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Nov. 21, 2012
Column #1,630
Fifth Diocese Withdraws from Episcopal Church
By Mike McManus

The Diocese of South Carolina became the fifth diocese in which an overwhelming percentage of parishes voted to leave The Episcopal Church. 

In 1790, South Carolina Diocese was one of seven that organized the Protestant Episcopal Church. What prompted the Diocese to abandon a denomination it helped form two centuries ago? 

The Episcopal Church (TEC) voted in July to recognize same-sex marriage.  S.C. Bishop Mark Lawrence and his entire delegation walked out of the TEC convention with a statement:

“We hereby repudiate and reject any action of The Episcopal Church which purports to bless what the Lord clearly does not bless. Specifically, we declare any rite which purports to bless same-gender unions to be beyond the authority of the General Convention.”

However, what sparked the final separation was the decision by TEC’s Disciplinary Board to charge Lawrence with having “abandoned The Episcopal Church.”  That’s not how the Church of England, the Anglican home of TEC views it. It voted to continue its association with the Diocese.  Archbishops from “Kenya to Singapore, England to Egypt, Ireland to the Indian Ocean, representing the overwhelmingly vast majority of members of the Anglican Communion” told Lawrence that they consider him “a faithful Anglican Bishop in good standing.”

They have even called upon The Episcopal Church “to repent and return to the Lord.”

When a vote was taken on November 17, 54 congregations out of 73 voted to leave TEC, while 12 declared their intention to remain with it.  The others were undecided.

To leave is courageous.

In every case that the diocese has left the denomination, TEC sued to get financial control of not only the assets of the diocese, but the properties of the individual congregations.  It won that battle in the Pittsburgh Diocese and Quincy, IL.  The Diocese of Fort Worth will soon plead its case before the Texas Supreme Court, as will my parish before the Virginia Supreme Court. Nor has a final resolution been decided with the San Joaquin Diocese in California. 

The matter is personally financially very costly for the clergy as well. They will forfeit medical insurance.  Clergy who have contributed to the pension fund are vested after five years, but contributions will no longer be accepted. Severed from the national denomination, the Diocese of Charleston can offer neither health insurance nor pensions.

The Episcopal Church has won every legal case to date, with one exception.  All Saints Church in Pawley’s Island, S.C. won its battle to retain its property in the S.C. Supreme Court.  That precedent may help for the Diocese of South Carolina.  

However, I do not understand why The Episcopal Church has been so successful.  Why don’t courts recognize the First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion?  How can a national church tell 20,000 people in scores of parishes in a diocese that they do not have the right to exit that denomination and join another?

How is TEC successful in the courts?  It argues that TEC is a hierarchal church in which local congregations and clergy recognize they are subordinate to a bishop and a diocese. 

However, in this case, and in four others, an entire diocese with most of its parishes have walked away. In fact, a new denomination has arisen from hundreds of orthodox Episcopal churches who have left to create the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which now has nearly 1,000 churches and 100,000 members.

Interestingly, the Diocese of South Carolina has not yet decided to join ACNA.  As Bishop Lawrence told his congregations, “As any wise pastor will tell you, if you have been in a troubling, painful or dysfunctional relationship for a long period of time and then the marriage or relationship ends, you would be wise not to jump right away into the first one that comes along and tie the knot.”

Jesus prayed that his followers “be one,” as he and the Father are one.  That is one command of Jesus that Americans have excessively ignored. 

There are hundreds of denominations, with more forming all the time, such as the Anglican Church in North America that joins parishes in the U.S. and Canada.  In addition, there are 100,000 independent churches, not affiliated with any denomination.

However, this very independence of American churches is what gives them so much vitality.  Nearly two-thirds of Americans are members of a church or synagogue.

That’s two to 10 times the percentage of Europeans who are church members. 

Where in the Bible is a commandment, “Thou shalt not leave?”

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