocese now, and it is called The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. There is no independent "Diocese of South Carolina" and, according to the courts, there never was one.
The false advertising case does not raise any issues about who owns parish property. In fact, it can easily be settled prior to its going to its scheduled trial next March, since the underlying issues have been mostly addressed by the state Supreme Court.
Contrary to Mark’s public assertions, Bishop Adams is not asking for financial penalties or other compensation for Bishop Lawrence's misconduct, even though the Federal law under which the lawsuit was brought allows for that.
The second case is a Betterments statute case which neither Bishop Lawrence nor the 29 returning congregations have legal standing to bring. Click here for an explanation of why this lawsuit is wasting everyone’s time and money (except the lawyers).
The state Supreme Court is done with the 2013 lawsuit. After its ruling was handed down last August, Lawrence and the 29 remaining parishes twice asked the high court to reconsider it after pointing out what they felt were inconsistencies and errors.
And twice, the high court refused.
The only action remaining for the courts in your lawsuit is the implementation of the ruling, and that has been handed off to the Chief Administrative Judge in the First Judicial Circuit. The judge does not have the authority to hold any further trials in the case. His work is administrative only.
Bishop Lawrence has made a big fuss about the different opinions of the five justices of the state Supreme Court in their decision last summer. Lawrence has many skills, but interpreting the legal system is not one of them.
Appellate courts regularly hand down rulings in which judges or justices issue divergent opinions... but what matters is how they vote. In the opinions in your case, the justices addressed key issues in different ways, but made clear there was a majority vote in agreement on each of the main points in the case.
The opinions of the justices will matter in the future, since the ruling now serves as a precedent in resolving similar disputes.
The extent of the disagreements among the justices arguably weaken value of the ruling as a precedent in that they give future justices less than a perfect blueprint to follow. However, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the ruling to stand probably enhances the likelihood that it will govern similar cases for a long time.
3. On the future of Lawrence clergy ...
"All members of our clergy, for whom we as a congregation searched far and wide to be our pastoral teachers and leaders, would be expelled. TEC has already sought this in legal filings, and admitted it last week at the “Open Conversation” in Bluffton. When asked if “reconciliation” applied to the clergy and if they could keep their jobs, the answer was that no clergy could remain in place, but in five years would be eligible for another call in the event that they complied with the Episcopal Church. Clergy families would be left homeless with no income source. Congregations would lose their pastoral teaching and Biblical preaching."
The time to have negotiated a settlement on your own terms was in 2015 when the various decision-makers in the Church were in agreement to give you and the other 35 plaintiff parishes what you were asking for. You could have owned your parish buildings, worshiped in the manner to which you felt called, and kept the clergy, lay teachers, and vestries you wanted.
Instead, your parish and the others rejected the offer and chose to roll the dice with the courts. Now, we all have to live with the consequences of that decision.
Your clergy are not being expelled and it is unfair to suggest that the Church is somehow responsible for their current challenges in transitioning to new situations.
In 2012, they chose to abandon their vows in the Episcopal Church. They were well aware of the risks they faced when they cast their lot with Lawrence.
The suggestion you seem to be putting forward in your letter is that they should be invited to lead a parish in a denomination whose authority they have rejected, whose fellowship they have abandoned, and whose theology they have publicly ridiculed.
I can't imagine how that could possibly work. Ordination vows are sacred. They involve not only a commitment to the wider Body of Christ, but to God himself. Even so, those breakaway clergy with a desire to be reconciled to the Episcopal Church have had a six-year-old standing invitation to discuss it with both Bishop Adams and his predecessor, Bishop von Rosenberg.
4. On the future of pro-Lawrence vestries
"Vestry members would also be out, replaced by new lay leaders, loyal to TEC, elected in a TEC-approved election. No consideration would be given to the fact that the current Vestries are the duly elected lay leaders of the congregation. The message is clear: TEC knows better than you who should lead your congregation. Again, this has already been requested in legal filings."
Your current vestry, along with the others since 2012, were not duly elected as they were chosen in a manner not authorized by the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church or The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
It is important to understand that wardens and vestries are not only the parish's elected leadership, but legally-accountable trustees of parish buildings and financial assets that are held in trust for the Church and its local diocese. This is a legal responsibility spelled out in secular law, and the failure of trustees to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the trust can sometimes rise to the level of criminal liability.
On the question of new vestry elections, it isn’t that “the Episcopal Church knows better.” It’s that laws governing the appointment or election of vestry members presume they cannot serve faithfully as trustees if they have views, history, or biases indicating hostility toward the best interests of the beneficiary of the trust (which is, in this case, the Episcopal Church and its local diocese). Obviously, if they are committed to setting a new course with the Church, they are welcome to be candidates for election in the future.
5. On Resolutions at General Conventions ...
"At past General Conventions, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has repeatedly voted down resolutions stating that Holy Scripture is the supreme authority of the church."
Rejected resolutions also include those addressing the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and countless others. This will continue to happen, but not for sinister reasons anti-Church tricksters often vaguely imply.
The General Convention is the Church’s governing body, and meets every three years to debate issues raised by its dioceses, and vote on resolutions relevant to its mission and governance.
General Conventions don’t debate matters of Church doctrine, as they have no authority to change it. Let me repeat that: General Conventions do not have authority to debate or change Church doctrine. Resolutions like the ones to which you refer would have been rejected as out of order for that reason, not because of the theological affirmations they may contain.
The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion and, as such, our core doctrines are those of the Communion. Any attempt to change those historic tenets would require a cumbersome, years-long process involving the 38 other provinces of the Communion and the Instruments of Anglican Unity – the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Consultative Council, the Lambeth Conference, and increasingly the Primates Meeting.
The best sources of Anglican theology are the Creeds, Book of Common Prayer, and the Bible. Our doctrine and practice are often summed up in the words of theologian Richard Hooker, who described them as a three-legged stool of Scripture, reason, and tradition.
6. On the Authority of Scripture...
"The Rev. Dr. Peter Moore, St. Michael’s Scholar in Residence, wrote recently, TEC has denied that the Scriptures should be the supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct and voted several times to reject that historic proposition.”
I don't know what Dr. Moore is trying to say, but I am sure heagrees that in Anglicanism, Scripture does not supplant the Risen Christ as Head of the Church. In Anglicanism, the living Word of God is not a book, nor is the Bible the fourth person of the Trinity.
According to one of our recent presiding bishops, “Because Christ is the Word of God, it is Christ who addresses us through the word of Holy Scripture. Indeed the Bible broadly conceived is a sacrament: it is alive and active, sharper than a two edged sword because Christ is alive and active and truly present in the scriptural word."
Influential Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan once wrote, “It is Jesus who contains all things necessary to salvation, who is the locus of God’s self-giving and self-revelation. God incarnate in a man, not a book.”
Since the compilation of the Bible, many in the Church have acted as if there was no need for any one to know anything about the God other than what is provided in Scripture. Lord knows, how Christians got along before that. I, for one, love Anglicanism because it recognizes that the living God speaks to us in many ways.
Anglican Collect. One of the oldest and most powerful Collects in the Book of Common Prayer sets forth the framework of the Anglican understanding of Scripture. It was written by no less than Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. I am sure you know it, but will restate here for your convenience.
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ…
It seems to me that in this Collect Cramner is responding directly to Dr. Moore:
a. First, he says that God causedthe Scriptures to be written. He doesn’t say that God dictated the words of Scripture to human secretaries. To the contrary, the Collect seems to acknowledge that the writing of the Bible was a human enterprise driven, we believe, by divine inspiration, early Christian tradition, and human experience.
The Collect does not say anything about Scriptures being the "authority" for all matters of faith and conduct. It is hard to imagine the authors of the Bible ever thought the words they wrote down would be considered those of God, or that those words, taken together, would be seen as a final "authority" or in any way superior to the Risen Christ.
Admittedly, there are many in the Communion who choose to share Dr. Moore's view on the role of Scripture. However, the mainstream Anglican tradition is that the cornerstones of our Faith and our Church are Hooker's scripture, reason, and tradition, inseparable and interwoven.
None of the three can be taken as "superior" to the others without changing the very nature of our Faith. It's a little like water being two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Theoretically, when one of those atoms is removed or somehow becomes disproportionate to the other two, they are no longer water.
b. Bishop Lawrence recent warned that love for the Church and its buildings could become idolatrous. Sometimes I wonder if the same caution could not be applied to passion for Scripture.
My question is: When our zeal for Scripture becomes the source of alienation from others, do we not become like pharisees whose strict devotion to the Law blinded them to the living presence of the God they claimed to serve?
Cranmer's Collect says the Scriptures were written for our learning. He does not describe them as a God dictionary, divine book of rules, or a vehicle for judging righteousness of others. He certainly does not say they must be the sole authority in all matters.
Personally, I like the understanding of the Bible as an Affirmation of Love, assuring us that God is always for us, and is present in our lives in that way every minute of every day.
I love that Cranmer sees the Scriptures' purpose as learning. He seems to be saying that we were intended to question what has been written and challenge each other over its meanings in ways that lead us forward in our spiritual journeys.
A number of years ago I met a New Testament scholar from another denomination who is known for his unconventional understandings of Scripture. I asked him if he believed the Bible to be the inerent words of God.
"I hope so," he said.
"If that is true, then all the time and energy we have expended studying the Bible, arguing about its meaning, participating in study groups, listening to sermons, and wrestling with its subtleties was intended by God from the beginning."
"That could be the only explanation for two creation narratives, two sets of Ten Commandments, and four Gospels, each telling the same story in very different ways. It would mean that God wrote the Scriptures, not to give us certainty, but to challenge us to vigorously engage them to the point of inwardly digesting their essence in ways that lead us deeper into our common Faith and hope for reconciliation with our Creator."
7. On the Mission of the Church
"Let us remember that the mission of the church is the saving of souls. In combating the disease of sin, we risk the loss of a soul. We save our own souls and the souls of others by faithfully believing and generously sharing the unchanging truth of God’s word and the richness of God’s love."
Over the past few years, the Lawrence parishes have embraced a new enthusiasm for this centuries-old view of the Church's mission. You seem to have quoted a big piece of it above.
While the mission of soul-saving is certainly alive in our tradition, many Christians see as audacious the claim that God intended for us mortals to be the arbiters of salvation, deciding who is and who is not saved. It seems an arrogant usurpation of something we believe to be the province of God, and God alone.
Most in the Episcopal Church believe God has continued to reveal himself in Creation post-16th century, and see the mission of the Church as transforming the world by proclaiming the Gospel and doing the work given to us by Jesus Christ.
The Episcopal Church today is about resurrection and grace. We believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, unconditionally. This is surely what St. Paul meant when he argued that just as in Adam all died, in Christ, all are made alive.
The question then is not whether a person is saved but, "Now that you are saved, what difference does it make?"
8. On a new Book of Common Prayer
"TEC is moving forward in the process of creating a new Book of Common Prayer and will “memorialize” the 1979 BCP. TEC has authorized clergy to experiment with creating new liturgies and language for their congregations."
The General Convention of the Episcopal Church this summer did not vote to move forward with a proposed revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It did say that at some future date it will deal with the issues raised by those who feel its language is outdated, but they also agreed that the theology and structure of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer will remain at the heart of whatever changes might come about.
Revisions to the Book of Common Prayer happen every two or three generations, though its theological foundations have remained consistent with the theology of the Church of England. The Anglican Church of North America is currently planning to unveil its new Book of Common Prayer next year. Its leadership recently authorized its members to experiment with some of the innovations they have proposed.
9. On the authority of bishops
"TEC has undermined the historic authority of the relationship between a bishop and his flock."
I am not sure where this comes from unless you mean the decision of the General Convention to allow local parishes and their rectors to make decisions about whether and how they use marriage rites for same gender couples.
For the past three years, the decision about using them was exclusively in the hands of the diocesan bishops. However, in the Episcopal Church, the decision on which Church-approved rites are used in a parish traditionally lie within the authority of the rector and vestry.
The thinking of the recent General Convention to treat the rite for same-gender marriage the same way as all other approved rites was all about consistency and tradition. There was also a desire that same-gender couples not have to leave their home parishes to get married, and that alternate oversight by a bishop with objection to these rites would be permitted.
I doubt the bishops were feeling that their authority was being threatened since a majority of them voted to approve this plan.
10. On your public stance
Most importantly, by simply “reconciling” under TEC’s terms, we would be stating that our public stand for the unchanging nature of God’s word was not a serious theological stance. Recently, a state legislative leader told me that our fight for the inerrancy of God’s word was the most courageous thing he had witnessed in his lifetime. The world watches what we do. Our children watch as well. What legacy of faith will we leave them?
You and members of your congregation have a lot of decisions to make. I'd suggest least among them have to do with your public image.
With respect, the Christian Bible in its various forms has been around for nearly 1900 years and continues to be the single most influential book in the world. I doubt your failure to be seen by politicians as defending it with courage and seriousness will cause the whole thing to come unraveled. It needs no defense.
Anglicanism is full of people whose experiences of God in Christ are wide and diverse, not unlike in the early Church. The Anglican Communion in our present time embraces this diversity and rejects the notion of a my-way-or-the-highway religion. For Anglicans, Christianity is not an 'either or' proposition... but 'both and'.
The very first report we have on the Jesus movement is in the Book of Acts, and recounts a bitter dispute between the Paul and the Jerusalem disciples over - what else - who can belong. Christianity could have died right there. Everyone seems to have dug in his heels, and the author does not say that everyone left happy and of a single mind.
However, as we read further, we find remarkable stories of a robust and unified proclamation of the Gospel of Christ by those very same players who were fiercely at odds in that first story.
I wonder if that same example could work in our present circumstance.
While I doubt the world is watching very much what any of us do, I agree our children probably are paying attention. The question is will they see parents whose fear and disdain of other Christians drives them away from the Body of Christ, or whose Faith leads them ever more deeply into its fellowship.