Now it appears that the Diocese of South Carolina might be embarking on the first steps toward such a brave strategy. Bishop Mark Lawrence addressed his assembled clergy today, and included the following statement of intention:
The Standing Committee and bishop will be proposing a resolution to come before the special convention that this diocese begin withdrawing from all bodies of governance of TEC that have assented to actions contrary to Holy Scripture; the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them; the resolutions of Lambeth which have expressed the mind of the Communion; the Book of Common Prayer (p.422-423) and the Constitution & Canons of TEC (Canon 18:1.2.b) until such bodies show a willingness to repent of such actions. Let no one think this is a denial of the vows a priest or bishop makes to participate in the councils of governance. This is not a flight into isolation; nor is it an abandonment of duty, but the protest of conscience. . . .Some have already questioned whether this means that the Diocese of South Carolina will be following the path of the Dioceses of San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, Fort Worth and Quincy. After all, one of the bodies that has given its assent to actions contrary to Holy Scripture is General Convention itself, and would not a withdrawal from General Convention be a withdrawal from the Episcopal Church (USA)?
Not necessarily. I do not claim to be privy to South Carolina's intentions and strategies, but like the next Episcopalian, I can read Bishop Lawrence's statement in context. Had he meant to propose a resolution to withdraw from ECUSA, he could have said so; but he did not. He spoke of beginning to withdraw from "all bodies of governance of TEC" which have assented to actions contrary to Scripture, to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as received by the Church, to the resolutions of Lambeth expressing the mind of the Communion, and to the Constitutions and Canons of ECUSA -- a comprehensive list. Then he stated "This is not a flight into isolation, nor . . . an abandonment of duty . . .".
There is no one at ECUSA, as I stated, who can compel the Diocese of South Carolina to send deputies to the next General Convention in 2012. By not sending a deputation, and by Bishop Lawrence staying away from the House of Bishops himself, the Diocese could in effect withdraw from General Convention without withdrawing formally from ECUSA. They could wait until 2012 before making any decision, and keep their options open until then.
South Carolina has no members on the current Executive Council, so it does not have to do anything there. And indeed, a quick check of national CCAB's (Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards) does not show South Carolina with members on any of the likely suspects for violation (such as the Presiding Bishop's Council of Advice, or the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, or the Title IV Review Committee). As for the House of Bishops, none of its committees appear to include Bishop Lawrence, either. In fact, the overall paucity of South Carolina representatives on the Church's Standing Commissions, Committees, Boards and Agencies might even be deliberate, considering that their membership (other than the Executive Council) is mostly picked by the President of the House of Deputies or by the Presiding Bishop. It would appear that 815 has already largely distanced itself from the Diocese of South Carolina, making the task of Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese that much easier.
The Diocese of South Carolina might want to consider at least one amendment to its Constitution, however. For it has one of the more unusual accession clauses of any Episcopal Diocese:
The Church in the Diocese of South Carolina accedes to and adopts the Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America and acknowledges this authority accordingly.
"Accedes to" -- that is standard. But "adopts"? Which version of the national Constitution and Canons can the Diocese be said to have adopted? After all, it was one of the original founding churches that joined to create General Convention by meeting together in 1785, and eventually signing on to the PECUSA Constitution in 1789. And just what is "the authority" of whichever version of the Constitution and Canons of PECUSA have been thus adopted? Unless they are the latest version, they cannot have much authority to recognize.
This will become an even more important question on July 1, 2011, when the changes approved to Title IV of the Canons at General Convention 2009 are scheduled to go into effect. For at that point the entire disciplinary structure of ECUSA will undergo a major transformation, and it will be important to see whether South Carolina will implement the required changes as well.
Until July 2011, any attempt to charge Bishop Lawrence with "abandonment" will have to be for "abandonment of the Communion of this Church", and not for "abandonment of The Episcopal Church", as I discussed in this post. And from the remarks he made to his clergy, it seems pretty clear that he has no avowed intention of "abandoning his duty" to the Church, but of fulfilling that duty as openly as possible.
Were the bishops to entertain such charges, they would be faced again with all of the issues that divided them on the "deposition" of Bishop Duncan. Would the Presiding Bishop still present a resolution of deposition if she could not get the consent of the three most senior bishops in the Church to inhibit Bishop Lawrence? And would she rule again that the "majority of the whole number of Bishops entitled to vote" means just a majority of those Bishops actually present and voting?
If so, any such move should be taken as a signal by the last orthodox bishops remaining to stand together, or not stand at all. (For a starter, I would suggest that funds be collected to provide transportation to the House of Bishops meeting for as many retired bishops as necessary to defeat the resolution once and for all. Typically there are only around 100 bishops attending and voting on such measures. There are 200 more who could vote if they showed up. Not all will be on the orthodox side, but perhaps a sufficient number would join in a "Custer's Last Stand" against the tyranny of the Presiding Bishop.)
Bishop Lawrence's greatest danger between now and July 2011, however, will not be from facing charges of "abandonment", but of having the Presiding Bishop unilaterally declare one of his public statements to be a "renunciation" of his vows, as she most outrageously did with Bishops Iker and Scriven. Against such lawlessness there is scarcely any protection for as long as the members of the House of Bishops refuse to call her on it. The one difference in this case is that it looks as though there will not be any proposal before the Diocese to leave the Episcopal Church (USA).
So will the Presiding Bishop be so foolish as to try to make a move against Bishop Lawrence? She has certainly shown herself capable of being so rash. But if Bishop Lawrence immediately reaches out to the other orthodox bishops (both active and retired), and shows by his continued words and deeds that he is doing no more than calling his colleagues to faithfulness in the Church, then maybe -- just maybe -- he will be able to make such a move very difficult for her.
One thing is certain: Edmund Burke never said it, but it remains a true statement that "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."