Editor's note: Before we toss out 18 months'' of marked-up files, crumpled post-it notes, electronic messages, and videos, SC Episcopalians thought it might be useful to look back at the dynamics that propelled Ms. Woodliff-Stanley's election, as well as some of the expectations and hopes of fellow Episcopalians as she prepares to begin her work. COVID has limited our ability to more broadly research these topics, but we are confident this essay does touch on many of the important themes that have brought us to this point.
August 5, 2021
The Woodliff-Stanley Era Begins
After nearly two decades of frustration, betrayal, and transformation, the people of the Diocese of South Carolina are all-in with their new bishop
Ruth Woodliff-Stanley is likely to be one of the most consequential bishops in the history of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The unlikely election of Ruth Woodliff-Stanley as the new leader of the Diocese of South Carolina was a surprise, even to her. She was as unknown to the people she was to serve as much as they were to her. And that was just fine with the delegates to the special convention on May 1st when she was elected.
To them, an experienced, yet non-traditional, candidate from off was exactly the right choice to set a new course for a future firmly planted in the Episcopal Church and worldwide Anglicanism.
Now, three months after the election, there is no sign of buyer's remorse.
However, there is also very little known for sure about what a reconstituted historic Diocese of South Carolina will look like after the consecration of Ms. Woodliff-Stanley on October 2nd.
The Bishop-Elect herself has given few clues as to how she'll proceed, but from the get-go she appears to have few illusion that nearly every element of Diocesan infrastructure and programming is in need of review, revision, or reinvention. The traditional dynamics that have held the Diocese together, and defined it for 227 years, have disintegrated. The rightwing ball-and-chain that consistently undermined reforms and modernizations promoted by her predecessors left with the Lawrence crowd.
It now falls to her lay the foundation for what the future Church in eastern South Carolina will look like for much of the 21st century.
1. Rocky Journey
Since 2003 loyal Episcopalians in the Diocese of South Carolina have been without a full-time bishop, or at least a full-time bishop whose loyalty to the Church was not in doubt. Teeth-gnashing during the slow demise of one episcopate, followed by outright despair over the next, left them reeling and leaderless in 2012 after a conniving bishop and his ultraconservative supporters left the Church then staked out a preposterous claim to owning $500 million in Church property and assets.
Since then, the Diocese has struggled to find a new normal under two part-time provisional bishops and finally -- over the past 18 months -- a go-it-alone plan to operate under the direction of its Standing Committee. All this while, the people they also had to contend with rogue organization of breakaways that continues to falsely claim that it is the real historic Diocese of South Carolina and part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
It's been too much for too long.
The Standing Committee's announcement in January 2020 that it was convening a search committee for a new bishop was a moment of daylight, however brief. It was a step that marked the vitality and enthusiasm of a Church on the move. Unfortunately, within just a couple of months, the Diocese and its parishes and missions closed down indefinitely in the face of a worldwide pandemic.
The Search Committee suspended its work.
It would not be until January 2021 that the Diocese's Standing Committee would finally announce a slate of five candidates from whom would come the 15th Bishop of the Diocese.
At last, the Diocese was ready to move into a new era, and it would start by finding just the right shepherd. And, even as this was happening, a parallel story among the sheep was also emerging.
Their long march in the wilderness had left the loyal parishes and missions of the Diocese significantly transformed. On the one hand, they had individually become far more self-reliant and independent. But on the other, they'd become estranged from each other even as they struggled to sustain a shared identity without the unifying vision of full-time leadership.
As pre-convention protocols got underway, it was increasingly clear that these years of transformation among its congregations were now about to change the Diocese itself.
And there would be no going back.
After the 2012 departure of the Lawrencians, at least three new dynamics began to emerge in the congregations. Eventually they would lead to the election of Ms. Woodliff-Stanley.
First, the Lawrencians' exit opened the way for a new kind of churchmanship that would remake parish life in the Diocese. Freed from the yoke of Lawrence's imaginary culture “wars”, narrow Biblicism, and petulant attacks on Church officials, these new leaders quietly ushered in a new spirit and character that was more mainstream, more inclusive, and more independent.
Mark Lawrence's embrace of Anglicanism and the traditions of Episcopal Church was always tentative throughout his ministry, and that did not change when he became a bishop. He grew up imbued with the heart and soul of a pentacostal, and chafed under the authority of the Church's hierarchy, theology, and inclusive spirit.
During his years as bishop, he and his lieutenants engaged in extensive campaigns to alienate their congregations from the broader Church. Clergy and lay leaders unwilling to tow the line were pushed aside and replaced. Lawrence demanded, and was given, sole authority over matters of Biblical interpretation, and tight control over the governance of congregations loyal to him.
Consequently, when he left abruptly, those loyal clergy and communicants - no longer blackballed from parish life - stepped up as those who'd been purged from their parish homes formed worship communities that turned into new parishes and missions.
Loyal Episcopalians eagerly embraced opportunities to reengage the wider Church. Presiding Bishops Katharine Jefferts Schori and later Michael Curry were rock stars on their visits to the wounded Diocese, while their writings and online appearances became much-sought after subjects of Sunday School classes, Bible study groups, and parish suppers.
Second, most of thesenew leaders were women. With them came new expectations for parish life - like more programs for youth and children, daycare and preschools, community outreach and engagement, newcomer events, Bible study, and educational programming like EfM that had narrowly dodged a near-death experience at the hands of Lawrence's courtiers.
Third was the arrival of Episcopalians from off moving into the eastern half of South Carolina. This unprecedented explosion of immigrants brought new Church members with a broader view of the Church and Anglicanism, and an end to the cultural and theological xenophobia promoted during Lawrence's final years and even the sketchy final years of that of his predecessor.
3. The Slate
The possibility that a woman could be elected Bishop of South Carolina became more likely when the Standing Committee's diverse slate of five candidates included two well-qualified women, and parish election produced a bumper crop of female delegates to the May 1st electing convention. As it turned out, women would eventually constitute 56% of lay delegates and nearly one-quarter of the clergy.
Of course, that put the two female candidates - Archdeacon Callie Walpole and the lesser-known Ruth Woodliff-Stanley -- in the early spotlight.
Ms. Walpole had served as Archdeacon for seven years following the departure of the Lawrencians, while doubling as vicar and sub-dean at Grace Church Cathedral. Ms. Woodliff Stanley had served as a successful rector and Diocesan Canon to the Ordinary - a kind of chief operating officer -- in the Diocese of Colorado. She'd begun her ministry in her native Mississippi.
In the event that neither woman garnered the required concurrent majorities among lay and clergy delegates, there were in the wings three credible male candidates that included the Rev. Canon. Terence Alexander Lee, a Charleston native and former rector of St. Paul’s in Bennettsville. The historical significance of electing Canon Lee as the first African American bishop in a Diocese in which race has been such a factor was not lost on anyone.
The Rev. Geoffrey Hoare, the leader of St. Alban's Episcopal Church in the shadow of the National Cathedral in Washington DC, is somewhat legendary as one of the most successful rectors in the Church. In years prior to the Lawrencian takeover of the Diocese in 2006, he would almost certainly have been elected bishop in South Carolina as his style, temperament, and theology seemed to match those of others during the 20th century. The Rev. Kevin Johnson, the rector of one of the loyalist parishes in the Diocese of Fort Worth, was something of a wild card on the slate. His congregation had been ordered by the courts in Texas, to turn their parish buildings over to the ACNA crowd in that state, and he had held his congregation together even though they had to meet in a movie theater.
4. And the people shrugged (but not for long)
Surprisingly, the initial response of the Diocese to the slate was a collective shrug. Archdeacon Walpole had been widely expected to be on the list, owing to her personal popularity and numerous nominations she'd received during the search process. The possibility that delegates might not even get to meet the other candidates in-person was arguably an advantage for Ms. Walpole as well.
However, by the end of March, all of that advantage seemed to have faded.
Taped and written interviews with the candidates were getting regular hits on the Diocesan website as many stakeholders in the Diocese were turning to the internet to visit the home parishes of the candidates, and contact friends and relatives who may have known the candidates.
Leaders of congregations began convening multiple online conversations with their communicants to gather their thoughts about the future of the Diocese and the qualities of the five candidates.
As Easter arrived during the first week of April, SC Episcopalians began to hear more regularly from our embedded "listeners", who were participating in these collegial, congregational, and eventually deanery conversations, and reporting back to us some surprising insights.
Perhaps the most important was a significant degree of frustration with the status quo. There was an emerging consensus among lay and clergy that the Diocese had been treading water for too long, and those in leadership did not seem to understand that. The daily work of the Diocese, they felt, was needlessly consumed by protracted legal concerns and, of course, COVID. Many felt the years of substituting part-time provisional bishops for the real deal was producing unmet pastoral and administrative needs.
Our listeners also reported that the upcoming election was being seen an opportunity to set a new course in which legal issues and schism politics did not seem to control everything. After years of vainly attempting reconciliation with the remaining Lawrencians, members of the Diocese now just wanted the courts to determine how 2017 decision would be implemented so everyone could move on.
Several listeners told us that, with regard to the election, participants valued unity over taking a hard line for one candidate over the others. When the possibility of a multi-ballot election was mentioned, they wanted their delegates to move toward candidates who appeared to have the broadest base of support as soon as practical. Consensus was more important than division, even if it meant abandoning their favorites after the first ballot.
In a truly historic shift for this Diocese, listeners reported very little interest in the choices of candidates' seminary education, the places in which they grew up, or the worship styles they preferred. Previous connections to South Carolina or the Diocese also were of minimal significance. In fact, in several reports, listeners told us that both laity and clergy seemed to believe that only a new bishop from outside South Carolina could bring about the kind of change they were looking for.
There was a great deal riding on the candidates' three-day "walkabout" that began on April 12th. It would prove to be the single most influential factor in the balloting that would follow less than three weeks later. Holding the walkabout one week after Easter significantly jacked up interest and focus on the election.
At the start of the walkabout, interest in Ms. Woodliff-Stanley’ candidacy among the lay delegates appeared to have become more competitive with that of Archdeacon Walpole. Delegates began to see that her administrative experience and professional history of addressing legal, property, and theological issues in the wider Church would be assets that would serve the Diocese well.
Canon (Terence) Lee also seemed to be attracting sufficient interest to suggest that he might be a consensus choice, if the Convention became deadlocked over the two women.
Unfortunately, the three morning sessions of the walkabout produced little clarity, as the candidates were each asked the same series of what seemed to be predictable questions with equally predictable answers.
The most consequential parts of the walkabout were the three evenings of small group conversations, dubbed “chat rooms". Delegates and non-delegates alike were assigned to one of five groups that were visited by one candidate at a time for a largely unstructured, 30-minute give-and-take.
The sessions had the feel of a cocktail hour on the back porch (which is what several lay people appeared to be doing). Others joked that the experience felt like speed dating, but agreed that the sessions provided more than 37.5 valuable hours of useful insights and candidate conversation that was helpful to them in getting to know the candidates. Unfortunately, the chat rooms were not recorded so many excellent candid exchanges - with a few very controversial ones - were not available for reference or follow up.
7. The Convention
For the purpose of electing a bishop, delegates to Diocesan conventions are split up into two “Orders”. The Lay Order is comprised of all the non-clergy delegates elected by the parishes and missions to determine which candidate will get their congregation's vote. In the Lay Order, parishes get one vote, while missions actually get only one-half vote. The Clergy Order is comprised of all clergy in good standing and present at the Convention.
A successful candidate is elected only when he or she achieves a majority in each Order on the same ballot. With five candidates on the slate, delegates turned on their computers and smart phones the morning of May 1st fully anticipating a long day of voting ahead.
8. The Convention: The Lay Order
All the feedback following the Walkabout suggested that - at least among the lay delegates -- the election was coming down to a three-way contest between Archdeacon Walpole, Canon Lee, and Ms. Woodliff-Stanley. An analysis by Dr. Ron Caldwell, based on hits on the Diocesan website, reflected a spike in interest those same three.
However, our listeners were telling us that the momentum seemed to be with Ms. Woodliff-Stanley. In the week leading up to the Convention, lay delegates with whom we spoke told us that she was one of their two top choices. Her professional resume depicted a priest who'd worked in many facets of ministry that included parish life, diocesan administration, strategic planning, and conflict resolution.
Unlike the previous three Diocesan bishops, Ms. Woodliff-Stanley leadership style appeared to be the opposite of autocratic. She was pitch perfect for those looking for a new direction. It also appeared that many of her former colleagues from around the Church were giving her glowing endorsements in conversations with delegates.
Delegates also liked her because she seemed to be aware that regardless of the outcome of the court case, the next bishop would need to be able to roll up his or her sleeves to make the Diocese viable and sustainable. This would be a job with few accolades and many disappointments... and Ms. Woodliff-Stanley seemed to understand that.
The walkabout did little to change the reality that Archdeacon Walpole’s candidacy had nowhere to grow. She was not a stranger to anyone in the Diocese, which meant she could not credibly reinvent herself to match the changing dynamics of the election or expectations of the delegates. Ironically, her years of faithful service to the Diocese were tying her to the very status quo Convention delegates were looking to shed.
The peculiar history of Diocesan conventions also created a double whammy for the Archdeacon. The Diocese had not elected one of its own as diocesan bishop since the early 20th century, as conventions have always loved outsiders far more than locals. Ms. Walpole is also the vicar of Grace Church Cathedral, and consequently a potential victim of decades-old sniping that "Charleston churches" have too much influence over the Diocese.
Terence Lee seemed to emerge early as a favorite among the laity, but may have slipped somewhat during the walkabout. He grew up in the Diocese, was sent to seminary from here, served as rector of an all-white parish in Bennettsville, and then went on to have a successful ministry in several other dioceses. As early as February, delegates were speaking favorably about visiting his Sunday services and exploring his parish’s website where he seemed very adept at running a parish in the midst of a pandemic.
However, Mr. Lee stumbled a bit early on when, in one of his written responses, he mentioned the helpful roles of former Diocesan Bishop Ed Salmon and former Suffragan Bishop Bill Skilton in his formation as a priest.
It appeared to be an attempt by Mr. Lee to simply remind the delegates that he is not not new to the Diocese. However, the two former bishops are widely seen as having betrayed the Diocese in the face of the Lawrence insurrection, and the trauma of their actions inflicted was probably still too fresh for many to see the comment in a positive light. While Mr. Lee made a point of later telling delegates that he had been deeply disappointed in the two men when they failed to stand with the Church, it was too late to dispel the impression that he might "be in a different place than we are," according to one clergy delegate.
The Rev. Geoffrey Hoare, the Rector of St. Alban’s in Washington DC, and the Rev. Kevin Johnson of the Diocese of Fort Worth, both seemed to have made very positive impressions during the walkabout, and very likely would have picked up some votes in the event the early frontrunners faltered. However, neither seemed to be able to articulate a broader vision of the future of the Diocese that delegates were looking for. The all-virtual setting for the convention did little to help delegates develop personal relationships with any of the candidates, but Mr. Hoare and Mr. Johnson seemed to suffer the most from this limitation.
9. The Convention: The Clergy Order
Clergy delegates were far more circumspect in their opinions about the candidates than the laity. They were under no obligation to vote with their lay counterparts or even discuss their thinking with their congregations. And they didn't.
In general, our conversations with the clergy suggested that they began warming to Ms. Woodliff-Stanley’s candidacy early in the process. However, it was not her outspoken passion for social justice that was drawing them to her.
There were a lot of grumpy clergy at this convention. After more than eight years without a fulltime diocesan bishop, many had become frustrated and angry. The reality of two part-time provisional bishops and 18-months of oversight by the Standing Committee had taken a significant toll on their morale.
Many complained that they often felt out of the loop, and were not consulted when decisions were made. Several expressed concerns that the Diocese had not been aggressive enough in pursuing its legal case against the breakaways, while others grumbled about unreturned phone calls, and confusion over who was in charge of what.
The clergy were looking for a bishop who had practical experience and administrative skills to put the Diocese on its feet again, and in that respect Mr. Hoare was proving to be an interesting choice. In his favor were his experiences in the Church had been far more diverse and success-filled than the other candidates. He had a reputation as an excellent administrator, fundraiser, and theologian. Age would force him to retire after an nine-year episcopate, but it would be enough time to rebuild the operational and financial infrastructure of the Diocese, and oversee the eventual implementation of state Supreme Court’s August 2017 ruling returning 29 Lawrencian parishes to the Church. With Mr. Hoare, there would be an added benefit of electing a Bishop-Coadjutor well in advance of his retirement who could get to know the Diocese before being consecrated as the 16th Bishop of the Diocese.
Canon Lee had generated some early support among clergy who were attracted to his leadership skills, clarity of vision, and sense of divine calling to the job. However, his assertiveness and confidence in pressing his views, and the evangelical echo in his words, reminded many to much of Mark Lawrence.
As it turned out, the clergy were not interested in a gradual return to a new normal that Hoare represented, nor were they comfortable that Mr. Lee was in sync with the Diocese.
In many ways, Ms. Woodliff-Stanley seemed to perfectly understand the temperament of the Diocese. She had a vision for moving forward, with the skills and experience to make it happen.
The clergy were also encouraged by the breadth of her experience in parish ministry and diocesan administration, as well as work focused on the future Church as the Canon for Strategic Change in the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania & Western New York, and Senior Vice President for Strategic Change with the Episcopal Church Building Fund. .
They were also drawn to Ms. Woodliff-Stanley because of statements like this: "I’ve been mentored well, including by some wise bishops in the church. From them, I have seen up close, over time, what being a faithful, loving, courageous bishop entails. I’ve worked with dioceses experiencing conflict and schism and comprehend the scope and magnitude of the challenges ahead. I understand the ministry of a bishop to be humble and holy work, joyful and collective work we do together on behalf of Jesus."
10. The Convention: The Balloting
Creating a traditional diocesan convention in an all-virtual setting was probably the most innovative thing the Diocese of South Carolina has done in its recent history.
On the morning of the Convention, delegates arrived - not at a church or auditorium - but in their kitchens, local libraries, restaurants, and hotels. The business side of the Convention was physically taking place in Grace Church Cathedral, but even then it was largely empty except for technical staff and Diocesan leaders.
Bishop Henry Parsley set the tone of the convention with an excellent online address, and was followed by the Rev. Caleb Lee, President of the Standing Committee, who presided over the long-distance voting with surprisingly few glitches.
Students of prior electing conventions were predicting that two or three of the candidates would lead in the early ballots, forcing out those with lesser votes, and leaving the stronger ones to battle it out on subsequent ballots. However, those predictions were based diocesan conventions that have historically been divided along social, political, and theological lines with all sides standing their ground until someone blinks. This was not one of those.
The only surprise to emerge was the strength of Ms. Woodliff-Stanley's candidacy on the first ballot. She secured eight of the ten votes needed to win in the Lay Order, and actually won an outright majority in the Clergy Order. The second ballot was just a formality, as she easily won both Orders overwhelmingly.
As planned, Lay delegates cast the vote of their parish or mission on the first ballot for the candidate favored by their congregation... then on the second they moved toward the strongest candidate, who was obviously Ms. Woodliff-Stanley.
When the Rev Mr. (Caleb) Lee announced the the results of the second and final ballot, delegates said they kept waiting for cheering of some kind.
However, their disappointment was dispelled moments later when the Bishop-elect appeared on everyone's screen, and many delegates were seen applauding her. “You have given a vision of what is possible,” the Bishop-elect said. “It’s a vision I hope I can honor. Ours is the call to see the hearts of all the people of the world, beginning with one another... I can't wait to get started.”
South Carolina is among the five fastest growing states in the country. The Diocese of South Carolina is the fastest growing in the Church.
"I want a Bishop who will bring a new pragmatic vision for our diocese. One that will lead us to a higher level, re-energize our diocese after the pandemic has past, grow our church, offer to the “returning parishes” a place to belong (not necessarily conform). One that can manage the limited resources we have to work with in our diocese."
- Lay member of one of the Diocese's rural missions
South Carolina Episcopalians
The Convention by-the-Minute
9:40 a.m. - Morning Prayer concludes after a short sermon by the Right Rev. Henry Parsley, retired Bishop of Alabama and a native of the Diocese of South Carolina.
9:45 a.m. - The Rev. Canon Caleb Lee, President of teh Standing Committee and Presiding Officer of the Convention, calls the delegates to order via Zoom. Credentials Committee reports 34 clergy and 27 of 30 congregations are in attendance and eligible to vote.
9:48 a.m. - Break as delegates conduct online test vote
10:20 a.m. - Convention resumes as Canon Lee announces voting period for first ballot.
10:26 a.m. - First ballot voting gets underway
11:10 a.m. - Mr. Lee reports that Ruth Woodliff-Stanley has taken a substantial lead in Lay Order on the first ballot, and secured the required majority among the Clergy by one vote.
11:25 a.m. - Second Ballot gets underway
11:37 p.m. - Mr. Lee announces that all second ballot votes are in and counting is underway. Convention is on break until noon.
12:15 p.m. - Canon Lee announces that Ruth Woodliff-Stanley has received a majority in both Orders and is elected XV Bishop of South Carolina
12:25 p.m. - Bishop-Elect speaks to the Convention via internet; Accepts election
SC Episcopalians is very grateful for the assistance of about two dozen clergy and lay members of the Diocese for regularly sharing insights and reflections on the election during the four months leading up the May 1st Convention. This enabled us to make our reporting on this important election more reliable and credible for those hoping to learn from it.
It was also reassuring for us to learn first-hand the depth of passion and love so many Episcopalians in South Carolina feel for the work of their Diocese and its promise to future generations.
Obviously, we received a lot more than we could include in the narrative to the left, so we have added occasional footnotes on this right side of the webpage to add anything we think might be valuable to your understanding.
Finally, we thank Dr. Ron Caldwell, scholar and chronicler of the Lawrence rebellion for his encouragement and wisdom. His blog is invaluable and can be accessed from our Home Page.
An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans
"Easter reminded us that we were in the Resurrection business, and it was high time we got on with it."
-- Lay delegate from Charleston area
not affiliated with ACNA, the Episcopal Church or any of their dioceses
"Good administration is good pastoral care."
-- The Rev. Geoff Hoare
"From my present vantage point, working with many dioceses, I see a hopeful future for the gospel of Jesus Christ as we learn to engage effectively the needs of the world, to live the gospel with conviction, and to communicate it with vigor".
Bishop-elect Ruth Woodliff-Stanley
The XV Bishop of South Carolina
May 1, 2021
Geoffrey Hoare 2 1
Kevin Johnson 1 1
Terence Lee 5 6
Callie Walpole 3.5 7
Ruth Woodliff-Stanley 8 19
Geoffrey Hoare .5
Terence Lee 3 2
Callie Walpole 3 6
Ruth Woodliff-Stanley 13 26
Required for election in Lay Order: 10
Required for election in Clergy Order: 18