Epic Fail: TEC/SC Issues Boil Over

Prelude: I am in grief. The conflict between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national Episcopal church leadership has been brewing for years. The boil-over is like a bad divorce between two people who, in your mind, should have been able to work things out. You love them both and, even though you saw it coming, you keep wondering, “How did it come to this?”  I wrote this post on Wednesday evening. I have sat on it for three days hoping that my grief would subside. It has not.

“I ask…on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one…so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” –John 17:20-21, NRSV

 Epic Fail. It’s a junior high expression overused to meaninglessness: Dropping a pass. Spilling coffee on your laptop. Tripping in public. Yesterday an actual Epic Fail occurred. The Episcopal Church brought abandonment charges against a bishop actively trying to meet to work out differences. It was my worst day in five years as an Episcopalian.

This is where decades of disagreement over biblical interpretation and human sexuality have left us. If you are not a Christian you are probably wondering why we can’t just treat each other like Christians. If you are a Christian, and especially an Episcopalian OF ANY STRIPE, you will almost surely take issue with what I am about to write.

I write, however, as one who loves his church. Five years ago I walked away from reductionistic evangelicalism to embrace the wisdom of the ancient church, the beauty of liturgy, the soul enrichment of spiritual practice and social engagement as a force for good in the world. As someone who always rejected the small box of fundamentalism, I was enthusiastic to join a church that promised to be a big tent welcoming all to the table. You see, unlike other Christians, Episcopalians were never really a confessional church with long detailed doctrinal statements. We are a CHURCH UNITED BY OUR WILLINGNESS TO PRAY WITH THOSE WE DON’T AGREE WITH, and in what we do believe, we keep it simple – We are a creedal church (the brief Nicene Creed-a large tent with lots of room for disagreement). That room was necessary in England where one church contained Catholics, Protestants and the publicly religious.

If you are not an Episcopalian you probably have no grid in your experience for what a church united around the willingness to pray together might look like. My first Sunday in an Episcopal Church I sat with a friend who worked for our bishop.  He answered for me all the usual questions about the Catholic practice and Protestant theology that characterize us. Then I asked about the political stances of the church. The friend explained that with Episcopalians agreement was not expected. Diversity of opinion was considered a strength, a charism. On one end of the spectrum we had diocese’ that pushed the envelope to bless same-sex couples and, on the other, diocese’ that did not ordain women. As someone with every inclination toward including others, reconciling those in conflict, and whose life’s ministry has been to work across boundaries in ecumenical evangelism, to say I was intrigued by this commitment to comprehensiveness was an understatement.

The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

I have followed things in South Carolina closely, both because of my own wiring toward reconciliation and because I have CLOSE friends on both sides of this issue. I know both sides of this debate well. Both sides have operated in ways that made perfect sense to them in their context and BOTH appear duplicitous and mean spirited to the other. The series of reactions and re-reactions has resulted in broken fellowship.

I realize that there are deep wounds on both sides. I know both sides chronology of what the other side did. I also know that the other side loves God and honestly thinks they are acting in good faith. But do you catch the language? Referring to our sisters and brothers in Christ as sides is tragic. Tragic also is that, in the end, we were the ones who said, “There is a stage leaving town at sundown. Be under it.”

I fear that the “oneness” for which Jesus prayed is going to become defined for us, as in other denominations, as agreement – or at least as the willingness to give the appearance of walking in lockstep with whoever holds the keys of power. That might be the most tragic result of all.

For those not following this situation, here is what appears to have happened in the simplest terms: The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office. Did South Carolina really want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. Did the national church want a solution? I do not really know. They say they did. I do not presume to read minds or motives…of either side. I merely grieve.

South Carolina is unlike the rest of the Episcopal church in many ways. But we have a long history of making room for people who push the bounds of our theology, politics and canon law. We had room for Bishop Pike who literally begged our bishops to inhibit him. We had room for Bishop Spong and his version of the old SNL Fluckers skit, “Here’s a new theology I just made up!” Now, sadly, we do not have room for a bishop and the lion’s share of his diocese, that hold a traditional view of marriage. The truth is that we have changed. We moved their cheese.[1] Why can we not give them room to differentiate themselves?

Last night I was in a car with someone who is a key player in our institution. She is a great person who loves God and the church. I cannot describe the sinking feeling in my heart when she said, “We will be a leaner-meaner church now. One that can stop pretending and be who we are.” Well, we will be leaner- by 30,000 Episcopalians. And we will certainly be meaner as we will no longer be held in tension by opposing voices. Is it really a good thing to silence dissent? Will we be able to “be who we are?” I fear that unless who we are is redefined as “a narrow group of Progressive Puritans” then the answer is no. We have been a comprehensive church – A table with room for all. Will that still be who we are? Or is that day passing?

The saddest part of the whole thing for me is the response on the web-organs of our church. Where is the grief in these posts?

The tone on the South Carolina sites is instructive. Their tone is grief. It is not the tone of someone who took their toys and went home.

I do not judge the motives of those on either side. Although this is a very public dispute, there is surely much information that I am not privy to. It is being said that this is what South Carolina angled for all along. I can say that, if this was a conspiracy, it was the greatest conspiracy since the resurrection. I would have to believe that multiple South Carolina diocesan employees including their bishop…in public and private conversations , within and without the walls of their diocesan offices, face-to-face, over phone and text, over years, faked frustration and fear. I think there is a better explanation: We missed it. Us. Them. All of us. We missed one another. They wanted to be different to be sure, but the South Carolina Episcopalians I know wanted to be Episcopalians.

And worst of all, in the eyes of the unchurched, we have all failed in both unity and love.

The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.

But we didn’t. None of us. And that is the shame.

We could have done better. All of us. We could have assumed the best of one another. We could have refused to respond out of fear. We could have made the other make the first move…and the second…and the third. I understand why everyone made every move they made. All around people did their best. Yet today we have an…

Epic Fail.

[1]Who Moved My Cheese: An Amazing Way to Deal With Change in Your Work and in Your Life. Spencer Johnson, 1998.


72 thoughts on “Epic Fail: TEC/SC Issues Boil Over

  1. It makes my heart and soul very sad. We are applying too much law and too little Grace. Classic liberalism, as I understand it, would make room for South Carolina. This is fake liberalism IMO. Progressive Puritans is about right.

    • Thanks, Father Frank. I agree with you. Nicholas thought that it was all sabre rattling and that no one really wanted to go nuclear. I am very sad that was not to be.
      p.s. It was fun to see you with the canons last night. That is a great group!

  2. Matt, I share your grief over the fracturing of the Body of Christ. I do think we should be clear about exactly what happened from The Episcopal Church’s standpoint. That is, the action against Bishop Mark Lawrence was not a political decision, a strategy decision, or a decision to give up on reconciliation – at least not from leadership’s standpoint. Instead, it was a disciplinary decision. The 18-member Disciplinary Board for Bishops ruled by majority vote that Bishop Lawrence had abandoned communion with the church, based on some very troubling actions taken by the diocese that he supported. I don’t know the details of the disciplinary board’s deliberations, of course. Given that ruling, the Presiding Bishop had no choice but to inhibit Bishop Lawrence’s ministry as a bishop for 60 days. However, he does have 60 days to answer the charges and could still choose to attempt reconciliation. But the Diocese had a pre-determined course of action that meant that by their own decision, the Disciplinary Board’s ruling triggered their decision to leave the church. A sad situation all around. I share your hope that we can continue as a comprehensive church, and point to conservative dioceses like Dallas and Central Florida, both of which opposed same-sex blessings, but did not take actions constituting abandonment of communion. I myself am theologically very orthodox, creedal and evangelistic – I am a progressive catholic evangelical. I hope there will always be room for crazy people like me in this church. Blessings to you and prayers for the grief you are experiencing.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Susan.

      I know why we did what we did. Like I wrote, everyone’s actions make perfect sense from their perspective. All of our actions made sense in light of South Carolina’s actions. From their perspective, however, their actions were just as reasonable and were to protect them from us. I have friends there and have traded ministry with them on multiple occasions. I was on phone and text with folks there each time they were doing what they were doing. I am absolutely convinced that they were afraid of us and thought they were walking a fine line of keeping their churches together while insuring their differentiation and safety from us.

      Who is right and who is right is not the issue for me. Sadness at the outcome and our inability to find a way to stay together is.
      Everyone acted out of institutional fear. Everyone was afraid of not doing their duty in light of the other side’s actions. And the outcome is ugly.

      Btw, What a great day for Nativity today: Parish status, convention music, and your beautiful plans in the foyer! Everyone is very excited about what God is doing.

  3. I agree, fear is never a good reason to act. And I don’t know why the Disciplinary Board acted as they did, though I have found some of South Carolina’s diocesan actions very troubling. The diocese seems to have been planning for this course of action all along. But it is certainly possible that the Disciplinary Board could have taken a different course. I am not familiar enough with the canons and the actions of the bishop to be able to second-guess the disciplinary decision. And it’s not my job – the Disciplinary Board is an elected body.

    Thanks – it was a great day for Nativity! I had lots of fun singing with the choir – a treat for someone who is usually standing behind the altar. I feel very privileged to serve in a place where God is so tangibly at work.

    • You got a great complement today. Michael Williams, who preaches for us, said, “The choir I lead (at a Black church) would have had a hard time pulling that song off.”

  4. I am very surprised — or am I really so surprised? — that one whom I’d assume would be an inclusivist from the left wing of your church would make such an exclusive statement about leanness and meanness. It’s deliciously hypocritical of an ECUSA leftist to wax hopeful about a “leaner, meaner” church. As a conservative who left ECUSA for all the usual reasons, even I know that our Blessed Lord wishes us to fling wide the net and never be satisfied at being leaner and meaner.

    I am more confused than sad about the storm in S.C. On the one hand, I can’t believe that Bishop Lawrence had the naivete to accept the call to lead an orthodox diocese that certainly would run afoul of a church that had shown its hand many, many times before Lawrence ever was elected. And if he was not naive, then I hope he was not at bottom dishonest, planning all along to take S.C. out of ECUSA. (not that I think that that’s such a bad thing). On the other hand, I can’t understand a church wanting to essentially destroy one of the few growing dioceses when the church has argued for inclusion for years. I guess this was the wrong kind of inclusion, the revenue stream be damned.

    I am sorry for your anguish. Sin sucks. The consequences also suck.

    P.S., I enjoy your blog. I’m trying to remember how I came to sign up for it, but I’m glad I did.

    • Hi John,
      I am not sure where that comment was coming from. I know that person wants to do evangelism, and is someone who is not reticent on the topics of sin and hell – fairly rare in the Episcopal Church right now. I am also with you on “nets open wide” and Jesus’ method of working toward “belong” before people have the “belief” and “behave” down.

      I cannot speak about Mark Lawrence’s motives. I barely know him. I have had conversations with him three or four times and he has always seemed like a very honest, genuine guy. He has children who love Christ and are in ministry. He was in deep grief over the direction of the church, but so was most of their diocese.

      Bishop Lawrence has pressures none of our other bishops face: He has a lineup card whose cardinal parishes all want to leave and they are the one diocese that has lost a lawsuit with a departing church. From the outside, that seems to say that the lawsuit strategy of other diocese’ would not work there. Even if it would, a litigious strategy against a group of Southerners would be incredibly counter productive. “Don’t mess with Texas” and “Yankee go home” may not have originated in SC, but the sentiment is present. If there has ever been a man between a rock and a hard place it is him: side with the national church and lose your diocese. Side with your diocese and lose the national church and your voice of differentiation, which I believe was important to them. The other conservative diocese’ seem content to quietly co-exist. South Carolina seems to have felt called to be a sort of conscience of traditionalism in the way the California, NY and NJ have been progressive voices of conscience.

      A progressive friend, also a bishop, once said, “Mark Lawrence was a fantastic priest – maybe the best I have ever seen.” Since he is someone whose endorsement I trust completely, I tend to assume the best whenever the subject of Bishop Lawrence comes up.

      I too am surprised that we didn’t find some way to keep the only consistently growing diocese in. It doesn’t make sense to me. I do not know what made the discipline board and the presiding bishop go ahead with these charges (2 of which we the old charges that had been dismissed) at this time. I am sure they have reasons for why this seemed necessary to them…but it all seems motivated by fear all the way around.

      If you have followed this at all, John, you know that they made a series of moves in response to our moves that do make it look to outsiders as if they were paving the way out. When you talked to them, though, they looked very nervous and were saying, “This will make it so that the national church will not push us on these issues.”

      Thanks for following! I am certain we will keep having good dialogue. 🙂

  5. Thanks for the compliment to our choir! We had so much fun singing! And by the way, I agree with you that The Episcopal Church is growing noticeably more “orthodox.” I see this as part of a generational shift – many Baby Boomers were attracted to progressive theology that seems to younger generations like mine (Gen X) to have watered down the core of our faith. The Gen X and Millennial church leaders I know are significantly more orthodox in their (our) theology. They (we) accept progressive positions on gay/lesbian inclusion and the place of women in the church as givens, but love – LOVE – orthodox theology, neo-monasticism, and liturgy infused with mystery and transcendence. Interesting pendulum swing, isn’t it?

  6. Hi Steve,
    In Arizona the ELCA has really taken it on the chin. I think their four largest churches all pulled out. The ELCA bishop seems like a really solid Christian man and a good leader. I am suspecting he does not have much of a budget left with which to spur vision and new opportunities now.

    I am not sure what the best way to have the sex conversation would have been, but re-dividing the church over pro and con on an issue which is deeply important, yet still a second level issue, seems not to have been productive for either group…except perhaps to those who want to “be free to be who we are.” If one is a fundamentalist, clarity and purity are of utmost importance-regardless of whether that fundamentalism is conservative or progressive.

    • Matt,

      Yes, it has been really difficult for us. We have tried talking and voicing our concerns to our Bishops, but it has fallen on deaf ears. They just know better now, and that is it. They are actually happy that we (many) are leaving. We, in fact, believe that they are the ones who left, and it started almost from our (ELCA) inception.

  7. I think it’s important to know that the diocese of SC was in conversation with the presiding bishop about finding ways to coexist and then the discipline board ended that conversation with their charges. The PB sits on that board and could easily have asked them to set the matter aside so the conversations could continue first. She chose not to. While it’s fair to say she had no choice but to restrict his ministry once the ruling from the board happened, she also had the ability to delay the board’s decision in order to work on reconciliation.

    • Hi Dave,
      Thank you for filling in the picture a bit for us. You are in our prayers.

      The disaffiliation statement on your website was pretty hard to read.

      Blessings, friend.

  8. One has to wonder, how did the members of the church feel when the Orthodox and Catholic church split? When the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans split from the Catholic church? When you think back even to the disagreements in the very early church, it would seem that tensions within the church, splits within the church, are the very means it has had to spearate and grow. Is it painful? Invariably yes. Has the church grown from a small Jewish sect to something more? Yes, and it will continue to grow every day because God’s presence in the world grows every day.

    • Hi Stephen,
      Thanks for weighing in. Perhaps more people will become Christians and pray with prayer books because of splits. I cannot help but think our inability to find ways forward grieves the heart of God…and that the resulting narrowness impoverishes us all.

      • Thanks Matt, I guess I prefer to belong to a larger church rather than a small Jewish sect, and what I experience is that each change, though painful and sometimes not understandable at the time, has been part of God’s plan, and who are we to question that?

  9. I will never understand people who say things like ‘we’ll be a leaner and meaner church’. Do they really imagine that a shrinking church — a church that attacks its own adherents and chases them out into the cold, and is therefore reaching fewer and fewer people — is achieving something good? Or do they believe this slash-and-burn, toe-the-line-or-else approach will actually attract new people to the church? I’m truly baffled. Worse, though, is that such responses strike me as expressive of a certain perverse glee — particularly jarring given that one of the lessons I learned as a child in TEC was that it is wrong to delight in another’s pain.

    I know and love many people in SC. I certainly don’t agree with everything they have done, but I understand where they’re coming from. I generally understand where 815 is coming from, too, but I remain mystified by their understanding of what inclusion is; to my mind, saying “we welcome absolutely everyone, and we celebrate divesity and difference — unless you disagree with us, in which case, we don’t want you here” is wildly inconsistent, to say the least.

    This mess is the cause of great pain and sadness for many people; those people who take any delight in it should have the decency to keep it to themselves.

    • Thanks for coming by and commenting CSS.
      I would like to say that the person who made that comment is a really fantastic person who loves Jesus and His church. Now that this post is getting so much traffic I am rather sorry I mentioned it. I don’t want to be publicly humiliated for every off-hand comment I make.

      • The sad fact is that quite a few people have made such comments — and of those I know personally, I would ordinarily characterize them as decent, good-hearted, well-intentioned people. Which is no doubt a large part of why I was so shocked to hear them say such things. To their credit, when called on it (politely, gently, but clearly), most of them have expressed regret (genuine, I believe). I begin to wonder if some (not all) people say such things as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to (what seems to the speaker to be) a sudden and hurtful, loss. I’m thinking of the way that someone who was dumped or fired might say, “well, I’m better off without So-and-so / that job”; do you know what I mean? Sadly, some people really do seem to mean it. (In my experience, those who say things about TEC being a more “pure” church

      • [Accidentally hit “post comment” mid-sentence.]
        (In my experience, those who say things about TEC being a more “pure” church without X or Y person or group, do seem to mean it. My experience, of course, is only mine, and I can no more see into the hearts of others than I can fly, so that opinion is worth what you just paid for it.)

        As a general rule, I do try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not allow my default assumption to be that people speak with malice. As a general rule, I also try to see all sides of an argument — well, actually, I tend to do that naturally, because I tend to turn things around and around in my mind. But when I am upset about something, it is harder to do both these things. (Perhaps not surprising, but that’s no excuse.) And by allowing my pain and/or anger to overcome my better inclinations, I am just like those people who spoke out of their pain or anger, am I not?

  10. Part of the challenge is that when charges are brought against a member of the clergy (bishop, priest, or deacon) they MUST be dealt with–and we have structured our canons to specifically prohibit “putting it off”–generally because that was what happened all too often in the cases of child sexual abuse (which, I know, isn’t the issue here). The Disciplinary Board can either decide that there was no offense or that there was. I do not believe it has the option of taking a “wait and see” position.

    I, too, wish it had not come to this. However, I am quite troubled by the news I have heard in the past several years coming out of South Carolina. If one is worried about a local church leaving the diocese and TEC, then why issue a quitclaim deed to every congregation giving them unrestricted ownership of their property. That’s like saying “I don’t want you to steal my car, so I’m giving it to you.” I just don’t get it. I also don’t have too much sympathy for Bishop Lawrence. He knew what he was in for when I answered the call to be their bishop–both of their calls–so the fact that he is a difficult position shouldn’t have been a surprise. The fact that the Standing Committee had a resolution specifically triggered by TEC’s action makes it seem like they were packed and ready to go.

    I am also STILL waiting for someone to propose a third option–one that neither allows South Carolina to walk away without consequences nor allows TEC to be heavy-handed in their dealings. For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth, I have yet to hear anything but “continue the status quo” which seems closer to option one. As someone who is Rector of a “remnant church” (composed of the 1/3 of the congregation that didn’t leave for the ACNA) I frankly have little sympathy with those who feel they must leave (or use the crock “the church left me!”) because of issues of sexuality and biblical interpretation. The wounds from those who have departed have crippled both the churches that left and those who stayed. No one wins here.

  11. Hi Tom,
    Thank you for sharing that being left also contains a great deal of pain. I do not know how that feels. I became an Episcopalian the same month that the last of our departing churches left-I never knew an undivided church.

    I do not know the right thing to do. I am a youth guy/church planter in Phoenix. There are actions I thought would have been more helpful than the actions either side made…but I have not been under the pressure that those making decisions on both sides are under. Arm chair quarterbacking is really easy from the Lazy Boy. I know the thought process behind the quit claim deeds. I also saw exactly how they would be read by the rest of the church. But discussing what could or should have been done is moot at this point.

    My post was about the grief that I, and I think many, are feeling. I feel those emotions because of friendships in South Carolina. They are the same feelings I would feel if it were my friends in the Diocese of California, where I just got back from a Christian Education Conference, that were on their way out of the church.

  12. I am a priest in the Diocese of South Carolina. I am the Rector of a 305 year-old Church, the oldest church building south of Virginia. I was ordained in 2001 after graduating from Sewanee. I am a “recovering lawyer” who left a 15-year legal career because I love the Lord and fell in love with a Church who welcomed all to the table, and I felt called to serve this Church as an ordained priest in a Diocese and for a Bishop I loved. There is much grief wihin our churches here, certainly within my congregation. Perhaps Bishop Waldo of Upper SC has the best perspective on all this, since he made the trip in early October to New York with Bishop Lawrence to meet with the Presiding Bishop and try to mediate a way forward for the Diocese of SC to remain peacfully within TEC. Would Bishop Waldo and Bishop Lawrence really have taken such a trip if they had known the Disciplinary Board had already met and was already down the road with the charges being drawn up against Bishop Lawrence? Does that seem duplicitous to host such a meeting while getting a pen ready to sign the papers? At our two-hour parish meeting yesterday afternoon, one member of my parish asked a poignant question, one that I could not answer: “How can 14 people make a decision for 30,000 Episcopalians?” And yet, in its simplest terms, those charges filed with the Disciplinary Board did just that. It was the shot on Fort Sumter that I fear cannot be withdrawn, and many, many of us in coastal SC are in deep grief over it. Perhaps the “new orthodoxy” of TEC doesn’t have room for Biblical orthodoxy after all. Perhaps there is a sigh of relief that TEC is finally done with us. As for me and my parish, we will serve the Lord, keeping the main thing, the main thing. Our mission statement at our Church is that we “Welcome All, Worship Christ, and Witness God’s Love.” We are ready to confirm 45 newcomers in three weeks. We will not change what we are doing, even if the world around us is shifting. God bless The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina. I hope and pray that we can each treat each other with love and respect as we part ways after hundreds of years together.

    • Hello Marshall,

      Thank you for letting us know how it feels to be clergy in South Carolina right now.

      Having done youth work among your people, I have dear friends and acquaintances & colleagues in South Carolina whose work I admire.

      I can tell you that the words I am hearing from most on both sides of the sexual understanding divide are words of grief and sorrow.

      I fear that the love and respect part is about to become much more difficult to exercise as this is surely headed to the courts. I have heard lots of people (on both sides) say that this is “God’s direction.” That makes me wince. I have a hard time fathoming that it is God’s desire that money generously given by saints young and old for Kingdom work be drained away to go toward making a group of lawyers fabulously wealthy. God help us all.

      p.s. I love your mission statement…and that you are confirming 45 newcomers! Well done, Good and faithful servant.

      Marshall you (and the church both within and without SC) will be in my prayers. Especially that we would keep our eyes on the hope of the Gospel and the extension of the Gospel rather than on fruitless debates and legal distractions.

      • Like you, I dislike the “this is God’s direction / what God wants” statements. They remind me of the way some people will say, after someone has died (usually tragically young), that God wanted him, or it was part of God’s plan. I know they mean well, and they are just trying to make sense of a painful situation, but I always want to say to them, no, God is the enemy of death (and vice versa).

  13. Hi Matt,

    I really appreciate this post and the careful, sensitive way you are trying to draw out the failure on both sides and the grief you feel. I grieve too, though perhaps for different reasons.

    You mentioned a couple of times that what really bothers you is the idea that perhaps Anglicanism isn’t as wide a tent as it is supposed to be, or more aptly, perhaps The Episcopal Church isn’t as wide a tent as she should be. I think your key passage is this one:

    The church I fell for promised roominess. It welcomed progressives to come in and allowed them to push the envelope on many issues. One would have thought that same roominess could be extended toward those who disagree with the new directions of the church. Unfortunately, yesterday we found out that was not to be.

    I can sympathize with the feeling of being cheated, but I would like to humbly suggest that the very idea of “roominess” is part of the problem. It is actually an incredibly modern notion that Anglicanism a way of being Church in which those who hold diametrically opposing theologies can all co-exist. The Anglican Reformation had definite principles to it, a particular understanding of the Christian faith that was honed and fully articulated in the Elizabethan Settlement. While this understanding was never fully accepted by all corners in the Church of England, as can be evidenced by the reality of a civil war largely driven by religion just a century later, there has nevertheless always been a theological core to Anglicanism that is much more precise than modern people seem to realize. The advent of church parties in the nineteenth century has changed the way we look at Anglicanism, but even the early Anglican Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics believed that what they were introducing was a reform movement to being the practice of the Anglican Church(es) back in line with Anglican principles. No one dreamed that they were creating a new way of being church in which theology is secondary to getting along.

    So when TEC and the Diocese of SC began to head in completely separate trajectories, it was inevitable that this sort of separation would happen eventually, though it did not have to be so rigid and angry. But I think that perhaps what we have here is an opportunity, to re-learn what it is to be Anglican and then to ask ourselves, conservative or liberal or whatever label we like, if what we have been doing is really Anglican at all. I suspect that if we did that honestly, we’d find that we’ve all been steering the ship in the wrong direction.

    • Hello Jonathan,

      You should know that you are author of my favorite blog.

      I am a big fan of theological clarity. Archbishop Temple said something about theological clarity being necessary in order to have pastoral charity. It seems that too often we have confused one for the other: We either want to rewrite our theology around our pastoral responses (Progressivism) or to drop pastoral response around our dogma (Conservatism). As someone with a life in ecumenical evangelism, it was immensely frustrating to plug new Christians into churches that could not hold the tension. Anglicanism has a holy potential to it.

      You have spent far more intellectual effort on this than I have, so let me ask a few questions: Must “roomy” mean lack of theology? Could we not have the evangelical parish, the progressive parish, the catholic parish as they do in England? Could we maintain collegiality that way?

      Can you talk more about “right” directions in your view? How do we develop theological clarity while giving room to the reality that people develop clarity in different ways and different times? Even more importantly, How do we keep it centered on relationship with Christ rather than doctrine? As Temple wrote, “Knowledge of God can be fully given to man only in a Person, never in a doctrine. Faith is not the holding of correct doctrine, but personal fellowship with the living God.” Where would you start with “relearning” Anglicanism? One difficulty I see is the question of whose Anglicanism? The tractarians, the social activists, the American unitarians of 200 years ago?

      Surely you are right that no one thought they should drop theology in the way the mega church has. (It is fascinating to hear Rodger Nishioka tell the story of Andy Stanley insisting to him that North Point “has no theology.”)

      Brother, I am all ears.

      • Hi Matt,

        You ask good questions. I’ll try to respond some time tomorrow. In the mean time, you’ve inspired some more thoughts from me over at The Conciliar Anglican. I hope you’ll take them not as a criticism but as a fuller exploration of what we have been discussing.

  14. Matt, thank you for your thoughtful post. I am a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Continuing Diocese of Fort Worth (one of the first wave of women, and very grateful to those who have fought for my ability to follow God’s call to ordained ministry), and I know very well that feelings of pain and betrayal have long impacts. There are no “winners” here; your friend who made the “leaner and meaner” comment is quite wrong.

    That said, I have some hesitancy about your marriage metaphor in this post. You write, “The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office.” I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Let us note that Bishop Lawrence was not disciplined for his stance on same-sex marriage. I was in the House of Bishops’ gallery when that vote was taken this summer, and every care was given to try to make room for those who disagreed. A number of bishops who voted “no” commented at length at how grateful they were for that care, notably the bishop of the Dominican Republic. Let us also note that the bishops of Dallas, West Texas, Central Florida, Fond Du Lac, Northern Indiana, and many other dioceses that do not allow same-sex blessings have not been censured in any way. If I understand the certification correctly, Bishop Lawrence’s offense was allowing diocesan convention to change their canons to no longer require conformity with the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and issuing quitclaim deeds to allow parishes to keep their property in the case of a lawsuit (such as the one we’re currently going through in Fort Worth). To me, this is more like, “The husband decided to divorce the wife for quitting on the marriage while they were sitting in the marriage counselor’s office, because she had taken all their money and put it in a separate secret account, and had a lawyer on speed dial.”

    I do not think the Episcopal Church is as big a tent as we claim to be, nor are we as big as we want to be. But I do not think that is the issue here. Bishop Lawrence and the diocesan convention of South Carolina were making the moves to make it possible for them to leave. How should the Disciplinary Board of Bishops respond to actions like that? What do you recommend?

  15. Pingback: The Myth of the Big Tent Church | The Conciliar Anglican

  16. I am a gay priest from the Diocese of New Westminster. That should make it clear where I come from.

    Thank you for this. I wholeheartedly agree. Epic fail. It is so sad…
    Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.


    P.S. I read with interest this paragraph:
    “The irony of all of this is that the Episcopal Church has and is becoming much more theologically orthodox over the five years I have been here. It is more progressive politically to be sure, but it is noticeably more orthodox every year. If we could only have waited another five years both sides would surely end up closer together.”
    I agree with this very much. At least, this is where I find myself.

    • It is rather heartening to see the shift toward a less ambiguous theology and a greater embrace of orthodoxy in general. I think this is likely to continue if the younger clergy I’ve had contact with is any indication. Perhaps part of the shift is that people in my generation really don’t see the point of being involved with the church at all if one doesn’t share the central tenets of the faith. If one wants community, you can find less frustrating community elsewhere. If you want a social service organization or a community non-profit, certainly there are more well organized examples with better stewardship of resources.

      I also think there’s a general sense that pluralism doesn’t mean a mushy confusion of belief, but the sharing of authentic and faithfully held differences.

      At the same time, I have a hard time seeing this positive shift thriving within the institutional context of The Episcopal Church, which I see as a denominational institution bent on self-destruction and irrelevance, not through progressive theology, but through alienation of members and possible members. I don’t know many people who really want to invest themselves in the sort of shenanigans the institutionally mined like to pull. People want an en to conflict, and to the extent that we don’t let it go, we are only harming ourselves and our witness. If new voices are hear in leadership, and there really is a reform of our institutions, perhaps these systemic problems will be addressed, but given the makeup of those appointed to positions by the current PHOD, I have to say that neither myself or the other below-40 clergy I know have been very encouraged, regardless of our theological outlook or position on social issues. So, we just keep praying.

      • Hi Joseph,
        Thank you for bringing your voice to this conversation. You bring up a good point: how does one bring institutional change if people who lead and like the current system want to perpetuate it. That is the attraction of being a non-denom for many of my friends. They see our hierarchies as redundant obstructions. When leadership forgets that our job is to serve not to be served, heaven help us.

  17. I am sure segregationist were sad when they lost Jim Crow and I am sure they thought they were right. I suppose we could have waited for them to be ready and willing to have their oppression dismantled but why let the oppressor set the schedule for the oppressed who are longing to be free? Your argument is sweet but it seems like a well worn strategy of avoidance cloaked in pastoral gentleness. Power is at play here and where did Jesus ever say that the work of the Kingdom should be painless or easy. I remember something about a cross….

    • Hello JKerbal,
      Surely you can see that people in South Carolina are convinced that they are correct here and that we have played power politics with them- which is why they took the steps they took- to protect themselves from what they saw as our oppression and aggression. You are illustrating perfectly the Progressive Puritanism that I wrote about that is convinced it is right and therefore every action is justified, including the labeling of those we disagree with as “oppressors.”

      They would say the cross is what they are upholding. It is a different version of the purpose, power and meaning of the cross. Do we really have so little humility to think that we are 100% right as we redefine the nature of human relationships?

      A progressive bishop friend once told me, “100 years from now we will know the truth. We have either followed the Holy Spirit or played the fool. Time will tell. Until then we should move with fear and trembling and a whole lot of humility.”

    • Troll much?
      If the argument above is “a well worn strategy of avoidance cloaked in pastoral gentleness,” then your remark is chronological snobbery and self-righteousness cloaked in the language of sacrifice.

      This truly reveals that this is not only a disagreement based upon different exegesis of scripture, or understandings of science, but one of worldview. Yours, for instance, seems to leave no room for disagreement not only on the science of human sexuality, but upon the appropriate response. Since you’ve figured everything out, I’m thankful that you’re so ready to share your immense wisdom by speaking so frankly, and denigrating brothers and sisters in Christ so clearly.

  18. From my perspective the presenting issue at the moment is that claim of abandonment is obviously untrue. The whole point of that route, as Ferguson says, was to clean up after people who had plainly gone off somewhere else. Anyone can see that this isn’t what was going on here: the question was and is “can Bishop Lawrence and his diocese do what they’ve attempted to do?” And that is a normal, we-have-to-have-a-presentment stuff. It’s also a problem, from my perspective, that he is essentially getting put through this twice for the same set of offenses. If the couldn’t tell whether he had left the first time around, how is that they can tell this time?

    And as for “leaner and meaner,” SC accounts for 1.5% of membership and 1.8% of ASA. They are also pretty much the only diocese with a consistent record of growth.

    • Amen.

      And once again we have possibly duplicitous behavior at play as the PB was evidently agreeing to meeting dates with +Waldo and +Lawrence at the same time this was moving ahead. If I was +Waldo, I would feel horribly betrayed.

    • Hi Charles,
      I have read your thoughtful work on Covenant Communion for years. Thank you for posting!

      It does have the feeling of double jeopardy to it. 2 of the three charges were already dismissed.


  19. There is more than enough failure to go around, but I think it needs to be remembered that at the core of this action is division within South Carolina. Where the TEC/SC divide is at present started with a complaint against Bp. Lawrence filed by members of the church in South Carolina who were concerned about the actions of their bishop and their standing committee. To stand back at this time and point a finger at the Presiding Bishop or the Disciplinary Board, who have followed the canons and done what was required of them, as if the initial action was theirs, is simply inaccurate. — A further point is, as Tom Ferguson noted, that anybody with eyes to see could have seen this coming when Mark Lawrence was first elected (the first time). — (I’m another one of those “recovering lawyer” priests, by the way.)

    • I would not question whether the disciplinary board had to act, though I think they would procedurally be within their rights to refuse to reexamine the old charges. I do object to their verdict, which is a blatant violation of common sense.

      It is also clear that there is some kind of conflict within the diocese, both with a liberal-AAC-style group (the Forum) and a dissident parish which I am given to understand represents a schism from one of the big extant parishes and which is led by one of the complainants. I’m not sure what the point is of deliberately trying to provoke a departure, but then we are not necessarily rational beings.

    • One more shot, Eric…
      My guess is that there isn’t that much internal conflict for 85% of the diocese. A very good progressive priest jn our diocese who is from SC said he thought it would be a 90-10 vote. That is about as monolithic as anything I can image.

  20. Please explain how Bishop Lawrence has been “duplicitous and mean-spirited.” I know him and anyone who knows him knows he is neither of these things. His was one of the few dioceses in TEC that was growing. This is a message to the few others (Albany and Dallas for example) that still thing there is room in the tent for people who believe in Jesus and 2 Timothy 3:16. TEC has deposed hundreds of clergy for abandoning the communion when they knew full well they had merely chosen to affiliate with another part of the communion. It is now possible to be deposed for abandoning the communion while still a bishop or priest in TEC. We can only hope TEC deposes the rest of the faithful like bishops Love and Stanton. Absent anyone proclaims the gospel and defending the faith once delivered we can expect them to disappear completely. Their own statistician recently reported that at their current rate they will cease to exist in 26 years. Their action against Bishop Lawrence surely cut several years off that estimate.

  21. Hi, Matt. I’m a 27-year-old Anglican living in Canada, and your post really spoke to me. My diocese is the Diocese of New Westminster and we went through pretty much the exact same thing, over the same issue. Additionally, I have the same reservations as you do. Part of why I came back to Anglicanism after some time away – and why I continue to stay despite all of this – is that we try to accomodate all people regardless of how they articulate their faith, refusing to make them sign a contract to be a part of our family. All that said, it broke my heart when our brothers and sisters in four parishes split from us, and indeed took us to court over the ownership of their parish buildings – where they lost. I have a very complicated reaction to the whole thing. Mostly I feel sad that it has come to this. I feel sad that there is so much anger that I feel does not necessarily need to be there. The actions of the Diocese and our Bishop, who has been an amazing pastoral presence in this time, have been misrepresented by those who have chosen to leave to their parishioners and those who know them. Likewise, others who support the Diocese have demonized those who have left. Sometimes, though, I feel angry. I myself, though married to someone of the opposite sex, self-identify as bi-gendered and bisexual. So if there’s no room in their hearts for gay people, there’s no room for me either. (That said, it’s easier for me to “hide” than it would be if I were gay). The things they have said about my GLBT brothers and sisters, and the things they have done – “reparative therapy” and public shaming – make my blood boil. But I can’t let go, because none of us, from the day we left the tomb with joy, have been served by cutting each other off. We are people united by a promise made at baptism, and a common heritage we celebrate in liturgy and, as you say, comprehensiveness.
    All this being said, I thought I could share with you my own hope. One of the church buildings left behind by one of the communities is now open to us again, and contains those parishioners who chose not to leave the diocese. Recently, I attended the induction of their new priest. It was really something else to stand singing and watch the priests and deacons of the diocese – gay, straight, and everything in between – processing into a building many had not been into in more than ten years. I was moved to tears, actually. Contact between us has been tentative – and beautiful.
    Although it was a bittersweet joy – after all, the few that remained were at least in some measure supportive of the diocese – it was still joy that hope could have met us in that place. I commend that hope – the hope of the resurrection – to you, whatever it may mean.

    • Hello Clarity,
      Thank you for wishing me the hope of the Resurrection…which for me, and I suspect for you, the hope that since Christ has died and risen he ever lives to make intercession on behalf of his world and to come again and set all things right.

      My prayer is for all Anglicans: those who have remained and those who have departed to come to a unity of love while our unity of theology is being worked out. I have a hard time imagining separate sections in heaven for prayer book users on the left and right.

      I can imagine how bittersweet it would be to march back into a mostly empty building…as I can imagine how it would be for those who left it.

      God help us as we learn to walk in humility and love with each other despite disagreements.

  22. Hi Matt,

    Let me try to give some response to the good questions that you have posed to me.

    You asked:
    Must “roomy” mean lack of theology? Could we not have the evangelical parish, the progressive parish, the catholic parish as they do in England? Could we maintain collegiality that way?

    Roomy doesn’t actually mean a lack of theology, as far as I can tell, but a lack of recognition that what is being called “big tent” actually is a theology. When we say, “You do your thing and I’ll do mine, as long as we agree in the essentials,” we are effectively saying that the things we disagree about do not matter all that much. Given that the things modern Anglicans disagree about include not just marriage and sexuality but everything from the sacraments to how we are saved, it strikes me that this minimalist theology is hopelessly narrow. Moreover, since even those things we name as our common ground, such as the resurrection or the uniqueness of Jesus, seem to have eroded in many corners of our church without causing schism, it would seem that we do not even really care as much about those things as we purport to. I submit to you that the thing that really holds us together at this point is structural idolatry. We worship the pension plan more than Jesus.

    The Church of England model could not work in the American context for a variety of reasons. For starters, it operates off of the fact that the Church is established. The Church has a kind of integration into society in England that is unparalleled by any of the non-established churches. Therefore, it is in the interest of everyone to play along. What binds people of radically different theologies together is Englishness and the advantages of the parochial system. You may only have fifteen people on a Sunday, but if you are the town vicar you are connected into the community. In America, we do not have anything like this. The Episcopal Church has never been established. Our church is entirely a gathered body that is self-selected. So there is no compelling reason for people with radically different theologies to share a structure. There is no evangelistic advantage.

    But more than that, the Church of England model should not be emulated here because it does not actually work. There are, in effect, a variety of different churches in the Church of England, held together by the thinnest of constructs. Despite the Church’s official formularies, there are churches that are essentially Baptist where you would never tell the difference between them and Willow Creek operating in the same space as quasi Roman Catholic churches that use the Novus Ordo for their liturgy. This is just as untenable there as it is here, and we already see the breakdown at work in the conversations about women’s ordination to the episcopate. It will take a lot longer for the thread to unravel because of the history, and because there are a lot of places out in the country where there is still a genuine Anglicanism being practiced, but we are on the same trajectory.

    (Continued below…)

  23. (…Continued from above…)

    You also asked:
    Can you talk more about “right” directions in your view? How do we develop theological clarity while giving room to the reality that people develop clarity in different ways and different times? Even more importantly, How do we keep it centered on relationship with Christ rather than doctrine? As Temple wrote, “Knowledge of God can be fully given to man only in a Person, never in a doctrine. Faith is not the holding of correct doctrine, but personal fellowship with the living God.” Where would you start with “relearning” Anglicanism? One difficulty I see is the question of whose Anglicanism? The tractarians, the social activists, the American unitarians of 200 years ago?

    I do not think the answer is to turn around tomorrow and expel a bunch of people from the church, but I do think the answer begins with a re-discovery of the formularies. Despite the ways in which the 1979 Book of Common Prayer developed away from the classical prayer book tradition, the basics are still there. We still have the formularies at our disposal if we wish to make use of them. We can form seminarians in the 39 Articles. We can defend the prayer book and make sure that it is used. We can make use of the classical Catechism (as opposed to the strange free-for-all that is called a “catechism” in the ’79 book). We can engage in Anglican apologetics. We can create media that teaches and promotes classical Anglicanism. In the current climate, just getting classical Anglicanism recognized as a viable option among the competing theologies that want to hold sway in the Episcopal Church would be a major victory.

    No offense to dear old Archbishop Temple, but I think that quote offers a false choice. You cannot have a personal fellowship with God without correct doctrine. That would be like me saying that I could have a deep relationship with you without knowing or wanting to know anything about you. There are lots of people who can talk about their deep personal relationship with God who are not Christians, let alone Anglicans. What sets us apart as Christians is the doctrine that has been revealed to us about just who this God is and what the nature of our relationship with Him is. Is it a relationship of wrath or love or both? You cannot answer a question like that without doctrine, and given how important such a question is, it had better be the right doctrine.

    Whose Anglicanism? Ultimately, God’s. I know that sounds like a strange answer, but we have to stop thinking about Anglicanism as if it is a man-made invention. The structures of the Anglican Communion are man-made. The pretty buildings and vestments are man-made. Our polity is largely man-made. The Gospel is not, and Anglicanism is nothing if not a true expression of the Gospel. The voices of various Anglicans throughout the ages can be helpful or a hindrance in finding that Gospel, but a return to the foundations, a return to the Fathers, a return to the formularies themselves, and even a return to the careful theology of the first century and a half after the Reformation can bring us once again to understand what classical Anglicanism is and why it matters. There are not competing “Anglicanisms.” There is Anglicanism and then there are various other theologies that co-exist with Anglicanism within Anglican churches.

    • Hi Jonathan+,
      Thank you for your very thoughtful and detailed rationale for a way forward. For me, this is the money quote: all the other “stuff is man made but “The Gospel is not, and Anglicanism is nothing if not a true expression of the Gospel.” Amen and Amen.

      I have never even heard of a class in the 39 Articles.

  24. Ugh. Such hurt and suffering. It hurt when my home diocese (San Joaquin in California) voted to leave the church, it hurt when some churches in my current diocese (Los Angeles) voted to leave, and it hurts every time someone in my parish leaves. I can’t force them to stay. But I want them to stay.

    • Hi John,
      It has real pain to it, doesn’t it. It is a difficult choice we are making as a church. 1/3 of our church sees the sexuality conversation as a justice issue. Justice must be stood for. 1/3 see it as an issue of revealed truth which therefore must be opposed. 1/3 wonder what will be left when the justice people and the truth people are done with all of this.

      • Fr. Matt, would you mind if I used this comment in an upcoming post on my blog? It well expresses how I feel, wondering ‘what will be left when the justice people and the truth people are done with all of this’.

        • Hi Rob,
          Hope you are well. Feel free to use the comment!

          I keep hoping the pressure is out of the system now that most of the conservatives are gone from TEC. I continue to be re-amazed that progressives cannot seem to stop themselves from pressuring moderates for political and theological conformity. Is it an inability to conceive that they have won? It very much reminds me of the Pilgrims: You persecute them in England and they come to America with a sense of political insecurity and theological rightness. They are a beleaguered minority until they land in America, where they are the ones with guns. Convinced of the need for self-protection, they quickly become oppressors.

          There seems to be a smallness to the vastness of inclusivity.

          I look forward to reading your post. Do me a favor and email me a link as I am behind in my RSS reader right now and that way I can put yours at the top of my list. Blessings, Matt

  25. Of course those charged with making the charges could have recommended conciliation, but both were probably too far gone for that to work.

    What I find disturbing in all this is the “inevitability” of the findings. They had to find he had abandoned TEC, it’s in the canons after all. Yet, the same would not be “inevitable” if those bishops who have allowed Communion Without Baptism to be practiced in their diocese(s)?

    What bothers me most is the unequal application of the Canons of this Church.

  26. Religion is so boring. You’re down to, what, 1.9 million members and shrinking fast and your biggest problem is still who gets the family silver? Seriously, I am delighted that I left religion years ago; I only wish there were some way I could get back all the money I wasted by putting it in the collection plate.

    • Hi Fred,
      If you are referring to Episcopalians, we probably have 1/2 that in Sunday attendance. In terms of religiosity, the data seems to suggest that humans are quite religious and don’t seem to be getting over it any time soon.

      I am not sure what your church was doing with your giving, but ours gave 1/3 of our income away in alms. I suspect you wouldn’t be asking for food, clothing, bus passes and utility assistance back.

      As for “boring,” I suspect you might have been at places doing it poorly. The idea that the God of the universe has a purpose for your life that fits into a grand cosmic scheme is infinitely less boring than the narrative that you are a meaningless accident of blind time and chance.

      As GK Chesterton said, “it isn’t that Christianity has been tried and found wanting but that it is difficult and therefore left untried.” It sounds as if your experience might have had you at some places that were attempting religion without God.

      In the interest of a less boring life, you might want to try connecting with some other folks.

      What was your experience? What were you expecting it to be?

    • And Fred, I am totally with you on the scandal of Christians suing each other and squandering the money that people gave for the betterment of humanity in God’s name going to line the pockets of lawyers.

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