Episcopal Church v. Episcopal Church

A beautiful church building in the Diocese of South Carolina

It looks like divorce. The Episcopal Church of the United States and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina finally did what many Episcopalians have feared for a while: the Episcopal Church declared that the Bishop of South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, has abandoned the Church, and the Diocese of South Carolina has said that The Episcopal Church has abandoned sound theological direction, and it is withdrawing from the Episcopal Church.

Although Bishop Lawrence has sixty days to respond, and The Episcopal Church’s disciplinary board expresses hope for discussion and reconciliation, it looks like divorce to most of us Episcopalians, and we children of the Church grieve.

I say it looks like divorce not only because of the apparent failure to move forward in discussions, but because many of the sudden movements have to do with grabbing property. I will never forget when my marriage was falling apart, soon after the birth of our child, and an acquaintance advised me to freeze the bank accounts so my husband couldn’t take the money and run. I didn’t, and he didn’t. Apparently, that’s not how divorce usually goes.

What disturbs me about many of these conflicts is not that the Episcopal Church is fighting. As I have written in other blog postings, the Church has always fought its way to new ways of being. The Book of Acts is full of examples of church leaders calling other church leaders on the carpet, often to discipline them, until they realize after some discussion that the obnoxious one may have a point. On today, the feast day of the martyr St. James of Jerusalem, I am reminded of my favorite story about him. After “no small dissension” between Paul and Barnabas, they are summoned to Jerusalem to explain why they are baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles, and after listening in silence, James convinces the church members of Jerusalem to accept this new direction in the church. (See Acts 15.)

What disturbs me is that the conflicts often degenerate into a land grab and subsequent court battles over property. The Diocese of South Carolina has real doctrinal differences with The Episcopal Church, claiming that it has abandoned Holy Scriptures, etc. (I don’t agree, and neither do the majority of Episcopalians voting at the 2012 General Convention, but I acknowledge their deep concerns and their right to voice their objections.)

But their response has been to send quitclaim deeds to every church in the diocese, relinquishing the diocese’s ownership of all the church properties in the diocese, basically giving ownership of the churches back to individual churches. Their hope is to retain the property, even though in the Episcopal Church, church property is held in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church.

The national church claims that the diocese can’t do this, and it has serious ecclesiological reasons for enforcing its Constitution and Canons. The diocese claims that it predates the creation of The Episcopal Church as a national body, so it is not bound by the canons of the Episcopal Church.

There are many, many interwoven conflicts here having to do with ecclesiology, Biblical interpretation, Christology…. Any one of these dilemmas would require ongoing, thoughtful discussion that does not insist upon an immediate resolution or the comfort of any of the voices in the discussion.

I wonder, though, how the discussion would change if the ownership of land and money were taken off the table. If the churches in South Carolina weren’t trying to keep their buildings, and the Episcopal Church were not trying to protect its assets in an era of dramatic asset loss, the discussion would be different. It would be about grief. It would be about love, love in the midst of painful conflict. It would not be about how to protect one’s assets.

In Luke’s story of the prodigal son, the loving father lets the son run away with the money. And when the prodigal son returns, having squandered the money, he expects to be treated poorly. That’s because he still thinks their relationship is about the money. But the father proves him wrong and demonstrates to him that the love between them was never about the money. Nor was their relationship about behaving perfectly to remain in good stead. It was about being family to one another. It was about love despite imperfect behavior.

I don’t mean to cast either The Episcopal Church or the Diocese of South Carolina in the role of prodigal son. I mean to cast all of us in the role of prodigal son who finds himself in need of family, dialogue, and reunion. That dialogue can only happen when concerns about money are set aside.

And if we discover our common association was only about the money, then we have to acknowledge that we weren’t authentically embodying the Church in the first place. Jesus’s ministry was never about money and property. It was about love.

And sometimes, it was about grief.

This is one of those times.

10 Thoughts

  1. Janine, Thank you for a most wonderful presentation on our Churches problems and What is happening in North Carolina. It saddens me some to know that this in-fighting is going on. Some how the perspective of the church is being lost. I love my church and joy in its help to me. Thank you for the through provoking words. God is indeed using you! God bless us all!

  2. I think taking property and money off the table would ease some of the stress, but it wouldn’t solve all the problems. There is a principle that goes back into the early centuries that there is only one diocese in one geographic area, gathered around one bishop. This, combined with the Anglican state-church ecclesiology, means that TEC can’t simply allow the diocese of SC to slip away. On the other hand, what is a group of Christians to do when they disagree in good conscience with a majority opinion? Personally, I think the noble thing to do would be to leave as individuals, but the net effect would be the same: empty churches, struggling “loyalist” dioceses, and a little bit more theological purity.

    1. Chris, thanks for your thoughtful response. It prompted two thoughts from me: 1) The Diocese of South Carolina’s existence prior to the Episcopal Church’s Canons is akin to the original 13 colonies’ existence prior to the formation of the United States of America. Just as relationships between federal and state governments have changed as a result, the relationships between the national church and dioceses have changed, as the Denis Canon would suggest. So I wonder whether it makes sense for South Carolina to have claimed that it has a different status than other dioceses simply because it predates the national church. As I mentioned above, there are many complicated, intertwined issues about ecclesiology here that would be best discussed over many years. (I am somewhat aware that this has been going on in South Carolina for a while, but I wonder if it has been going on across the church.)

      Your question about what Christians should do when they disagree with a majority on matters of conscience is an excellent one. My great desire is that the D. of South Carolina would stay with us, not because I want their property, but because they provide an important voice of dissent, and it’s important to value the minority opinions and to love those who hold them. We’re not church if we don’t do that. One could argue that people who disagree on matters of conscience might have a responsibility to stay in the church. My exception to this is when staying in the church causes one to be complicit in evil or oppression. In this case, I do believe that an amicable, loving divorce is perhaps the only recourse. I left a church for that reason–that my conscience finally could not abide the oppression I observed and felt.

      Thanks for helping me to think through this.

  3. Beautifully written! This has been somewhat our experience in dealing with dissenting congregations in Virginia. I think the property in those cases tends to serve as some kind of symbol for the sense of control and power that both sides are fearful of losing. (Which, as Sunday’s Gospel reading suggested, aren’t what they appear to be in the first place!) As our retired bishop, Peter Lee, once said, the truth at the heart of this is that we all need each other, and we all may be wrong.

    1. Amy, yes, that is my sentiment exactly: we all need each other, and we all may be wrong. Doing theology is always iffy to me because, well, who is going to check our work? Only God can say. And our consciences are iffy instruments, too, but I believe they are God-given to help us discern. So I take the reactions of people’s consciences very seriously, even when they are diametrically opposed to mine (and my gut tells me that I am RIGHT). I’m sorry to hear that Virginia is still dealing with this, and I hope that dissenting congregations find a way to abide with the rest of us in love.

  4. What if both the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, instead of serving in the role of Prodigal Son, fought to see who could be more like the Father, who could be the most generous and forgiving?

    This is by far the best piece I’ve seen on this topic. Thank you, Janine.

    1. Thanks, Jordan. One of the best exegesis exercises I ever did was to put myself in all three roles in the story: Father, prodigal son, and irritated older son. I wish we all would try to outdo ourselves in generosity and forgiveness. In fact, I have often found the Episcopal Church to do both of those things quite well, which is why I am so grieved by what feels like a lack of generosity and forgiveness. Thanks for naming those things.

  5. How insightful, Janine. I love how you brought this back to scripture. And our relationships with each other. You put into words what many of us feel in the face of the departure of churches and dioceses. Grief, and also dismay that both factions focus on the wordly goods more than the Word.

    1. Yep. I think they’re also focusing on what they think the right relationship should be between the national church and a diocese. I feel as if we need a national conversation about how the Church handles conflict. (I believe the bishops have been discussing this at meetings, but I mean that we all should be discussing it at a General Convention.)

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