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.