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A History of the Episcopal Church Schism in South Carolina by Ronald James Caldwell

06 April 2018

Unfortunately, it sets the reader a heavy task, says Jeremy Morris

WHAT is going on in the Episcopal Church in the United States? In the past ten years, several dioceses have seceded; parishes and dioceses are locked in bitter disputes over property; and a new “province” of seceding parishes and dioceses has come together with other “continuing” Churches to form the Anglican Church of North America, which now presses for membership of the Anglican Communion. Is this a period of defining, long-term schism and realignment? Is it a form of culture wars within Episcopalianism? Are all the conservatives in one camp, and the progressives in the other?

These are some of the questions underlying the book under review. But it presents one particular case for consideration. On 15 October 2012, the Presiding Bishop of the US Episcopal Church, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, telephoned Mark Lawrence, Bishop of South Carolina, to tell him that he was now restricted from exercising any ministry in the Episcopal Church. This was, as Ronald Caldwell observes in his enormous history of the schism, in effect the formal declaration of secession. But that act was in reality not much more than a formality. Caldwell’s account is dedicated to tracing the innumerable and complex events that prefigured that final, bitter separation.

Beginning with a broad description of the culture and history of the diocese, Caldwell sets out to assemble an exhaustive account of the schism. He writes as a historian, and narrates closely the successive events by which the final breach came about. He had a formidable battery of evidence to hand, mainly from sources available on the internet, though also from interviews and private communications.

The direct cause of the schism, he concludes, was — no surprises here — the difference that emerged in the 2000s between the leadership of the diocese and the Episcopal Church as a whole over the issue of homosexuality. The election of Gene Robinson, a gay man in a committed same-sex relationship, as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 really “kicked off” the separation, though it had been developing already on a range of issues including sexuality for many years.

The specific acts that triggered it began in 2011 with Lawrence’s issuing of “quit claim deeds” to parishes, releasing local property from any claims that the diocese might have on them (and thus giving them effective freedom to opt out of the Episcopal Church, as a prelude to the diocese’s doing so). But inbetween was a highly complex chain of events, among the most significant of which, he argues, was the election of Lawrence himself in 2006 as a conservative who appeared, in Caldwell’s account, determined from the very beginning to bring the diocese into conflict with the dominant theological liberalism of the leadership of the Episcopal Church.

His account is not dispassionate, though it is very detailed. He calls the opposition mobilised by Lawrence a “counter-revolutionary movement from the top down”. Lawrence and his supporters, he claims, propagated a myth of attacks on the diocese by the Episcopal Church’s leaders to justify their preparations for schism. He is clear that the underlying ecclesial culture of the diocese was one that favoured a conservative position on human sexuality, but argues that, since the schism, the seceding diocese has witnessed a significant decline in numbers and resources.

For anyone who really wants to understand how such a secession could happen, Caldwell’s account will be a vital source. But, as a satisfactory explanation, it faces two formidable difficulties. First, it is wholly inadequate as an exploration of theological difference and conflict. It leans much too heavily on a simplistic contrast between a “vertical” account of traditional Christian beliefs and values, and a “horizontal” conception of a Christianity motivated by an ethic of inclusion and justice. No wonder this book has already caused something of a storm in the US: it just does not give an even-handed and sympathetic insight into both sides of the conflict.

Second, this is a mammoth of a book: it is hard to imagine that readers will persevere with it, and draw out the important insights that are undoubtedly buried here. It must be around a quarter of a million words long. This reader felt completely submerged in a seemingly endless litany of assemblies, conventions, meetings, and court cases, and there is much repetition.

Where was the copy-editing? Where is the ability to stand back and give a persuasive, succinct interpretation? True, there is a useful, brief conclusion, but in essence Caldwell offers a great deal of the material that we need to understand the schism, but leaves the hard work to the reader.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

A History of the Episcopal Church Schism in South Carolina
Ronald James Caldwell
Wipf & Stock £49
Church Times Bookshop £44.10

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