COLUMBIA -- Episcopalians in South Carolina are headed for a painful split now that a majority of Lowcountry members have sided with Bishop Mark Lawrence in his standoff with an increasingly liberal, and in Lawrence's view, theologically wobbly national church.
But questions remain about Lawrence's authority to lead a secession of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which was approved last Saturday at a convention he called in Charleston.
At issue, too, is the status of those Lowcountry Episcopalians who don't agree with Lawrence's decision to disassociate. At least 12 congregations among the 75 in the diocese have expressed a desire to remain with the American church, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Bishop W. Andrew Waldo, the head of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, had hoped to avoid all this. Over the last few months, he has remained in conversation with his fellow South Carolina bishop, a man with whom he shares a rich friendship.
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"I've known from the beginning before I was elected that the tensions between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church were many," Waldo said. While not ruling out "creative solutions," Waldo said, "the window of opportunity has narrowed."
With last Saturday's vote and Lawrence's earlier restriction by the national church, "we are in a time of immense canonical ambiguity and lack of clarity about what the next steps are going to be," Waldo said.
Waldo had urged the national church to keep talking with Lawrence, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the ordination of gay and lesbian bishops as well as the church's move to bless same-sex unions. But national church leaders, including presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, had apparently reached a breaking point.
In September, the church's 18-member Disciplinary Board found Lawrence had abandoned the communion of the church, not for his stance on homosexuality but for his endorsement of actions that gave the diocese authority to challenge the national church on issues of discipline and prepare for a takeover of the diocese, including Episcopal properties that aligned with him.
On Oct. 15, Jefferts Schori notified Lawrence of the Disciplinary Board's decision and his restriction as a bishop.
Since then, Lawrence seems enlivened by supporters willing to leave with him.
Jefferts Schori has said Lawrence cannot take the diocese out of the national church, as Lawrence says he has done after the special convention.
"While some leaders have expressed a desire to leave The Episcopal Church, the Diocese has not left," Jefferts Schori said in a letter dated Nov. 15. "It cannot, by its own action. The alteration, dissolution, or departure of a diocese of The Episcopal Church requires the consent of General Convention, which has not been consulted."
Lawrence, however, has suggested the Diocese was planted before the national church was formed, which gives him leverage to claim he is now bishop over the now solitary diocese. He said he would not resist congregations who want to remain with the national church.
"And while some of us still struggle in grief at what has happened ... I believe it is time to turn the page," Lawrence told the special convention.
The spectacle of a renegade diocese has riveted the Lowcountry and engendered a mixture of disbelief, puzzlement and grief, said Steve Skardon, who edits the website www.scepiscopalians.com.
"I have never seen anything like it," Skardon said. "I can now understand how the South seceded from the Union. It is pure gut-level emotion. There is no place for fact."