Episcopal Church Rejects S.C. Bishop

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 17, 2007

For the first time in 72 years, the Episcopal Church has rejected the election of a bishop, vetoing the Diocese of South Carolina's choice of a conservative leader and heightening the bitter divisions in the church.

The rejection of the Rev. Mark Lawrence infuriated conservative Episcopalians in South Carolina and across the country who have been seething since the church approved the election of a gay bishop four years ago.

Conservatives said that when the church's General Convention voted in 2003 to accept the New Hampshire diocese's choice of Gene Robinson as bishop, one of the principal arguments in his favor was that the church should respect the will of its 111 individual dioceses.

"It speaks volumes that a double standard is used for conservatives, and it is further evidence that conservatives are not leaving, they're being driven out of the Episcopal Church," the Rev. Kendall S. Harmon, a conservative theologian in South Carolina, said yesterday.

Lawrence, 56, is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Bakersfield, Calif., which belongs to the Diocese of San Joaquin, one of the most conservative dioceses in the country and one of three that do not allow female priests.

Last summer, the diocese rejected the authority of the national church's presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. In December, it passed a resolution that was widely seen as a step toward withdrawing from the Episcopal Church and aligning with an Anglican church overseas.

In a campaign against Lawrence's election, some Episcopalians predicted that he would lead the South Carolina diocese to secede as well.

"A diocese has a right to the bishop of its choice, all things being equal. But all things weren't equal," said Lionel Deimel, a member of the lay group Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh who led the charge against Lawrence. "Gene Robinson was not threatening to walk away from the Episcopal Church."

Lawrence repeatedly denied in recent weeks that he was planning to lead the South Carolina diocese out of the church.

"A curtain has been drawn back on the stage of the Episcopal Church, and everyone can now look into what I would call the theater of the absurd -- that those who uphold the trustworthiness of scripture and the traditional teachings of the church are repeatedly put in a position of having to justify our beliefs," Lawrence said yesterday in a telephone interview.

Under the Episcopal Church's rules, bishops are elected in each diocese by a vote of clergy and lay delegates, who are themselves elected in each parish.

Lawrence was elected in South Carolina in September. After the results were formalized, he had 120 days to obtain the consent of a majority of the church's diocesan bishops and of its standing committees, which are bodies of lay people and clergy who help run each diocese. Gaining those "consents" is usually routine.

On March 1, Lawrence won the bishops' approval. But as a March 12 deadline approached, he had the consents of fewer than half the 111 standing committees. South Carolinians waged a grass-roots campaign that persuaded some committees to change their votes, and Jefferts Schori added a three-day grace period to the 120 days, to allow for mail delays.

But on Thursday, she notified the South Carolina diocese that Lawrence had gained 50 consents, six short of a majority, and that his election consequently was void.

According to the Rev. J. Haden McCormick, president of South Carolina's standing committee, at least 57 committees intended to give their consents, but several failed to file their ballots in writing or to include all the necessary signatures.

Church historians said the last time an election was rejected by the church's General Convention was in 1934.

The South Carolina diocese may now hold a new election, and church officials said it could elect Lawrence again.

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