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Independence Day, Moral Authority and The Episcopal Church

Independence Day, Moral Authority and The Episcopal Church

By Ladson Mills
Special to Virtueonline
July 2, 2013

Mahatma Gandhi once observed that, "moral authority is never retained by an attempt to hold onto it." A decline in moral authority and increasing disenchantment is witnessed daily whether with our government or the church. Once lost it becomes difficult to regain. It is not often that I look to the culture to inform the church but given the rapid approach of July 4th it seems timely to examine an example from our nation's history.

On July 4th, 1776 the colonies which would later become the United States of America issued a Declaration of Independence from the mother country England. For this small group of independent entities with no means of power to challenge the greatest power on earth it was quite an undertaking as their great strength was derived not through power but moral authority. It is often overlooked that within England the colonies enjoyed widespread support as the result of their moral authority. Being a direct descendant of an English clergyman who was an outspoken supporter for the American cause while still living in England, made it an issue of which I am familiar.

Several days ago the Bishops from Province IV (Southeast) met in Charleston to express their support for those remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal News Service reported their agenda included meeting with laity who expressed genuine pain. This is something to which conservatives in the Episcopal Church can certainly relate.

The bishops issued a letter acknowledging their recognition of this pain and pledging prayerful support. While this is certainly not without merit perhaps the more appropriate question is to what lengths are they willing to go to address this pain in a way that is redemptive.

Some years ago I found myself the rector of a parish that had lost a well-known and highly regarded clergyman due to pastoral dissolution. His successor and secretary to the House of Bishops died after serving as rector for only nine months. Prior to my arrival I was assured that issues resulting from these events had been properly addressed during the extensive interim.

After several years when these issues re-emerged I discovered that while they may have been acknowledged they were never properly addressed. I spent a major portion of my remaining time in this parish dealing with the unresolved grief resulting from these two tragic events.

There is no better group positioned to address a redemptive solution in South Carolina than the Fourth Province Bishops. It is the largest of all the provinces yet an examination of its statistics provides insight into the great challenges they face.

In 1982 the Diocese of Tennessee became three separate dioceses. This made sense at that time but in retrospect has proven to be a mistake. They will eventually need to be reduced to two in order to survive. In much the same manner the dioceses of Lexington and Kentucky will eventually need to merge if they continue in their decline

Louisiana would benefit from uniting with Central Gulf Coast.

Upper South Carolina's decline has been slow and steady. Bishop Andrew Waldo finds himself in open conflict with Harrison McLeod, rector of Christ Church in Greenville over the bishop's decision to authorize the blessing of same sex unions. Christ Church is the major church in this diocese as well as being highly regarded nationally. McLeod is popular and well respected throughout the wider church. Although his stand has been orthodox and conservative it does not hurt that his mother Mary Adelia McLeod was the first female diocesan bishop and a liberal icon.

Georgia is emerging from the loss of two parishes along with a popular clergyman whose family has provided supportive leadership to the diocese for decades. There may be others to soon follow.

Even the number of clergy who are listed as remaining loyal to the Episcopal Church in South Carolina has to be interpreted.

20 Local Clergy Loyal to TEC are Retired

An examination of a published list reveals that well over twenty are retired with at least five residing outside the diocese. Two are in seriously poor health therefore any certainty of their loyalty is questionable. This is the reality facing the church from the perspective of its healthiest province and it is sobering. Issues confronting the Episcopal Church can no longer be addressed through "feel good" communications.

So the question becomes should energy as well as finances be wasted on continuing lawsuits. It is now generally acknowledged that in returning the South Carolina lawsuit to the jurisdiction of the state court Federal Judge Weston Houck assures Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina have a good chance of prevailing. A recent revelation that lawyers for the Episcopal Church intend to re-visit the issue with Federal Judge Houck in August are raising an alarm as to the wisdom of these never ending court battles.

The recent additional $300,000 received from the national church to provide administrative support to the small number who remain loyal seems extravagant and unnecessary.

If these bishops want to deal with the legitimate pain they must boldly break with the current strategy which has produced nothing but division heartache and ruinous financial burden for all involved.

The Bishops of the Fourth Province can demand a stop to the never ending litigation and move to seek arbitration. There is timely precedent for their action. In a July 2, 2013 article in "The Living Church" Mark McCall a fellow of the Anglican Communion Institute writes of the Windsor Continuation Group convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury to recommend ways of implementing the Windsor Report.

Provisional Solution could Resolve Litigation

One recommendation known as the "Provisional Solution" could be utilized to set up oversight and recognition for Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese of South Carolina. Additionally it might provide a possible settlement for litigation which is likely to continue for years and benefits only the trial lawyers. Since we are all united by our common grief there can be no better time to act as now.

This will not bring about immediate change as it will take decades to recover from the distrust, pain and hurt that has resulted. Title IV places these bishops in a terrible position making them subject to a centralized oversight which has proven predatory against those who would oppose it. Yet not even the current presiding bishop nor her chancellor would dare challenge these bishops if they remain united. As Benjamin Franklin said to his fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence, "We must indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately." Just as England and the United States later re-established a close but different relationship their actions might provide a foundation for a redemptive future.

As we celebrate Independence Day on July 4th let us remember the great strength of the American Revolution was the power of its moral authority and authority will inevitably triumph over power. William Blake wrote "the glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness". Now is the time to move beyond prayerful consideration to prayerful action. Power games will not work. Repudiation of these failed strategies by the strongest group of bishops in the Episcopal Church would provide the Christian witness to regain some of the moral authority needed to facilitate a much needed healing.

Ladson F. Mills III is a retired priest with over thirty years pastoral experience. He 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" www.virtueonline.org

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