This essay concerns the challenges made to the consent to the election of The Very Rev. Mark J. Lawrence as bishop of South Carolina.
Let me say first that I believe the Diocese of South Carolina to have been led down the road towards schism, and although I don’t know Mark Lawrence, who I personally wish well, I disagree with almost all of his published statements on the matter of his understanding of the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion. In particular see his post election interview with the Anglican Communion Network.
Furthermore, I mostly agree with Via Media’s concerns about consent to his ordination as bishop as articulated in the article by Lionel E. Deimel.
But one of the fine things about the Episcopal Majority concept is that we are not united in our views, but united in our basic willingness to live by the democratic processes of this Church. The Episcopal Majority is not one stance, it is many, but it is one in its commitment to the ongoing life of the Episcopal Church as a representative community of faithful Christians.
So here is my sense of the matter concerning the consent to Mark Lawrence:
The Canons are clear. When a person is elected bishop notice will be sent to the Bishops with jurisdiction and the Standing Committees of every diocese and they will give or withhold consent. Bishops do not give testimonial; they simply indicate consent or non consent. Standing Committees are required to state their consent in a form that says “we know of no impediment on account of which the Reverend A.B. ought not to be ordained to (the episcopate.)
Nothing is said of what would count as impediment, and nothing guides the Bishops at all.
So in theory anything at all that the Bishops deem appropriate can be used by them individually and in the secret closet of their own ruminations as a reason to deny consent. They need not specify why. And in theory Standing Committees can use whatever gauge of impediment they wish.
The canons give latitude for any and all prejudices held by bishops and Standing Committees, more for the bishops than the Standing Committees, but wide latitude for both. What keeps partisan opinion out of the matter?
I suspect on the part of Bishops what liberalizes the range of consent is the fact that by election the bishop-elect is presented to them, and that is the same electoral process that gave rise to their own election, and perhaps the bishops are liberalized by the realization that the bishop elect’s shortcomings, theologically and personally, are no doubt much as his or her own. That is, bishops are prone to say yes because the bishop elect is presented, flaws and all, in the same process that made their own election possible. Consent is a time to forgive and trust, not a time to draw lines in the sand and argue over theology.
In the case of Standing Committees the matter is somewhat different: there is a litmus test – “the mater of impediment.” Impediments are baggage – stuff people carry with them. Baggage can indeed be theological bias, or personal tragedy or shortcomings, but baggage can include a string of unfortunate or difficult pronouncements, bad attitudes towards classes or races, a variety of prejudices, and so forth.
Impediments can be observable baggage or suspected burdens. It is all up for grabs. What limits denial of consent is that Standing Committees are all too aware of the process of search, seizure and election, and have no desire to see their own processes subject to criticism. Better to give consent except where flaws are known or suspected in the proceedings of nomination and election itself, with the additional exception of notably outrageous personal or theological behavior.
According to the Episcopal News Service, “The last time a person elected as a bishop in the Episcopal Church did not receive the needed consents from a majority of the diocesan standing committees and the bishops exercising jurisdiction was in 1875. The Rev. James DeKoven, who was elected bishop of the Diocese of Illinois, was denied confirmation by the church's standing committees because of his devotion to Anglo-Catholic beliefs, specifically that Christ is actually present in the Eucharistic bread and wine. Although DeKoven never made it to the episcopal ranks, he did make the list of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, with March 22 as his feast day.”
It gives pause to realize that denial of consent and inclusion in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, the way by which we recognize saints, seemed to go hand in hand.
In the “almost but not quite” category, bishops elect whose elections were hotly contested but not overturned, are Bishops Jack Spong, Jack Iker, Barbara Harris, Keith Ackerman, John-David Schofield and Gene Robinson. This is a generously wide field of folk. All were consented to but not without contention. Some may make Lesser Feasts and Fasts, but who knows?
Over the years the limitations on denial of consent have become clearer. No one wants another James Dekoven denial. Most of us look back on that with some real embarrassment. As matters progressed there has been a growing feeling that consent ought only be withheld if there is a violation of the process of election or new impedimentary information since the time of vetting in the diocese and not otherwise.
Consent is clearly understood as being more than just a “rubber stamp” matter. Bishops and Standing Committees have every business asking questions and probing. But the matters that would constitute denial of consent have more and more been limited to issues about defects in the election process or notable impediments undisclosed and dealt with by the electors. The Bishop of Northern California was subjected to intense examination at General Convention 2006 and quite properly so. He answered questions to the satisfaction of the Committee on Elections and his election was consented to by both the House of Deputies and House of Bishops.
So, now we are presented with the election of a bishop in South Carolina whose statements have led many to question if he is burdened by baggage that makes him unlikely to be able to exercise the office of Bishop in this church.
The ENS article describes the concern, as does the letter from Via Media and the article by Lionel Deniel. Via Media wrote, “"Father Lawrence has endorsed separating the Diocese of South Carolina from the Episcopal Church and has advocated that the authority of the General Convention be surrendered to the primates of the Anglican Communion. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see how Father Lawrence could be asked or expected to take the vow required of each bishop in The Episcopal Church to 'guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church' (BCP page 517)."
I believe Via Media is asking an important question. It is a question to be asked of Fr. Lawrence, perhaps in the following form: can you with a clear and unreserved conscience “guard the faith, unit, and discipline of the Church” and to that I would add, can you state unequivocally your determination to do as you will pledge at your ordination, “I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church”? (BCP, pg. 513)
(By the way, all the noise about “changing the name” from something else to The Episcopal Church is just noise. “The Episcopal Church” is the name of the Church to which Bishops pledge to conform.)
So, hopefully Standing Committees and Bishops will ask Fr. Lawrence those questions. If he says yes and he is deemed trustworthy in that response, consent should be given. If he says no, then the deal is off.
But I believe that Standing Committees and Bishops of jurisdiction ought also to give Fr. Lawrence at least the benefit of trial first, judgment later. The Queen of Hearts may have thought otherwise, but we dare not.
It is time for us to end the use of the consent as an instrument of theological, political, or cultural processes. Unless there is gross violation of process or unless the person condemns himself or herself to perjuries by their own responses to questions asked them by the Bishops and Standing Committees, the election ought be confirmed.
If the Bishop later acts in ways that do not continue efforts to “solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church,” we turn him or her out. The Episcopal Church has every reason to be more “pro active” in its willingness to challenge and confront bad bishop behavior. I believe we ought to be more willing to "throw the rascals out" that in the past, but less willing to do so on the basis of a hunch. We don't have to live by hunches; by their fruits you shall know them.
When bishops behave badly, call them to account. Then is the time to hold them accountable. When bishops elect drown in their own words, too bad; don’t consent. But if they pledge conformity, and that pledge is deemed trustworthy, take the pledge as a sign and give consent. Sufficient to the time is the evil thereof.
At least this is one opinion.