Despite the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church writing a pastoral letter to the members of the South Carolina diocese to stay, a majority of parishes voted to leave the denomination over its ordination of gay clergy and acceptance of same-sex unions.
The vote took place at a convention organized by the South Carolina diocese leadership at St. Philip's Church in Charleston on Saturday, Reuters reported. It followed the U.S. Episcopal Church's certification last month that South Carolina Bishop Mark J. Lawrence, who had criticized pro-gay positions of the denomination's hierarchy, had abandoned the church's doctrine, discipline and worship.
"This has never been about who is welcome or not welcome in our church," Lawrence was quoted as saying at the convention, attended by about 200 people. "It's about what we shall tell them when they come."
It's the fifth Episcopalian diocese in the country to leave the church's national body, which is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Congregations in San Joaquin, Calif.; Quincy, Ill.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Pittsburgh, Pa., also left the church in recent years.
The South Carolina diocese had prepared a rewritten constitution after removing all references to the Episcopal Church, and declared itself an "extra-provincial" diocese with Lawrence as its bishop on Saturday.
"We preceded The Episcopal Church," convention spokesman Bryan Hunter was quoted as saying. He recalled that the Diocese of South Carolina formed in 1785 and joined other early dioceses to form the U.S. Episcopal Church in 1789. "It's similar to the Articles of Confederation. The states were sovereign states before they were in the United States."
The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop, sent a letter to the diocese last Thursday, writing that she wanted the Diocese to remain part of the Church. "Your presence adds to the ability of this community to discern the will of God, even if you disagree vehemently with one or another resolution passed by a particular General Convention," wrote Schori. "Never in the history of Christianity have all the faithful agreed about everything, and I doubt very much that we will come to full agreement about everything before we join the saints in light at Jesus' Second Coming."
Responding to Schori's letter, Hunter had told The Christian Post that the diocese had already disassociated from the organization, and that Schori's authority held no jurisdiction. "We disagree with her statement that a diocese cannot leave TEC. It is in error historically, canonically and under the civil laws of this state."
In the letter, Schori also noted that Lawrence was found guilty of "abandonment," arguing that it was her "canonical responsibility" to "restrict" Lawrence's powers as bishop. "Bishop Lawrence has an extended period (60 days) in which he can repudiate those charges, and I stand ready to respond positively to any sign that he has done so," wrote Schori.
With about 2 million members, the Episcopal Church is the 14th-largest religious denomination in the United States.