SC Episcopal diocese responds to national church

Officials of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina affirmed this month their sovereignty and discussed the need to encourage growth by starting new congregations.

At the 220th convention, held Feb. 18 and 19 at the Parish Church of St. Helena in Beaufort, delegates voted a second time to pass two resolutions amending the diocesan constitution. The first removes the accession clause to the canons of the Episcopal Church and the second permits the diocese to convene its representatives more than once a year if required.

"These resolutions seek to protect the diocese from any attempt at unconstitutional intrusions in our corporate life in South Carolina and were in response to the revisions to the Title IV Canons of the Episcopal Church," the diocese wrote in a summary of the convention.

The resolutions are part of six drafted last year in response to what the diocese called "far-reaching and polity-changing revisions to the disciplinary canon of the Episcopal Church."

In 2009, the national church body changed a portion of its canon law, clarifying -- augmenting, the diocese argues -- the authority of the presiding bishop with regard to "ecclesiastical discipline." That change takes effect in July this year.

The six resolutions that passed in October at the reconvened 219th diocesan convention delete reference in the diocesan constitution to national church canon law, assert diocese sovereignty and make it easier to change governing documents. They remove the "unqualified accession" clause that recognizes the supremacy of the Episcopal Church's constitution and canons, and delete a section of canon law stating that property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Mark Lawrence explained at the fall convention that these changes were meant to protect the rights of a sovereign diocese.

"These resolutions are not, as some have suggested, intended to remove this diocese from the Episcopal Church," he said. "On the contrary, they are proposed for the purpose of enabling this Diocese of South Carolina to continue to rightly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church (rightly understood) and the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as this church has received them and to be able to stand as a serious minority voice in this church."

The recent turmoil in the diocese began, roughly, in 2003, when Gene Robinson was consecrated as the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, triggering a long debate over the authority of the church institution versus the authority of Scripture, which opponents to ordination of gays and lesbians insist is clear on the matter.

At this month's convention, Lawrence did not dwell on the disagreements between the diocese and its parent institution, seeking instead to turn attention to the future, according to a diocesan news release.

"It is my expressed hope that this year of 2011 will be free from constitutional and canonical challenges from the 'national' leadership of the Episcopal Church, and that we in the Diocese of South Carolina can get on with the work of growing our parishes, strengthening the lives of our parishioners and churches, and planting new congregations," he said, according to a published version of his address.

Most of his discussion was devoted to the subject of church planting and growing congregations, especially in the face of attendance declines reported nationally. He also spoke about the need to support the diocese financially.

But some local Episcopalians are increasingly concerned about the diocese's "path of separation." The Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, which has about 500 members, scheduled its Enthusiastically Episcopalian Conference for March 12 at the Charleston Area Convention Center.