Monday, December 04, 2006

A New Bishop?

Thinking Anglicans has just posted The Very Rev. Mark Lawrence's open answers to pointed questions regarding The Episcopal Church's pending approval for his consecration as the next Bishop of South Carolina.

There is a great deal of material there. Mark Lawrence is clearly not given to glib answers, which I find initially impressive. (More conservative bloggers have fallen into calling the opposite of glib "episcobabble," but it seems that even some of their favorites are not immune.) I am thankfully not entrusted with the weighty decision of approving his consecration and investiture. That duty belongs to our current bishops with jurisdiction and our diocesan standing committees. But among some of my puzzlements stemming from his writing, there are two big concerns that surfaced immediately:

He writes:

"I too am a member of a diocese that has asked for Alternative Primatial Oversight. . ."

Yes, namely The Diocese of San Joaquin, which just took a first vote overwhelmingly in favor of effectively seceding from the Episcopal Church. I cannot help but wonder how Mark Lawrence voted.

He avoids answering the hypothetical question #2 -- one asking simply if he would support The Diocese of South Carolina if they voted to secede -- by hedging against a "future crisis that could send any of us into a conundrum of canonical contradictions." The future is now, I'd say.

He writes elsewhere:

"I also recognize that [Katharine Jefferts Schori's] actions as bishop of Nevada in condoning same sex blessings, for which she has expressed no regret, put her in violation of the Windsor Report and, consequently, compromise her ability to function in primatial authority and relationship."

As part of a lengthy justification for marginalizing the new Presiding Bishop in a place where he may end up having jurisdiction, Mark Lawrence appeals to her "violation of the Windsor Report." Canons can be violated. So can constitutions. But I'm not sure the Windsor Report can be. It was not handed down as a prescription to be followed to the letter, nor was it given authority over this or any other constituent province of the Communion. It was a starting point for discussion amongst the instruments of unity -- and it has already been taken very seriously by this Church -- as the tears and heartache around the pained B033 at last General Convention testify. Must it also be enshrined as canonically significant?

Mark Lawrence's claim that our Presiding Bishop is somehow "compromised" in her ability to function as our Primate by her "violation" of WR is just as specious (not to mention slightly presumptuous -- does he speak on behalf of the Primates?) as appealing to the WR as a precedent for "Alternative Primatial Oversight" -- a phrase that never appears even once in the lengthy document.

Mark Lawrence acknowledges that Katharine Jefferts Schori was duly elected as our Presiding Bishop. Just like Bishop Schofield of San Joaquin, ML+ was granted his priesthood and license to function as an ordained member in the Episcopal Church by the same set of canons that contain provisions granting ++KJS her authority. To bar the PB on the one hand and approving of appeals to extra-canonical authority on the other (namely, APO from the other Primates, who have no direct canonical authority in this Province of the Communion) does not express to me a willingness to fully engage in the unity of The Episcopal Church -- something that, as bishop, he would be called upon to safeguard.

It might be convenient at times to dismiss the polity of canons and constitutionality on biblical grounds. He seems to argue elsewhere in this apologetic that liberals have done the same (I agree, although the canons were subsequently brought into line through due process at General Convention.) But where Mark Lawrence appears to be flagging, and most dangerously, is that the canons and constitution exist primarily not to hold the church back from innovation, whether "progressive" or "traditionalist." While they have been used this way, note how San Joaquin, Quincy, and Fort Worth have continued for over thirty years to bar women from priesthood: a canonical violation, but tacitly respected out of pastoral consideration from GC and the House of Bishops. (I'm not happy with that consideration, but it goes to show that bending the canons and constitution on pastoral grounds and out of deference to more local autonomy cuts all ways.)

Rather, it seems to me the spirit of the constitution and canons is first and foremost to set the boundaries of our common life most precisely when we are in conflict. Like right now. . . So that we keep a common life by "fighting fair", i.e. threats of divorce are kept off the table (as in any healthy marriage -- an analogy that Mark Lawrence appeals to). . .a common life that seeks to safeguard unity, even when we strongly disagree. . .a common life as the Body of Christ expressed in our core sacramental practices of Communion and Baptism, and yes, around Scripture, as heated as our differing interpretations and understandings may get.

The more I consider Mark Lawrence's writing, the more I understand the unease many have with the thought of his becoming bishop in The Episcopal Church. Be that as it may, withholding consent of a bishop-elect is a very weighty matter, and would likely lead to more schismatic acts. But then, so may giving consent in this case, based on what ML+ has written.

May our Bishops and Standing Committees pray deeply over this decision. My prayers are with them. My best one remains: "May God's will be done. . ." in this and in many difficult matters facing our common life at present.

You can also see Tobias Haller's comments on this matter, as well as two posts -- Mark Lawrence and his answers and Time to say No by Mark Harris over at Preludium.

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