CHARLESTON — While clergy and parishioners from one of the nation’s oldest dioceses meet to chart a future outside the Episcopal church, the church’s national bishop has issued a pastoral letter saying the Diocese of South Carolina can’t leave the mother church of its own accord.
“While some leaders have expressed a desire to leave the Episcopal Church, the diocese has not left,” Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote in a letter Thursday. “It cannot, by its own action. The alteration, dissolution, or departure of a diocese of The Episcopal Church requires the consent of the General Convention, which has not been consulted.”
But leaders of the diocese, who have split with the national church over issues including ordination of gays, do not see it that way.
In an Oct. 15 letter, Jefferts Schori informed diocesan bishop Mark Lawrence that he is considered to have abandoned the church and is barred from performing any “Episcopal, ministerial or canonical arts” while the full House of Bishops investigates.
But the standing committee that governs the local diocese passed a resolution earlier last month saying it would disaffiliate with the national church if the church took action “asserting or claiming any supervisory, disciplinary, or other alleged hierarchical authority over this diocese, its leaders or its members.”
As a result, of special convention of clergy and delegates of the diocese comprising parishes throughout eastern and southern South Carolina is being held on Saturday in Charleston. Representatives from many of the 70 congregations comprising about 29,000 parishioners in diocese are expected to attend, although not all parishes plan to leave the national church.
The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003, upsetting conservative Episcopalians. In 2006 the Diocese of South Carolina voted to reject the authority of the national church’s presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the church.
“I want to urge every parishioner and cleric in South Carolina to recognize that, as long as you wish to remain in The Episcopal Church, no leader, current or former, can exile you, remove you, or separate you from it without your consent,” Jefferts Schori wrote in her letter.
She added that if leaders of the diocese have severed their ties with the church, new leaders will be elected and installed in accordance with church law.
But In his own pastoral letter this week, Lawrence noted that for 25 years, the diocese has worked to remain faithful to the teachings of the church.
“While the “national” Episcopal Church has married yesterday’s fads and is quickly becoming today’s widow, declining in membership and resources, we have grown our parishes and diocese in faithful and relevant ways,” he wrote.
He added that he had heard from bishops and archbishops from around the world “representing the overwhelmingly vast majority of members of the Anglican Communion that they consider me as a faithful Anglican bishop in good standing and this diocese as part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
The diocese, dating from the 1700s, was one of the original dioceses that joined together to form the Episcopal Church. The 2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.