As I explained in an earlier comment to my introductory article about the choices available to the Diocese of South Carolina, so long as that Diocese remains joined to and a voting member of the Episcopal Church (USA), the Church can make no claim in court to either its property or assets. In these next two articles, I want to explore what both parties -- first, the Diocese, and second, the national Church -- could do if they maintain their existing legal relationship.
For examples of what choices and options are available to the Diocese if it remains a voting member of the association of dioceses which we call ECUSA, we may turn to history. For there was already a time in the past when South Carolina was not fully a participating member of (what was then called) PECUSA (where the "P" stands for "Protestant"). In 1861, following the outbreak of hostilities in the Civil War, the Diocese of South Carolina withdrew from PECUSA and affiliated with seven other southern dioceses in what was formally called the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America (to keep the acronyms from being too confusing, I shall refer to it as the "Southern Church").
From the point of view of PECUSA, none of the Southern dioceses ever actually "withdrew" -- it continued to call their names at each General Convention, and seated them again virtually without incident once the War was over. In other words, it continued to recognize them as constituent, voting members of the Church throughout the Civil War; it was just that their bishops and deputies were "prevented" by that War from attending its gatherings and participating.
That is why, it seems to me, the example of relations between PECUSA and the Diocese of South Carolina during the Civil War can furnish some instruction on what kind of ongoing relationship the Church and the Diocese could have today, so long as the Diocese remains a full voting member of ECUSA. There is no requirement that South Carolina attend General Conventions; it may still exercise its powers by having its Bishop and its Standing Committee give or withhold consent to the confirmation of new bishops, by controlling the amount of money it chooses to donate to the various parts of ECUSA, and by participating or not, as it pleases, in the other organizational activities of the Church.
During the War, the Canons of ECUSA were recognized in the Southern Church only to the extent they were not superseded by canons the Southern Dioceses adopted for themselves. Thus, the obedience of a Diocese to national canons with which it disagrees likewise is not a condition of retaining one's voting membership in ECUSA. The Diocese may choose to follow only those parts of ECUSA's Constitution and Canons which it approves. (Indeed, we know that many Dioceses do so already, as there are those -- like Eastern Oregon -- which refuse to obey the canon requiring that only baptized Christians partake of Holy Communion.)
There is also nothing to preclude Bishop Lawrence from participating in meetings of the House of Bishops only to the extent that he finds them fruitful, and furnishing him with an opportunity to have his grievances heard by his colleagues in meaningful dialogue. Attendance at the House of Bishops is a right, not a duty.
As the diocesan, Bishop Lawrence of course retains full control over the licensing of clergy to minister within the boundaries of the Diocese. And Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori has already made her canonically mandated visit to the Diocese (shortly after Bishop Lawrence's consecration), so there is no need to arrange any further visits from her during her remaining term of office.
So life in the Diocese of South Carolina, at least from its point of view, could continue pretty much as it has to this date. Indeed, by reducing its participation in the national Church to an absolute minimum, the Diocese would be putting into practice the principle of subsidiarity, in which the national Church could stand to have a refresher lesson or two. Subsidiarity is the idea that the affairs of an organization are dealt with at as local a level as possible, and that only those matters which truly affect the organization as a whole need to receive attention at the topmost level. (It is the principle on which PECUSA itself was founded, and which governed its affairs for the first 150 years of its existence.)
During this period of showing its displeasure with the way the national Church is running itself, the Diocese of South Carolina could also use its continued membership to forge strengthened ties between it and similarly minded dioceses in the Church. For the truth is that if ECUSA is ever to see reform, it will have to take place at the hands of numerous dioceses, and not just one or two acting on their own.
The forging of such alliances should not be regarded as any kind of "disloyalty" to the national organization (although there are certainly those at the top who will choose to view it that way). Rather, it is the exercise of a right that is inherent in the democratic structure of an unincorporated association: the attempt to influence its actions by persuading enough of its members to agree until there is a working majority. Associations are governed by democratic procedures, by and large; ECUSA, even with its more complicated voting procedures in General Convention, is still no exception.
But -- and again, this observation is based on the Civil War experience -- the minimal participation in the affairs of the national Church, and the process of working for changes from within, cannot be a permanent choice. At some point, enough progress has to be made for South Carolina to believe that fuller participation is once more practical, or else the decision must be made that, despite one's best efforts to turn it around, the Church has become spiritually a dead end, so that salvation lies in other company.
I stress that this choice is a corporate one -- to be made by the Diocese of South Carolina as a whole. And in precisely that respect, it is very different from the choices which individuals must make with regard to joining or leaving individual parishes. Those latter choices will continue to be made at the local level, regardless of what corporate choice the Diocese makes as a whole, or when, and there are entirely different considerations at stake. The Episcopal Church (USA) cares little whether or not any given individual remains in one of its parishes; that is why its actions toward parishes can be so bullying. But if five or ten dioceses decide to depart -- now, that will get its attention.
The other question which needs to be addressed, in exploring the option of the Diocese's staying in ECUSA for the time being, is, of course, what steps could ECUSA take in response? As we shall see, those are largely ones under its new Title IV, the validity of which the Diocese of South Carolina does not recognize. Thereby lies the potential for a true constitutional crisis -- the perpetration of which, however, lies wholly in the hands of the national Church's leadership. And it is to that dire possibility that I shall turn in my next article.