The Bishop of South Carolina, Mark Lawrence, continues to be an enigma. His understanding of the polity behind the polity (that is the unwritten matters of power and policy, as opposed to the surface duties and responsibilities outlined in the Canons) is either a brilliant but minority read of his episcopal office or the Machiavellian work of a bishop up to no good, for purposes that lie far from the good of The Episcopal Church or both.
This week we have another instance of the enigma in practice. Bishop Lawrence as apparently notified every parish that as far as the Diocese of South Carolina is concerned, whatever the rights to parish property held or understood to be held by the Diocese on behalf of The Episcopal Church, the Diocese considers the parish to have total deed rights in itself. A group,"South Carolina Episcopalians" believes this action is part of a longer set of actions of "rebellion." It is certainly a move to a congregational church polity.
Over on David Anderson's American Anglican Council the act is viewed as a brave effort. He asks,
"Why would Bishop Lawrence and the diocesan leadership take such a step? I believe it was out of a desire to preserve the legacy of the gospel in the parishes, as well as to keep the parishes together with the diocese as the means by which the good news of Jesus could be proclaimed. (The fact is that without such deeds some individual parishioners and particular churches would not feel protected from potential threats).
You and I both know that both the diocese and the bishop are under growing pressure from the national church leadership. We also know that exactly those leaders will countenance all sorts of ruinous teaching of Christian doctrine and life, but suddenly when it comes to questions of property they insist that their new line (which is out of step with Episcopal polity and history) be toed."
Bishop Anderson seems to believe that Bishop Mark Lawrence will by this action "preserve the legacy of the gospel in the parishes (whatever that means) and will "keep the parishes together with the diocese," all of which sounds mild, until one considers two possible outcomes:
(i) A number of parishes might leave The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina. Apparently people are being taught to mistrust the "national church" and consider it the enemy, so it might be most of the parishes are so inclined. Bishop Lawrence simply stays with the remainder and allows the parishes to wander off to ACNA or AMiA land. In which case some will believe that Lawrence has betrayed the remnant minority who stay, but have to leave their parishes. He can maintain that for principle he allowed the parishes to go and he remains with the remnant, a suffering servant until the end. Or,
(ii) The parishes leave, all going to one venue or another - all to ACNA or all to AMiA- and the bishop then resigns his office, leaves too and rejoins them on the other side. In this case he resigns his office in TEC, fully acknowledging that the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina continues as part of TEC. However, that doesn't mean much because the Diocese is now simply a shell and its population a small percentage of its former size is without either parishes or parish support.
Then Bishop Lawrence simply organizes the parishes that "went over" and they become a diocese in ACNA or AMiA or whatever. But the end is that the parishes, the property, the clergy, and a good bit of the basic support for the diocese are then landed in a different place. In which case Bishop Lawrence is again the Bishop of a diocese in an "orthodox" synod of some sort.
Those who believe the Bishop is up to no good believe the second outcome is the more likely.
Bishop Lawrence has indicated that he is not leaving The Episcopal Church. In the past I have wanted to take him at his word. But I now suspect that is so only so long as there is a functioning Episcopal Church diocese. When through his own actions - like this one - he contributes to the demise of the Diocese, he is preparing a way by which his move out of TEC will no longer be about his abandoning the Communion of this church but rather about his no longer having a functional diocese in TEC, and a call elsewhere.
We won't know which outcome (or perhaps some other) will transpire. But if there is a "smoking gun" that indicates that a scenario something like outcome (ii) is in the offing, and if it can be traced to Bishop Lawrence, then he is subject to examination by his fellow bishops as to whether or not he has abandoned the communion of this Church by conduct clearly calculated to destroying the Diocese as it currently exists so that it can be reconstituted in ACNA or AMiA or some other off-shore drilling company, with him as the resigned bishop, now un-resigned in new quarters.
"What goes round, comes round." If the parishes are indeed voluntarily part of the Diocese and can leave and take their marbles with them, they may just do so, and then the bishop has a choice to either go after them into new lands or stay, but either way he will never again be able to be sure of the people and parishes he is with. And in particular, if he follows the parishes that leave, what if they don't like him and his little ways? They can cut and run again and again. They may run from the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, but they may from the next better thing as well, and who knows if they will always love Bishop Lawrence and accept him as their Father in God? Why should they?
They have cast their nets in the world of congregational polity, where every parish can choose its niche in whatever synod it wishes, the bishop be damned.
This is a mess and likely to get messier.