The national Episcopal church has advised South Carolina Bishop Mark Lawrence that he has “abandoned” the church as a result of his refusal to accept its teachings on gay marriage and the ordination of gay and female clergy.

In retaliation, Lawrence has pulled South Carolina’s Lower Episcopalian Diocese out of the national church.

The unfolding drama is the latest example of a schism that’s emerging between socially liberal and conservative sects of America’s major protestant churches as organized religion rushes to embrace shifting definitions of family values.

Mark Lawrence

According to the website, Lawrence’s “repudiation of the authority of the Church’s Constitution” prompted the Episcopal Church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops to declare that he had failed to “guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church” by an “open renunciation of the Discipline of the Church.”

The national church reached its decision last month – and notified Lawrence earlier this week.

That’s when all hell broke loose.

“This action by The Episcopal Church triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the Diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the Diocese from The Episcopal Church and called a Special Convention,” a statement from Lawrence’s Diocese reads.

That gathering will be held on November 17 at St. Phillip’s Church in Charleston, S.C.

South Carolina’s Episcopal Church is divided into an Upper Diocese and Lower Diocese.  Lawrence’s Lower Diocese covers Charleston, Beaufort and other areas of the South Carolina Lowcountry and coastal areas – containing approximately 30,000 parishioners.

Parishes in the Upper Diocese – including the leaders of prominent congregations in Columbia and Greenville, S.C. – will be watching this drama closely.  We’re told that right now most of the Upstate congregations sympathize with Lawrence – although there are some influential pockets of support for the national church.

Clearly, though, the national church’s positions – right or wrong – are exposing it to some serious “flight risk” among conservative churches.

“I don’t think we’d join the (Lower) Diocese, but if they get away it might provide a road map for others,” one Upstate Episcopal told FITS.

The Episcopal Church began ordaining gay ministers in 2003 – and earlier this year approved an official liturgy to bless same sex couples. Those are among the key points of contention between Lawrence and the national church.