In an ecclesiastical outlook that has recently offered little comfort, the very serious charge of abandonment made against Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina is chilling indeed. The charge is striking, because under his leadership the Diocese of South Carolina has not ”˜abandoned’ the Episcopal Church (as did the dioceses of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, and Quincy). What it has done, openly and publicly, is to insulate itself as much as possible from what Lawrence has called the “false gospel” of “indiscriminate inclusivity” advocated by the national church, through a reform of its diocesan laws and constitution. It is precisely this achievement – to remain within the Episcopal Church but not of the Episcopal Church – that has enraged its enemies and spurred these charges.
It is no secret that the national church has been looking for grounds for a legal challenge against South Carolina; yet, we are assured, the information presented against Bishop Lawrence came not from the Presiding Bishop’s office, but from communicants within the diocese – disaffected progressives presumably, following the familiar progressive strategy of using bureaucratic process to advance agendas which otherwise fail to gain support. The Presiding Bishop, however, is not off the hook. One must ask whether her aggressive policy of litigation to quell opposition to her theological agenda has not created the climate and established the precedent for a resort to litigation by other militant progressives. Whether or not they are acting formally in concert, the effect is the same.
The charges will be the first major test of the newly reformed Title IV canons on Discipline. Though these have been criticized for removing due process protections, we have been given assurances that these fears are overblown. Perhaps so: but many eyes will be watching closely to see what justice the Bishop of South Carolina receives under them. A heavy responsibility lies with the Disciplinary Board and its president, Bishop Dorsey Henderson, retired of Upper South Carolina (and recent visitor to St. John’s on behalf of Bishop Benhase), as they investigate these charges, to ensure that these new canons do not become another instrument of coercion. Bishop Henderson and the Board will need your prayers.
To his credit, Bishop Benhase has expressed hope that the charges will be dismissed. Even if they are, the process will be costly in terms of money and morale: a further and needless embitterment of a church already divided and demoralized by unilateral theological change and aggressive litigation. To put it bluntly: the message being sent by these charges (as by the evident hostility of the Presiding Bishop) is that conservative dissent will not be tolerated within the Episcopal Church, and that significant theological differences will be resolved by coercion. One could hardly devise a stronger incentive for conservatives to leave. Militant progressives longing for ideological purity may rejoice at the prospect of getting rid of so much “dead wood” – but those who cherish the Episcopal Church will know that such losses leave it diminished, and not just in numbers or dollars.
This case raises a question for us: given the ascendancy of the agenda of “indiscriminate inclusivity” in the Episcopal Church – will there be a secure place in the Episcopal Church for the conscientious dissent of those who hold to historic Anglican doctrine and worship? That security cannot be taken for granted.
—-The Rev. Gavin Dunbar is rector of Saint John’s, Savannah, Georgia