Monday, November 19, 2012

It wasn’t a good idea the first time

This is like deja vu all over again
-       Professional Baseball Legend Yogi Berra

The Episcopal News Service is reporting that the Diocese of South Carolina has voted to leave the Episcopal Church:

Charleston, South Carolina - The majority of South Carolina Episcopalians who attended a special convention at St. Philip’s Church here Nov. 17 affirmed actions by Bishop Mark Lawrence and the diocesan Standing Committee a month ago to disaffiliate the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

The bishop referred to the special convention as “the Valley of Decision” during his address and asserted, “It is time to turn the page.” He referred to attempts to prevent separation of the diocese, and his oft-mentioned issues of theology, morality and disagreement with church canons. “So be it…We have withdrawn from that church…We have moved on. With the Standing Committee’s resolution of disassociation, the fact is accomplished: legally and canonically,” he said.

Hmmm. This story sounds awfully familiar. Wait, I think I’ve got it:

[U]pon arrival of the news of the Republican victory, the General Assembly, on November 10, 1860, called for a Convention of the People of South Carolina to draw up an Ordinance of Secession. …On December 17, 1860, the Secession Convention convened in the Baptist Church in Columbia. The spirit of Nationalism, Sectionalism, and Secessionism filled the air! One observer said that restraining the spirit of the Convention was like restraining the wind. On this first day, the Convention passed a unanimous resolution to Secede from the union. There was at that time an epidemic of smallpox in Columbia, so the convention adjourned to Charleston."

The next day, the Convention met in Charleston's Institute Hall and formed several committees including one to draft an Ordinance of Secession. Then on the heroic day of December 20, 1860, the Convention met in St. Andrews Hall on Broad Street an adopted the Ordinance of Secession on roll call vote. On the question being put, "Will the Convention adopt the Ordinance?" it passed in the affirmative. Yeas, 169; Nays, none.

-       “South Carolina Secession Convention, November – December 1860,” Author Unnamed, Lt. Gen. Wade Hampton Camp No. 273 Columbia, S.C. Sons of the Confederate Veterans site,

Leaders who proved lightning rods

There are some interesting if ironic similarities in these two conventions beyond the fact they both occurred in Charleston within blocks of each other. Both of them involve the election of a national leader who proved to be a lightning rod. In the 1860 event, it was election of Republican Abraham Lincoln whose abolitionist sentiments frightened the gentile Southern aristocrats fearing the eminent loss of their privileged existence at the expense of an entire class of African descent slaves. South Carolina’s secession and the attack on Ft. Sumter in Charleston’s harbor a mere five months later would plunge the nation into a Civil War that would prove to be its bloodiest conflict in 236 year existence.

No doubt conservative South Carolina Episcopalians felt a sense of déjà vu in the election of ECUSA Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori. As the unprecedented first woman presiding bishop in the US church, she has proven to be an enormously talented and visionary leader who has negotiated ECUSA through an expansive and painful process of inclusivity that has steadily sought to remove the last vestiges of institutional homophobia and sexism in the church. As such, Jefferts-Schori has been a lightning rod among conservatives throughout the Anglican Communion who have, from time to time, excluded the American primate from Communion gatherings or made the participation of this woman bishop – itself still a point of contention in many quarters of the Communion - conditional upon being silent. She has endured much indignity in the process to say the least.

Jefferts-Schori has also had no shortage of antagonists within the American church. South Carolina is not the first diocese to see major defection from the church upon her election. The path to departure has been particularly stormy in South Carolina. The election of Mark Lawrence as the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina did not come easily. He was initially rejected by the wider church when the standing committees in each diocese failed to confirm his election in South Carolina in 2006. Many were concerned that Lawrence would do exactly as he has now done and lead his diocese out of the Episcopal Church. South Carolina promptly reelected him and he was finally confirmed on his second attempt in 2008.

The Bottom Line

Lawrence and a majority of his deputation from South Carolina walked out of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church last July after it passed resolutions lifting restrictions on the blessing of same sex unions and access to ordination by transgendered persons. He returned to South Carolina and set about the business of secession resulting in the suspension of Lawrence from his role as an Episcopal bishop by the national church’s Disciplinary Board of Bishops last month. The Board’s actions were a response to legal actions initiated by the diocese to change the status of church properties in South Carolina pursuant to secession.

Where Lincoln was more than aware of his imperfections and grieved over the losses his decisions caused, Lawrence embodies the blindness of the true believer and the egocentrism of the self-styled martyr. His dissembling in efforts to procure his election is particularly telling. In a Nov. 6, 2006, letter to the wider church whose standing committees would first reject his election only to later affirm it, Lawrence promised that he would “work at least as hard at keeping the Diocese of South Carolina in the Episcopal Church as my sister and brother bishops work at keeping the Episcopal Church in covenanted relationship with the worldwide Anglican Communion.”

Ironically, the actions leading to his suspension and the subsequent secession of South Carolina from the church began with his storming out of the General Convention even as it voted to affirm its commitment to building relationships across the Anglican Communion. Apparently that was not enough for Lawrence.

Ultimate and Penultimate Concerns

Theologian Paul Tillich was very clear that anything that anything that achieves the status of ultimate concern for man has been elevated to their god.  If you want to see a person’s or a group’s true religion, look at what they see as the bottom line. When penultimate concerns - like the nation-state, financial success or a socially constructed ideology - become elevated to the level of ultimacy, they become false symbols of ultimate concern.  There is a word for that confusion of the works of our own hands – or minds – with the ultimate: idolatry.

One of the marks of ultimacy is comprehensiveness. If G-d is the author of all creation, the divine whose image all created beings bear, policies which seek to include ever more aspects of the good creation within the scope of its care and ethical duties point toward ultimacy. Those policies which create ever tighter tribal circles which separate us (the good, the elect, the chosen) from them (the evil, the damned, the sinful) by a willingness to agree to ideological constructions speak to penultimate concerns – such as security, control and self-affirmation - and thus to idolatry. In Catholic theologian David Tracy’s terms, it is the analogical approach to religion focused on belonging versus the dialectical approach which is obsessed with distinction based upon beliefs.

The Misanthropy Commanded by Tribal Deities

Of course, this is hardly a new story. Even as Abraham Lincoln agonized over how to achieve the greater good of holding his country together and how to deal with the new realities of those who had previously been held as slaves, men of presumably good conscience denounced those plans from pulpits in the name of a god who not only permitted slavery but in most cases commanded it as a part of the natural order.

They spoke of a god whose highly rigid hierarchical universe reflected the values of the aristocratic planters from the southwest of England who first settled and later controlled most of the Southern colonies.  They also spoke of the dark, grim judging and punishing tribal deity of the highly sectarian Calvinists from the battle-scarred borderlands of Scotland and England who settled the backcountry of the Appalachians. The god of slave state apologists was not the god of all creation which bears the divine image. It was rather the god of a self-proclaimed elect within their circled wagons who looked upon the damned outside that circle with fear, loathing and a determination to control them.

The deity articulated by Mark Lawrence and his fellow secessionists is such a tribal god. The religion of the tribe is not interested in ministering to all the children of G-d bearing the divine image. Rather, it serves the perceived needs of a self-appointed elected to affirm itself by denigrating those outside the wagons. And it reveals itself in its own bottom line - the penultimate concern of a common social prejudice which has been raised to the godhead, a misanthropic idolatry.

One would have thought that South Carolina would have learned its lesson the first time considering how poorly its original secession turned out. But, as Eric Hoffer observed in his classic work The True 

It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts that  d not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle not baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.
-       Eric Hoffer, The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, (San Francisco: Harper&Row, 1951), p. 71.

Abraham Lincoln wept.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief 
system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. 

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