“Hooker articulates for Anglicanism its answer to the question of what is our authority. Our authority is the association of scripture, tradition and reason … Scripture for the Anglican is a fundamental source of authority for the church; but apart from reason it is dangerous. It becomes the mirror for the misdirected person to project his or her own opinions and give them the authority of God. The sin of schism is the result."
– Urban T. Holmes in What Is Anglicanism?
Diocese Adrift as Bishop's Options Narrow
With the conclusion of the 2012 General Convention in July, the Diocese of South Carolina has begun a muddled assessment of its future in a Church committed to the inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered Christians as full participants in its corporate life.
Insisting the embrace of such people is contrary to what God wants, Bishop Mark Lawrence has established himself as a highly visible field commander in what he has characterized as “war” with the Episcopal Church. Lawrence believes that sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex bring people closer to God, while sexual relations with persons of the same gender leads them astray.
Speculation has been rampant about what, if anything, the Diocese should do in response to the actions of the Convention, which voted to allow individual bishops to authorize same-gender "blessings" in their dioceses.
None of the options are without risk. However, there is one safe option that has not yet been put forward: Accept reality, declare victory, and bone up on the Great Commission Jesus gave His Church.
The war is over, yet we continue to defeat ourselves.
By any standard, the war has been very one-sided, fueled more by imagined enemies than any real threats to followers of Jesus Christ in South Carolina.
Throughout the struggle the Diocese insisted it wanted a safe place to practice its own unique brand of Biblical literalism, free from "incursions" by the rest of the Church and unhindered by the practices or governing structures of the Episcopal Church. It wanted to be free to pass judgement on homosexuals and others whose encounters with God were different from its own. Within the diocese traditional Episcopalians have been marginalized, and their parishes are no longer influential.
In every respect, the Diocese has achieved what it wanted. However, now it wants to destroy the Episcopal Church in the Diocese by defrauding it of its property and resources, a quixotic venture that is proving costly and self-defeating just as it did in the four other breakaway dioceses.
As the War went on, its once lofty goals turned into mean, personal, and petty attacks. The Second Reformation began to look more like the Inquisition.
When Lawrence became bishop, there was great enthusiasm and hopefulness for the cause. Diocesan leaders and their allies saw in the emerging struggle the seeds of a Second Reformation, and the return of Anglicanism to the narrow Biblical literalism of the 19th century. Their "war" would not only defeat the dominant liberal bias in the Episcopal Church, but propagate their own fundamentalist vision throughout the Anglican Communion.
Unfortunately, the opposing army was unresponsive. In spite of flurries of resolutions, years of grandstanding by Diocesan Conventions, and angry missives fired point-blank by the Standing Committee, the Diocese was not much noticed by the rest of the Church.
The only meaningful reactions came from the Presiding Bishop, whose approach was non-confrontational and pastoral. When unnamed communicants of the Diocese initiated a review of Lawrence’s actions in 2011, the House of Bishops’ Disciplinary Board seemed to shrug its shoulders.
As the war dragged on, its goals became illusory and its initial lofty rhetoric turned mean, personal, and petty. The people of the Diocese became war-weary, and Diocesan revenues declined. Even the all-important news media lost interest.
In the wider Church, the Diocese's allies became few in number. Even moderate to conservative dioceses were coming to terms with the presence of GLBT Christians in their congregations, and the pastoral challenges they, their families, and their children represented. They rejected the angry judgement of the Diocese of South Carolina that the Church was surrendering to liberal pressure groups seeking to legitimize that which in the mind of the Almighty is unholy and un-Christian.
On the legal front, the news was equally as discouraging. Challenges to the ownership of Church properties by breakaway groups were being handed down with nearly uniform outcomes against the rebels. In many ways these cases actually clarified and strengthened the authority of hierarchical governing structures like those in the Episcopal Church.
Across the Anglican Communion, early and frenzied support for the Diocese dissipated. A proposed new “Anglican Covenant” to transform the nature of the Communion into a more disciplined, doctrinaire, and conservative entity was rejected in cornerstone Anglican provinces like Canada, the United States, Scotland, and even England.
The rebellion's fervent hope of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, who would throw the uberliberal Episcopal Church out of the Anglican Communion and replace it with themselves, seems increasingly unlikely.
Breakaway parishes attempting to align themselves with anti-gay Anglican provinces in Africa have found far more discord and disconnect than they’d imagined. The Anglican Mission in America, a missionary arm of the Anglican Province of Rwanda with roots in Pawley’s Island, severed ties with its African sponsor largely over miscommunications, allegations of arrogance by Rwandans against the American bishops, and cultural confusion over the word, “knucklehead.”
Earlier this summer, the dissident Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) surprised the Diocese by naming the Rev. Steve Wood of Mount Pleasant as its new bishop for North and South Carolina.
Wood was one of the three nominees for bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina in 2007, when Lawrence was elected. He fared badly in the balloting among the clergy, such that his selection as a bishop has made ACNA a far less appealing post-TEC destination for South Carolina clergy who might have considered it. In fact, many thought ACNA was holding the slot open for Lawrence.
Clergy sensed a change in the Bishop as they met with him after the General Convention.
Following the 2012 General Convention, Bishop Lawrence huddled with Diocesan clergy at St. Paul’s in Summerville in late July to rally what remains of the faithful among them.
However, unlike more sanguine gatherings in the past, there was an underlying sense of resignation. For one thing, Lawrence’s tone was much less angry and more detached than in previous times when he was outraged by something the Church had done.
More than once, the Bishop more commented on the “graciousness” of the Presiding Bishop in her interactions with him, and seemed satisfied that the House of Bishops had genuinely listened to his concerns. Unlike gatherings of this nature in the past, neither Lawrence nor the Standing Committee appeared to have a specific plan of protest as they would have had in the past.
Bishop Lawrence said he hadn’t figured out what he personally might do in response to the actions of the Convention nor did he give advice to others. He seemed to suggest that he was reviewing options for himself that would be different than those for the Diocese or individual clergy might consider. He told the group that one option for the diocese would be to try to leave the Episcopal Church as a single body, or pursue another in which each parish would just go its own way. However, he didn’t seem to have much of an idea how any of that might happen either.
For the remainder of the summer, Lawrence said he was going on vacation, during which time he would discern where God was calling him. Meanwhile, he added, don’t build any “golden calves” while I am gone.
After ten years of conflict, clergy and former supporters are quietly drifting away from Bishop Lawrence.
The reaction of clergy at the gathering was mixed. There was plenty of venting against the Church from hard line supporters of Lawrence, while others, for whom the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the Church was never a make-or-break issue for their ministries, were largely quiet.
It was clear that the once bellicose and seemingly unified support among clergy for the Bishop’s leadership has diminished in ways that are now rooted more in personal affection than confidence in any next steps he might propose.
For some reason, the Bishop thought it was important to show the clergy a video documentary on the struggles of transgendered people who have found a spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.
Predictably the presentation had the effect of inflaming some, but also uncovered a growing rift among others.
Of the film, one participant said, “Some of us reacted with compassion while others felt called to render judgment. It is obvious we belong to two very different churches.”
The path forward for Bishop Lawrence is unclear and fraught with landmines. Years of self-inflicted wounds and delusions portends a difficult journey for his true beleievers.
Lawrence's future as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, if that is what he wants, is most likely not his to fashion. His insistence that the Diocese is somehow “sovereign” and not subject to the governing structures of the Church, and that he is the sole arbiter of what constitutes the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese has put him well beyond the bounds of the vows of loyalty he made at his consecration not even five years ago.
His issuance of quitclaim deeds and efforts that have been made by rebellious parishes to cloud the ownership of their properties have put him squarely at odds with his explicit obligation as a bishop to protect Church property.
Many of his colleagues in the House of Bishop believe they cannot allow his rebellious acts to stand lest they be seen as precedence. According to one Bishop, “Bob Duncan didn’t come close to doing what this guy has done.”
Robert Duncan is the deposed bishop of Pittsburgh, who unsuccessfully tried to take his Diocese out of the Episcopal Church five years ago. Lawrence and Duncan have been close friends and political allies since Lawrence served in that diocese earlier in his ministry.
Rumors that Lawrence will simply retire or resign as a bishop in the Episcopal Church has gained credibility this spring and summer as events at the recent General Convention and elsewhere underscored just how far outside the mainstream he has gone and how little support he has for continuing his crusade.
His extreme and out-of-proportion protests against the Church have even alienated many who were otherwise sympathetic to his cause. He’d likely have a soft landing post-episcopate, as he is fully vested in the Church Pension Fund, and would still have a platform for his views among the more conservative elements of the Anglican Communion.
On the other hand, Lawrence could choose to stay on in his current position. He is twelve years away from mandatory retirement at age 72. However, over the past four-and-one-half years, Lawrence has so completely defined his episcopate in the context of his “war” that it would be difficult for him to credibly reinvent himself, redefine his vision for the Diocese, and restore the confidence of those whom he has alienated.
He has squandered the extraordinary goodwill that accompanied his election and consecration, and significantly depleted the financial resources of the Diocese largely by hiring an army of lawyers for purposes that have never been made entirely clear. The Diocese claims that it is the fastest growing in the country, but even by its own reports, membership levels are still lagging behind those in the final years of Bishop Salmon’s episcopacy.
Bishop Lawrence has generally surrounded himself with a cadre of admiring friends and advisors who uniformly reflect his Biblical literalism and hostility to authority. Lawrence has revamped key governing structures of the Diocese such that they are now little more than an extension of that cadre. The direction of the Diocese is generally believed to be directed by God through revelation to Bishop Lawrence, who in turn, shares it with the Standng Committee, then the clergy, then the lay people of the Diocese.
Traditional Episcopalians in the Diocese, whose personal, political, and financial support sustained Lawrence’s predecessors, have been kept at arms’ length and not are unlikely to return to the fold as long as Lawrence is active. Though their numbers have diminished, they still retain much institutional history, and the wealth to revive Diocesan finances.
As the Bishop and his supporters contemplate their future, they cannot count on bygone being bygones. There is a mountain of hidden legal entanglements facing the Diocese the over the quitclaim deeds and other property issues like those that facilitated the departure of St, Andrew’s in Mount Pleasant. There have been discussions of lawsuits from within the Diocese around these issues, and Lawrence most likely would be named personally in those suits.
According to two attorneys contacted by SC Episcopalians, Lawrence and his allies have used the past few years to engage in a coordinated campaign to defraud the Episcopal Church of its property at a level that rises to criminal conspiracy.
If he chooses to stay, unifying the Diocese should be his first priority. Unfortunately, that is not something that comes easily to him.
Looking back through the history of the Diocese of South Carolina, it is difficult to find an episcopate more tumultuous, and less effective than that of Bishop Lawrence.
Should he decide to stay on as Bishop, there is perhaps enough goodwill still available to him to steer the Diocese back onto a more productive course. He will have to work at it, and invest more of himself in getting to know his parishes and their communicants. This is a Diocese of extraordinary theological, demographic, and political diversity, and it has never thrived except under leaders who’ve been able to deftly weave that diversity into a common cause.
Shortly after then-Father Lawrence was elected bishop, he told a reporter that Episcopalians needed to “wake up and choose sides.” Ironically, nearly five years later, if B ishop Lawrence wants to redeem his shattered legacy, he now must figure out a way to bring his wounded diocese together.
Unfortunately, that is a style of leadership in which he seems to place very little value.