CHARLESTON, S.C. — The conservative leader of the Episcopal diocese of South Carolina, which has roots stretching to before the American Revolution, is the first bishop facing discipline from the national church over the ongoing schism over the ordination of gay ministers.
While some conservative congregations left the national Episcopal church to join a new Anglican denomination over the issue, the South Carolina diocese has stayed in, while pushing back on theological differences and what it calls the increasing centralization of the church.
Now Bishop Mark Lawrence is facing discipline under new national church rules that took effect last summer — rules that give the national church a greater role in disciplining of priests and bishops. Depending on the outcome, Lawrence could be deposed as a spiritual leader in a church to which he has given his life.
"Personally, I'm not afraid, I'm concerned for the diocese," the 61-year-old bishop told The Associated Press in his first interview since the allegations were announced this fall. "What's at stake here is the worldwide Anglican community: the third largest body in Christendom."
Lawrence said the national Episcopal Church is threatening the unity of the Anglican communion. He said in the diocese "while we are in the vast minority of the Episcopal Church, we hold positions that Anglicans have held for the past 400 to 500 years."
The 2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.
"I don't believe that the founders of the Episcopal Church ever envisioned a day when issues of theology and constitutionality would have arisen as they have arisen right now. I ask myself: 'What are we here in the Diocese of South Carolina called to do?'" he asked. "My gut reaction was this day would come."
The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003 and, three years later, the Diocese of South Carolina and two others opposing such consecrations voted to reject the authority of the national church's presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the church.
Many conservative Episcopalians believe Scripture forbids same-sex relationships.
Two years ago, four breakaway conservative Episcopal dioceses formed the Anglican Church in North America, a rival national province to the Episcopal Church. Dozens of individual parishes have also joined.
The Diocese of South Carolina did not leave, although it did withdraw from some councils of the national church.
Lawrence has repeatedly said he wants the diocese to remain within the Episcopal Church. But he said the challenge is two main issues: theology and the increasing centralization of the church.
He's being investigated by a national church committee on information from parishioners in South Carolina. He has not been told who filed the complaint, but thinks it's probably the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a group working to get the diocese to participate fully with the national church.
"We did not initiate this," said Barbara Mann, president of the forum. Asked if she felt the diocese had abandoned the national church, she said "we don't make decisions like that. What we do support is the process that's going on right now."
"We are working with circumstances that are very, very sensitive about which people have very, very strong convictions," said Bishop Dorsey Henderson, who heads the national church disciplinary board.
He said such investigations are rare and that as of now, no formal charges have been made.
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