S.C. Diocese Distances Itself from Episcopal Church

The Diocese of South Carolina voted Saturday to distance itself but not completely split from the national Episcopal Church because of church positions on same-sex unions and ordination of gays.

Eighty-seven clergy members voted to pass the resolution after a nearly hour-long debate during a special convention in Mount Pleasant, Canon Kendall Harmon said, with 17 voting no. The vote allows leaders of the diocese to reduce its participation in the national church without severing ties completely, as some dioceses and parishes have.

The discord stems from the national church's consecration in 2003 of its first openly gay bishop and its authorizing bishops to bless same-sex unions, a decision made at its national convention last summer.

The Diocese of South Carolina and two others opposing consecration of gay bishops voted in 2006 to reject the authority of the national church's presiding bishop, but stopped short of a full break with the church.

Last June, four breakaway conservative dioceses formed a rival national province to the Episcopal Church called the Anglican Church in North America. Other parishes have since joined.

Bishop Mark Lawrence has said the Diocese of South Carolina does not want a split but a discussion with the national church on the divisive issues.

"The only model that's been out there for us has either been leave or acquiesce, and that hasn't been working," Lawrence has said. "We need to get the 30,000 members of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina awakened to the challenges before us. ... Once we have done that, then the question is how do we engage the larger Episcopal Church?"

Saturday's vote authorizes the South Carolina bishop and the diocesan Standing Committee to begin withdrawing from church councils and governing bodies that have "assented to actions contrary to Holy Scripture," according to the resolution text.

The Diocese of South Carolina is comprised of 75 parishes in the southern and eastern part of the state. Other Episcopal churches in the state are in the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina.

The 2.3 million-member Episcopal church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, a 77 million-member communion that is the third-largest group of churches worldwide, behind the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches.

Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for the national church, declined to comment Saturday on the diocese's decision.

The vote comes several days after an announcement the Vatican is making it easier for Anglicans to convert to Roman Catholicism, a move that could entice traditionalists opposed to women priests, openly gay clergy and the blessing of same-sex unions.

The change means conservative Anglicans will be able to join the Catholic Church while retaining aspects of their liturgy and identity, including married priests. Until now, disaffected Anglicans had joined the Roman Catholic church primarily on a case by case basis.