The Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church has sent a pastoral letter to the members of a diocese whose leadership is defecting from the denomination.
The Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori sent the letter to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina on Thursday, writing that she wants 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."
Joy Hunter, director of communications for the South Carolina Diocese, told The Christian Post that the pastoral letter will not change the course the Diocese intends to take.
"The Diocese of South Carolina has already disassociated from that organization," said Hunter, adding that Schori's authority holds 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."
Issues between The Episcopal Church and the Diocese go back to October 2011, when the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of the Diocese, was accused of seeking to leave the denomination due to differences over the issue of homosexuality.
Lawrence had criticized The Episcopal Church hierarchy's pro-gay positions, leading some to conclude that he sought to leave the denomination. By last November, the Disciplinary Board for Bishops cleared Lawrence of two of the three charges.
However, last month Lawrence was informed by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Schori that he was found guilty of the charge of "abandonment of the communion of the church." In her letter, Schori 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.
"The Diocese of South Carolina is a constituent part of The Episcopal Church, and that status cannot be altered without the action of General Convention."
Schori argued that there was a formal means for a diocese to leave The Episcopal Church, but that the South Carolina Diocese was not undertaking the proper process.
Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for The Episcopal Church, declined further comment to CP regarding the matter, stating instead that the pastoral letter "speaks for itself."
Jeff Walton, Anglican Program director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, told CP that Schori "is trying to have it both ways."
"On one hand, she seeks to unilaterally establish a new ecclesiastical authority in South Carolina, as if this is a newly-missioned area without an existing Episcopal Church structure," said Walton.
"At the same time, her loyalist group is seeking to assume the identity of the existing Diocese of South Carolina, in order to control its assets. Under the church's own rules, she can't do both."
Regarding how influential the pastoral letter will be on the direction of the Diocese, Walton told CP that support for Lawrence and the decision to defect is high among the congregations in the Diocese.
"Out of the 70 churches in the diocese, about a dozen are expected to remain with the national church, with about 4 to 6 of those considered to be theologically liberal congregations," said Walton.
"This letter is primarily for these loyalist parishes, and for the small number of churchgoers who may be 'on the fence' and unsure which path to take."
On Saturday, the leadership of the South Carolina Diocese will hold a "special convention" at St. Philip's Church in Charleston to amend their official documents to reflect their defected status.