Several parishioners here in the village by the bay have asked me, “What happens if…Truro and Falls Church vote to leave? … if Mark Lawrence does not get sufficient consents to his election?” Well, what happens either way?
The short answer is this: Neither the world nor the Episcopal Church will come to an end in either case. We will need to pray for Fr. Lawrence and Truro Church and Falls Church, and for the members of those parishes, so stay on it. These are mostly good people, or at least as good as any of us are.
We will mostly need to be alert. Read the Epistle (Revised Lectionary) for this Sunday - Philippians 4:4-7 and do as it says. In particular “do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Now, to the particulars:
It would seem that The Rev. Mark Lawrence is beginning to garner the needed consents, but it is too soon to tell if he has gotten much more than the network and conservative dioceses. Stand Firm is doing a tally. I am of a mixed mind about tallies. Mark Lawrence has enough to deal with without a lot of people grasping moment by moment at his success or failure at getting the required consents. At the same time it is of considerable interest, for the voting might tell us and those yet to vote something about trends. I think it will be a very narrow consent ‘win’ if at all, but we shall see. Readers know that I believe consent should be withheld.
So, suppose Fr. Lawrence does get the consents? It will not be the end of the world or even of the Episcopal Church. We’ve had bishops who have been very peculiar in the past and we have survived. What it will mean, for those of us who believe Fr. Lawrence has some problems with understanding what the oath of conformity is about, is that we will have to encourage and support him to be accountable and encourage the Presiding Bishop when and if it becomes necessary to hold him accountable.
What it will mean is that we will have to stay awake. What it will also mean is that we will have to pray for him, as we do for all bishops, praying that God will give the increase in faith, wisdom and even reason necessary for the tasks given bishops in the Episcopal Church these days.
What if he doesn’t get the consents? We will need to be as clear as possible about why consent was not given. I would hope that following the close of this matter that dioceses would be willing to share their reasons for their actions. If the consents to not come, the Diocese of South Carolina, Fr. Lawrence and his family, deserve to know why. Standing Committees and Bishops are, I am sure, acting with great care in all of this, and their thinking on this matter would be important to share.
We will all have to work through the matter of rejection, which is never a simple matter. People not elected feel rejected, no matter how often they or others try to keep an even emotional stance. It will be worse on the matter of consents, and those feeling rejected will include the electors of South Carolina.
We should remember that the requirement for consent is part of the process among other reasons so that the Bishop elect is accepted as a member of the House and a part of the governing body of the Episcopal Church as a whole. That is an important matter. If Fr. Lawrence does not get the consents, prayer for him and his family will be all the more necessary.
The Parish Vote:
Truro Church and Falls Church will complete their parish voting on whether or not to leave the Episcopal Church this Sunday (December 17.) I am always delighted when communities of faith take voting seriously. For all the grousing about how democratic processes are not always appropriate to church decision making, a grousing mostly from the realignment crowd, it is fascinating to watch such decision making in action.
Church people can make decisions in a more or less democratic fashion, and do so with a sense of the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of us understand the decisions of General Convention to have been Spirit led every bit as much as the parishioners feel their votes are so led in these two parishes. And even if we don’t know now, we will know later, but in the mean time voting processes are part of our decision making in the church as a whole and locally.
My sense is a large majority of both church memberships will vote to leave the Episcopal Church, perhaps something like eighty percent. This is just a guess, but based on the highly biased “Forty Days of Discernment” materials used in both parishes and the long term teaching bias of both rectors, I believe the vote will be overwhelming.
If most parishioners do decide to leave there will be all sorts of legal and ecclesial issues to deal with on all sides. One thing in particular bothers me. It is still unclear to me what the relationship is between this vote and the decisions of the clergy leadership. A congregational decision to leave the Episcopal Church, even if it is unanimous, says nothing about the clergy or about the Episcopal Church in a particular place. It says only that people who were in the Episcopal Church parish no longer are or want to be.
We are not a congregational church. The members may leave to form a new congregation aligned with any other ecclesiastical body they wish, but the ministry of the Episcopal Church in that place remains and clergy and lay leaders can be appointed by the Bishop to continue work.
But what about the clergy of these parishes? Will they too clearly announce their choice to quit the Episcopal Church and join another church body? We know that Bishop Minns has already done so and by remarkable generosity of Bishop Lee has been allowed to continue to minister at Truro as priest in charge until the end of the year. What of the rector and clergy of Falls Church? Have they declared themselves?
I do believe that come Sunday, if Truro’s congregation votes to leave the Episcopal Church, Bishop Minns must clearly state his relation to the group that is leaving. It seems to me he ceases to be priest in charge immediately on accepting a charge as the clergy leader for the members who have voted to leave the Episcopal Church.
What happens if Truro or Falls Church parishioners do not vote to leave in overwhelming numbers? What if the vote is 55% to leave? What if it is 45%? My assumption is that those who have declared for leaving will have to decide if they meant it, and if they did they will leave.
I believe we need to pray for the people of these parishes, and for their clergy, and for Bishop Lee. No matter the outcome the Episcopal Church will continue and the Diocese of Virginia will have a ministry in the areas where these people werebeen members of Episcopal Churches. Who retains what will be in the hands of church folk, administrators, courts and lawyers. It will get complex.
But in the end the matter is simple: in a free and democratic environment, people come and go as they need to, clergy and laity alike. We pray for all sorts and conditions of folk, including those who have left us and those who have come. Let’s continue to do so. At the same time we will need to be alert. Nothing of all this brings the Episcopal Church’s ministry in either community to a close. It may change, but it will endure.
Years ago Canon John Kago, from Kenya, gave an address to a mission conference. It was a contentious and difficult meeting, but one in which we all got clear about how each of us viewed mission and God’s call to the Episcopal Church. In that address Canon Kago gave something like this as an assessment of the Episcopal Church: “The Episcopal Church will prosper, but you will be pruned.”
All of this is pruning. It is a good time to stay alert, and a good time to pray.
We ought not worry about anything. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will indeed keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.