The Episcopal Church in South Carolina: Courts, Conventions and Predatory Opportunism
BY Ladson F. Mills III
Special to Virtueonline
January 29, 2013
The faithful remnant of loyal Episcopalians in South Carolina acknowledge the previous weekend has been an emotional roller coaster. The arrival of the presiding bishop with pep rally excitement and a grand reception was tempered by a judge's ruling prohibiting their use of the official name and diocesan seal until a legal decision is rendered. The lesson here is that to live by the legal model is to risk dying by it.
The presiding bishop was at her best. She managed to convey the right image by offering comfort as well as hope for those in despair. With few exceptions she sounded reasonable as she presented her ideas as the embodiment of moderate Anglicanism. Sadly even her supporters have come to accept that her rhetoric is rarely reflected when dealing those with whom she disagrees. One of her most revealing moments occurred during the convention when she despairingly referred to Bishop Mark Lawrence with the description that "the tyrant is not the judge." There is an increasing number of liberals within her own camp who believe she might have been describing herself.
I was especially sensitive to this behavior having just read the January 18th article in VOL ("Bishop von Rosenberg has History of Passive Aggressive Behavior") which interviewed three former Episcopalians from the Diocese of East Tennessee. This was painful to read having known the three interviewed for this story. I experienced them as among the most decent, and talented Christian leaders in my thirty years of parish ministry. Their loss to the Episcopal Church is as tragic as it is heart breaking.
In the interest of full disclosure I was greatly blessed by their friendship support and counsel during my tenure as rector. They were part of a leadership team which formed a "rectors pastoral care committee." Following emergency surgery they were mortified upon discovering my name had not been placed on the parish prayer or pastoral care list. Their concern was magnified by the fact that my predecessor died of a cerebral hemorrhage after only nine months in office. His predecessor, an internationally known and respected priest, was asked to leave after serving nearly ten years. They wanted to halt an unhealthy pattern in which clergy were regarded as objects whose needs were often overlooked. This commission provided love and support when my son left for the war in Iraq. It is something which I can never forget.
I had been made aware of the incident involving Hank Bahr and Charlie vonRosenberg who is currently serving as the provisional bishop in South Carolina. I was, however unaware of the depth of pain and sense of betrayal that resulted from this incident. Although no longer rector I received numerous calls of concern from within the parish. Those who contacted me expressed uncomfortableness believing Bahr had been the victim of an intentionally orchestrated and vicious personal attack. This concern was magnified due to a similar encounter during the 2004 diocesan convention. A delegate from the parish and respected former assistant diocesan chancellor found himself the victim of an incident which they viewed as disturbingly similar. These events occurred well before Jefforts-Schori became presiding bishop and while she is not the cause she is a product of this mentality. Opposition to the organization results in being cut off and ostracized. Even loyal opposition is no longer tolerated.
Psychologist and broadcaster Oliver James in his book "Office Politics" observes that in the world today leaders often obtain their positions as a reward for having proven themselves ruthless, selfish and manipulative. He further notes that lack of empathy, self centeredness, deviousness and self-regard often compel them to the top of the organization. In western society this is typically experienced in organizations where there are no objective criteria for evaluating success or failure.
The Episcopal Church cannot cite success in numerical growth because we are not growing. We cannot look to success in youth development because most dioceses have abandoned these programs to pay for overhead. We cannot speak to the strength of our relationships because these have been sacrificed for conformity. Rather than seek forgiveness and reconciliation we adopted the Orwellian Title IV Canon whose only purpose is to impose group will and harsh discipline on anyone not adhering to the party line.
One of the most defining moments of the convention in South Carolina occurred during The Presiding Bishop's response to a question by Fr. Marshall Huey. As the rector of one of the most historic parishes in the diocese and the country Huey attended the convention as an observer gathering information for his parish as they continue discernment on whether to remain within the Episcopal Church His question reflected concerns within his parish regarding the Dennis Canon. This controversial canon states that local congregations hold their property in trust for the Episcopal Church. Since Bishop Lawrence returned all deeds to the local parishes Huey wondered if his would have to return this deed if they voted to remain within the Episcopal Church. Given the direction of the national church this would be a stumbling block.
The Presiding Bishop's immediate response was that all parishes must adhere to this canon in order to remain loyal to the Episcopal Church. While her candor and straight forwardness are laudable it is also revealing of just how far trust within church has deteriorated.
We can no longer rely on the strength of our beliefs because no one is quite sure what it is we believe. We resort to coercion rather than persuasion to enforce our will on others. The Dennis Canon has become just another method to enforce compliance in a community that is marked by a predatory opportunism. The secular legalistic model renders us impotent to influence one another through our Christian witness. Predatory opportunism is not about the authentic tolerance and inclusiveness as reflected in the Gospel. It is indicative of what Edmund Friedman describes as boundary-less intrusiveness. What it lacks in integrity it makes up for in duplicity and the message is clear. When you join us we own you. We have the audacity to present this to the world as authentic Christianity and wonder why no one flocks to our churches.
The excitement of the weekend has subsided and we are left with newspaper articles designed to spin with glowing and beautiful quotes. One liberal and supportive blog noted the presiding bishop and provisional bishop were held in great affection by those in attendance. To be held in affection by those with whom we agree and are comfortable is one thing in which all sides hold in common. The real test of Christianity occurs when we face those with whom there are profound differences.
Therein my friends lies the proof of our failure.
Ladson F. Mills III is a priest with over thirty years pastoral experience. He is retired and lives with his wife in South Carolina. He currently serves as Scholar in Residence at Church of Our Saviour Johns Island. He is a regular contributor to Virtueonline.
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