South Carolina Episcopalians

An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans

not affiliated with ACNA, the Episcopal Church or any of their dioceses

January 6, 2019

Stall, Stall, Stall

Can Lawrence's crumbling parishes afford his promise of years of litigation?   Latest filings in Federal court little more than a cutting-and-pasting of rejected legal arguments and debunked half-truths.


Last month lawyers for what remains of the Mark Lawrence breakaway organization unloaded 38 motions on Federal Judge Richard Gergel as part of a request for summary judgment in the six-year-old "false advertising" lawsuit facing former Bishop Mark Lawrence.   They contained little more than  rehashed claims without a factual grounding and legal arguments previously rejected by other courts.


The avalanche of filings with Gergel is more evidence the Lawrencians have abandoned any hope of reversing the state Supreme Court's August 2017 ruling in the Church's favor.  It allowed seven parishes loyal to Lawrence to leave the Episcopal Church, but told another 29 they could not leave without the consent of the Church.  The high court also ruled that the corporate "Diocese of South Carolina" and its properties including Camp Saint Christopher belong to the Church as well. 


When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the ruling last summer, Lawrence vowed to keep on fighting "for years" if necessary, though it was not exactly clear what it is he plans to fight about.


Based on their strategy with the state court charged with implementing the ruling, the current strategy Lawrence and his legal team are pursuing is to clog up all of the relevant courts with nonsense and confusion in the hope of staving off the inevitable.


As their rebellion lurches aimlessly into its seventh year, congregations still loyalty to their ex-Bishop are imploding


The question facing former breakaway congregations today is whether they can afford to continue clinging Lawrence's lost cause and still provide a meaningful witness to the Gospel. 


According to parish reports, the 36 parishes that signed onto Lawrence's lawsuit lost 56% of their membership from the time Lawrence was consecrated in 2008 through 2016.  Their empty pews have led to a massive loss of income that in turn has forced deep cuts in personnel and ministry.  Lawrence's organization is now known more for its anger and political maneuvering than the 21st century Great Awakening its leaders once imagined.


Unable to attract new talent from other places, one-time Lawrence clergy are being routinely rotated as rectors within the ranks of the beleaguered Lawrence congregations, while their underlying message of hostility to gays, women, and those not sharing their narrow interpretation of Scripture continues to chase away potential new members.


"You can't build a Christian witness on hate," one local clergyman recently told SC Episcopalians.  "People looking for a new church want someplace that is positive and uplifting.  The Lawrence clergy simply recycle the same judgmental theology, and just not work."   


At their Annual Meeting last year, the Lawrence group adopted the Anglican Prayer Book of 1662 as the basis for their beliefs.  At the same time, they overwhelmingly endorsed the idea that God does not want women to be bishops, and banned them. Because the courts have ruled that they are part of the Episcopal Church, their vestries cannot buy or sell parish property, or otherwise encumber it by renting it out or borrowing against it.


How long can these congregations hold on?


This stall-at-any-cost strategy has also taken a huge toll on the parishes that tried and failed to leave the Church with Lawrence.   Most of these congregations have kept their doors open by cutting staff and eliminating parish ministries.  


However, SC Episcopalians has now detected a clear shift among the people in the pews of these one time breakaways.  It seems to have started last summer.


A number of our readers told us that they were committed to remaining active in these congregations as long as the lawsuit was alive.  They were continuing as members of those congregations because they loved the parish, and were not particularly drawn to either side of the schism. 


However, several said they felt that since last June, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Lawrence's appeal, the lawsuit was over and the congregation needed to refocus its work on ministry.  While they remain in their congregations they felt pledging would mislead or possibly embolden pro-schism parish leaders about their support.


We see that pattern in one former Lawrencian congregation that had a membership of over 200 when Lawrence became Bishop in 2002.  During 2018, it averaged 97 members.   However, this year, of its 56 pledging units last year, 15 have not re-upped for 2019 and another eight have reduced their giving.  The congregation only added three new pledging units this year.

Another former breakaway congregation that lost nearly 40 percent of its membership after joining the schism reports today that it has received 60 fewer pledges for its work in 2019 than in 2018.  In December, its revenue from pledges was running nearly $50,000 below what had been committed.


We have also been told that parishes involved in the Lawrence lawsuit are resisting his demands for more money to finance his legal adventures.  One-time hard line congregations like St. Helena's in Beaufort and Resurrection in Surfside Beach have apparently voted to cut off further funding. 

Delusional response to U.S. Supreme Court undercut Lawrence's credibility


Even with declining numbers each year, it appears to us that Lawrence's delusional response to the U.S. Supreme Court's rejection of his appeal last June greatly accelerated the disintegration of his movement and his credibility.


Lawrence's speaking tour to bolster the flagging spirits of his remaining followers last summer only raised questions about his competence and vision. 


In our view that was the tipping point for the cruel harvest his congregations reaped in their every-member-canvasses in the fall.


During one of his events, Lawrence said the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeal last summer because the ruling of the state's high court was too confusing, and the justices didn't want to be bothered with it.  Somehow he deduced that they wanted him to go back to the lower courts and start all over. 


Lawrence completely misjudged his audience at one of those pep rallies when someone asked him what they should be doing now.  His answer that they come up with more money for lawyers completely silenced them.


At another point, Lawrence told a group that he didn't leave the Church because of gays, women or Biblical literalism, but rather Sunday School teachers showing up at church wearing clothing associated with their opposite gender.  He said it would be too confusing if they dressed as one gender one week, and the other the next.


Making the plight of these parishes even tougher, Lawrence insists on referring to his followers as "Anglicans," even though they formally left the Anglican Communion in November 2012.   They are not recognized as Anglicans by the Anglican Communion or its leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and they've been repeatedly rejected by the councils of the Communion since 2012.  The Episcopal Church is the only recognized Anglican presence in the United States.