When I say what finallly "tore it for me", you might get the image of my throwing up my hands in disgust and saying, "That's it. I quit!" Au contraire. In my opinion, this is something that diocesan leaders did. And at first I was not even aware that this tearing had occurred. See, what "tore it" for me is that the fabric of my fellowship was torn by someone else without my knowledge or consent, and now I am bereft of my garment as it once was. I am knitting new relationships now with some new, as well as some remaining, Christian brothers and sisters, thanks be to God. But let me say again; I didn't tear it. It was torn FROM me.
There was this shocking day in October of 2012 at a hastily-called clergy gathering in Summerville when I and all my clergy "buds" were informed by our bishop that we "are no longer Episcopal priests, because there was a resolution passed by the diocesan Standing Committee (a month or so prior) that would automatically disassociate the diocese from the Episcopal Church in the event of any disciplinary action being taken against me (the bishop)". Just days prior to this, I had been ecstatic to surmise that my bishop might be in negotiations with the Presiding Bishop, with the assisting mediation of the bishop of Upper South Carolina, to see if there might be a way for South Carolina to remain in TEC and yet be recognized as a legitimate, conservative voice in the wider church ( a moot point, really, because bishops, dioceses and clergy were given a pass of conscience and discretion re: GC2013 sexuality resolutions).
"This is the Christ-like way," I thought to myself. No need for "war", litigation and schism, after all. A creative, God-ordained carving out of a safe place. A building of trust. Something, I dared to hope, that could be held out to the world as a more excellent way. The bishop had gone away during the summer to discern the Lord's will in these matters (GC2013 resolutions on same sex unions and gender equailty). He came back and stated that he had heard nothing definitive either way from God. That's usally a time to hold fast. But no. During talks between our bishop and the Presiding Bishop, it came out that the disciplinary board for bishops had found our bishop liable to the charge of abandonment based on the fact that he and the Standing Committee had issued quit-claim deeds to every parish in the diocese. Those charges were brought by clergy from within our own diocese who were concerned that the diocese and its property was being systematically removed from the national church. Precipitous on both sides.
Nevertheless, possible further negotiations between the Presiding Bishop and the Diocesan Bishop, as well as the weighing in of the entire House of Bishops on the matter of the Disciplinary action, were still on schedule to happen. The truth is, leaders in our diocese (and I'm not necessarily talking about the bishop here, since he was under ENORMOUS pressure from some of these leaders as well as other leaders of congregations to lead the diocese out of TEC) already considered themselves to be out of fellowship with TEC ideologically and theologically, and the disassociation resolution was the blasting cap that set off the whole stick of dynamite that blew the bridge.
Trouble is, no one except the Standing Committee, Board of Directors and the bishop knew that this resolution had been passed. On that day at the clergy meeting, as the initial facts began to emerge, I felt as though someone had planted a bomb with a trip-wire under my house and then had forgotten to tell me about it--until it was too late.
We were informed that day that we and our congregations had one month to decide whether or not to "stay" with the departing diocese or to "re-affiliate" with TEC. Then it was pointed out that, as far as TEC was concerned, the question was more that we had to decide whether or not to "stay" with TEC or "disaffiliate" from TEC by going with the now former diocese. When the bishop was asked which it really was, his response was, "You have to look at this as two parallel universes." At that, I felt lost.
I ran into a lay leader of another congregation a week or two later. He shook my hand and asked, "Well, are ye fer us or agin' us?" I said, "I'm for everybody. If there were people so hell bent on leaving TEC en masse like this, maybe our bishop should have resigned." He replied, "We would never be able to find another bishop!" I said, "Really?" He replied, "Not one who thinks like us." I said, "You don't think that in all of TEC there is one clergyman who could make a fine bishop for us?" He said, "Look at the House of Bishops. There's not a Christian among 'em!" I said, "Well I can assure you that if I stay in TEC, there will always be a Christian priest in it." He looked at me and said, "I will pray for you." This was one person, but I have had this same line of thinking repeated to me by many of my colleaugues. There is no trust, no perceived basis for common ground, indeed little if any, feeling that there is a shared faith between people in TEC and people in the breakaway dioceses. But to the contrary I know many, many clergy in TEC who preach a beautiful Gospel and who I believe are my Christian brothers and sisters in every way.
This thought of little shared faith is insinuated in "Stewardship of the Gospel-Stewardship of the Diocese", the diocese's official position paper defending its basis for a lawsuit against TEC. In section II, the rationale for filing a lawsuit against a believer (in consideration of Paul's injunction against it in I Co. 6:1-8), it says, "This passage assumes a core and basic brotherhood (6:6). Paul is appealing to the fact that these unnamed adversaries (in Corinth) are standing around the same fireplace which warms but also consumes in its fire all sin and self-gain." After a sentence or two it continues, "...They share the same Lord- commonly understood in His claims in the truth and claims in His reality. Just how apparent is this in our situation?" Am I to understand, then, that some (at the very least those who wrote this paper, as well as those who signed off on it) believe that we in TEC do not "share the same Lord."? I know the Lord whom I serve, and with great sacrifice, as well as deep blessing. He is their Lord, as well. I did not rend this fabric. It was torn FROM me by someone else.
I have felt the imposed split within our own congregation. Before, we were a happy, burgeoning family of folk who were having real encounters with the living Lord Jesus. But when the rending of our family fabric was imposed upon us by outside forces, and we were forced to choose an arbitrary loyalty, the "children" were for a time thrown into disarray. The Corinthian problem had been injected into our midst: "I belong to Paul, or I belong to Apollos, or I belong to Cephas, or I belong to Christ." This is the very same divisive spirit that Paul sought to eradicate from the Corinthian church. We asked our people along with Paul, "Is Christ divided?" Thank goodness that only a small handful of people chose to leave our fellowship over this. I grieve the loss of their fellowship among us.
Indulge me another anaolgy. It is as if we were standing in a broad field where people mingled and fellowshiped freely. Then someone came along and erected a fence. Some were suddenly on one side or the other without having moved an inch. You might have liked where you were, and you may have moved about freely enjoying a broad range of fellowship opportunities as you wandered through the field. But now you are cut off. You no longer have access to the whole field. Your experience of the gifts of others is now limited. You can only use a part of it now. Most did not ask for the fence. But it is there, nonetheless. This limiting act is a human, and not a godly arbitration, in my opinion.
Our congregation is once again moving ahead in mission and ministry with Jesus at the head. Our leadership decided to remain where we have always been since the beginning--in the Episcopal Church. The fabric has been torn, but we are knitting a new garment with those who remained and with those who continue to join us in our work.
Other congregations on both sides of this "fence" are also moving on in their own mission and ministry. I wish them well, and I pray for them daily. I just wish that we were still doing it together. I wish we were still sharing our gifts. I still believe that none of this had to happen.
Next Installment: The Dignity of Every Human Being