South Carolina is thus far the only diocese in the Church to take measures to prevent the changes to the national Canons, which are scheduled to go into effect this July 1, from taking effect within its boundaries. I have explained some of the reasons why those changes are contrary to ECUSA's Constitution in this earlier post: essentially, they extend unprecedented metropolitical powers to the Presiding Bishop, which that office has never been authorized to exercise, and they radically add to the authority of local bishops over their own diocese's disciplinary proceedings.
Three other dioceses have protested the scope of the revisions made by General Convention in 2009 to Title IV of the Canons (having to do with disciplinary proceedings against clergy). Some have called for General Convention to revisit the subject, and scale back the powers granted to diocesans and to the Presiding Bishop. But most dioceses (including my own, alas, which I could not deter) have implemented the changes into their own canons, by making revisions in the disciplinary proceedings and in the bodies that carry them out.
Thus ECUSA heads into a Constitutional crisis of its own making, which its leadership seems determined to ride out, confident that the Executive Council and General Convention will back them up. As with the leadership's current litigation strategy, the course is a very high-risk one for them to take. The first attempt by the Presiding Bishop to project herself into the boundaries of a diocese, by issuing a Pastoral Directive to its bishop, will bring the crisis into focus. If the bishop in question meekly accepts it, then the leadership will be strengthened, and will continue its course with confidence.
But the moment a diocesan bishop rejects the Directive as being unconstitutional, there will be a confrontation in which one party -- either the Presiding Bishop or the bishop of the diocese -- will have to back down. If the Presiding Bishop proceeds to exercise her other new disciplinary powers, leading to her signing a certificate of inhibition, and then asking the House of Bishops to depose the recalcitrant bishop, civil war could erupt in the halls of the Church.
We could end up with a further splintering of factions -- with two persons claiming authority to act as the bishop of a given diocese (one of them installed "provisionally" by the Presiding Bishop, and the other contending that s/he had not been legitimately deposed). Or we could see a vote by the diocese affected to pull itself out of ECUSA, with further consequences as before in the cases of the four dioceses which have withdrawn to date.
What is certain, however, is that the Presiding Bishop will now no longer have a case to extend her reach to the Diocese of South Carolina. Contrary to what those at 815 Second Avenue try to tell you, the canons of the national Church are not binding, ipso facto, on each of the several dioceses. The assembled dioceses of the Episcopal Church (USA), over a hundred years ago, decisively and overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to make General Convention the supreme legislative authority over the whole Church. Since that time, no language of supremacy in favor of the national Church has ever been a part of its Constitution or Canons.
As far as "supremacy" is concerned, the situation in ECUSA today is exactly like that of the relationship between the several States and the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation (which also contained no language making the national body supreme): whoever makes a law most recently in time has the last say. Thus, General Convention at Anaheim passed a resolution changing Title IV to give the Presiding Bishop metropolitical authority over all other bishops in ECUSA (i.e., the same total authority which the two Archbishops of the Church of England exercise over their subordinate bishops, or which the Pope exercises over all Catholic bishops and archbishops). But since General Convention's resolutions are not the supreme authority in the Church, they can be overridden at any subsequent time by contrary legislation passed by a diocese. And so South Carolina, for the time being, has the last word -- it has declared the canonical changes made by GC 2009 to have no force or effect within its borders.
Thus, should the Presiding Bishop choose the occasion to make South Carolina an object of her new-found disciplinary powers, she will not have a leg to stand on. Oh to be sure, the spineless bishops behind her may even entertain her pretense of "inhibiting" that diocese's bishop, and vote for a resolution to "depose" the Right Reverend Mark Lawrence from his position. But such a resolution (which almost certainly would not have the requisite majority of "the whole number of Bishops in the House of Bishops entitled to vote") would have no effect in the Diocese of South Carolina -- except that it could encourage dissidents, like the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, to break openly with their bishop.
The resolution of "deposition" would not, however, be enforceable in any court in South Carolina, and so the result would be a standoff. De facto, South Carolina would no longer recognize the authority of the Presiding Bishop, and de facto, 815 Second Avenue would no longer recognize the Bishop of South Carolina. The result would be a self-induced constitutional crisis, in which every member of ECUSA would be forced to choose sides.
By a process of attrition, the leadership at 815 might eventually reduce ECUSA to just those dioceses and bishops who are perfectly content to let Katharine Jefferts Schori lead them into oblivion and obscurity. But by then, ECUSA will have signed its own death warrant, and will no longer be entitled to claim the exclusive Anglican franchise in North America. (The question is whether the term "Anglican" by then will continue to have any meaning.)
With my perspective as a canon lawyer, I cannot believe that ECUSA is barely four months away from precipitating a wholly unnecessary constitutional crisis, which can only weaken it further, and drive its constituent pieces yet further apart. My appeals to the other canon lawyers who drafted the changes to Title IV, to explain what they thought they were accomplishing, and where they derived the authority to transform the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA into a metropolitan, have gone completely unanswered. At the same time, I see zero inclination on the part of those actually in control of the Church to avoid this donnybrook -- so be it. It must be what they want -- so that is what they will get.
To head deliberately down such a road is madness -- utter madness. But maybe that is what God has in store for the Episcopal Church. I feel myself in the position of a disabled French veteran who watches as Napoleon, just returned from Elba, whips his countrymen into a frenzy to go on the warpath once more -- the warpath that will end in disgrace and defeat at Waterloo. I am powerless to stop it, and can sound only the warning of the folly that lies ahead. The dioceses of the Episcopal Church (USA) are marching down the road that leads to their own destruction, as they blindly follow a leader who has not the slightest idea of the limitations on her authority.