CHARLESTON, S.C. — A committee of the national Episcopal Church says its investigation of the conservative bishop of one of the oldest Episcopal dioceses in the United States concluded he has not abandoned the church amid the ongoing schism over the ordination of gays and other issues.
The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003, upsetting conservative Episcopalians who believe Scripture forbids same-sex relationships.
Three years later, Bishop Mark Lawrence’s Diocese of South Carolina and two others voted to reject the authority of the national church’s presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break.
Since late September, the 18-member disciplinary board of the national church had been studying information provided by parishioners in the South Carolina diocese, which has roots reaching to the Revolutionary War.
“Based on the information before it, the board was unable to make the conclusions essential to a certification that Bishop Lawrence abandoned the communion of the church,” retired Bishop Dorsey Henderson, the president of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, announced late Monday.
He said the board met by conference call last week and notified Lawrence of its decision Monday.
Lawrence wrote a letter to the faithful posted on the diocese Web site Tuesday, saying the decision leaves unanswered questions.
“It appears to read like a complex decision in a complex time in a complex church,” he wrote. “For now, given no more allegations from anonymous sources within the diocese, it is my hope we can all get back to focusing our full attention on proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.”
Lawrence did not immediately respond to a message from The Associated Press seeking comment.
Had the committee certified Lawrence abandoned the church, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori would have suspended him from the ministry while the matter was considered by the national church’s House of Bishops. If the bishops agreed with the committee by a majority vote, the 61-year-old Lawrence would have been deposed.
Lawrence has said repeatedly he wants the diocese to remain in the national church. He said last week that he was not afraid for himself because of the investigation, but worried about the diocese.
Lawrence said the national Episcopal Church is threatening the unity of the Anglican communion and that 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.”
Henderson said that under church law, there are only three ways a bishop can abandon the church.
One is an open renunciation of the “doctrine, discipline or worship” of the church. The others are “formal admission into any religious body not in communion” with the church or by “exercising Episcopal acts in and for a religious body other than the church.”
He said that “applied strictly to the information under study, none of these provisions was deemed applicable by a majority of the board.”
Henderson called it significant Lawrence has repeatedly said he does not intend to lead the diocese out of the church but “only seeks a safe place within the church to live the Christian faith as the diocese perceives it.”
Henderson said he hopes that there will also be a safe place in the diocese for those under Lawrence’s leadership who do not agree with some of the actions of the diocese or the bishop’s position on some issues concerning the national church.
Lawrence wrote he was grateful for the support of Episcopalians around the world and “must also give thanks for Christians of various denominations who having read of our situation in the diocese have offered prayers to God for our strength and steadfastness.”
The 2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide. The Diocese of South Carolina is one of the oldest Episcopal Dioceses in the nation, dating to the American Revolution.
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. The diocese is comprised 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners in the eastern part of the state. It is one of the original dioceses that joined together to form the Episcopal Church.