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South Carolina Episcopalians
August 8, 2018
Lawrence's 'Conversations' Tour Leaves Followers with Confusion over the Future, and Blame for Everyone Else
Rambling commentary touches on 2015 settlement offer, revisionist history, genitalia, and legal advice
Mark Lawrence returned to the site of his second, and ultimately successful, 2007 election as Bishop of South Carolina tonight to close out a five-night tour of his "diocese," rally supporters, and re-imagine some of the key events of his disastrous episcopate.
St. James' Episcopal Church near Charleston has been one of Lawrence's political strongholds during his nearly five years as the legitimate leader of the Diocese of South Carolina (2004 - 2012) and five years as the dissident leader who laid claim to Church property and financial assets estimated to be worth $500 million (2013 - 2018).
In 2007 Lawrence was elected Bishop of South Carolina at a special convention of the Diocese in St. James' fellowship hall.
Lawrence's tour over the past two weeks has been aimed largely at shoring up flagging support for his efforts to keep his lawsuit alive and project a very imaginative version of his chaotic tenure at the helm into the minds of his supporters and perhaps history books.
Tonight, St. James became the Home of the Whopper.
No new ground broken tonight
The 68-year-old Lawrence spoke for nearly 90 minutes before a friendly crowd of more than 200 mostly older white people. Most were from parishes in the deanery to the west of downtown Charleston, though several were from downtown parishes and others that remained with the Church when he left in 2012.
Most of Lawrence's talk was defensive. He carefully avoided taking any blame for leading his followers on a decade-long legal merry-go-round that resulted in their losing their parish properties.
In TEC and intact
He started out saying that he did not come to the Diocese of South Carolina in 2008 to lead it out of the Episcopal Church. He insisted that until late 2012, he was trying to "keep the Diocese intact and in TEC," but was thwarted by sinister liberals who wanted "to take out the Diocese of South Carolina."
However, several in the audience remembered his first public response to his election was to tell a California newspaper that people in the Diocese would have to "wake up and take sides."
They'd also remember that on his first try, Lawrence's election by the Diocese was not agreed to by the 109 other dioceses because he refused to promise he'd stay in the Church. It was only when he reluctantly conceded at the last minute that he did not "intend to leave the Episcopal Church" that his fortunes began to turn.
After a couple of years of trying to "keep the Diocese in TEC," Lawrence engineered a diocesan convention vote to remove all references to the Episcopal Church in its Constitution and Canons, and substitute "The Diocese of South Carolina" in their place. He also secretly issued quit-claim deeds to all parishes that in effect removed the Church's legal interest in their property.
Even one of the state Supreme Court justices remarked in an open session in 2015 that Lawrence was engaging in bad acts that contravened his consecration oath as soon as six months after he took it.
Lawrence also worked in a denial of what he claims is a rumor that he was originally recruited to run for bishop by his two predecessors - Ed Salmon and Fitz Allison - to lead the Diocese of South Carolina out of the Church.
No one who's followed Lawrence recognizes the story as it pertained to Salmon and Allison. Tonight was not the first time Lawrence told it on this tour. It seemed very contrived that Lawrence would intentionally tell a story using the names of his two predecessors then deny it. In fact, Salmon was not especially pleased by Lawrence's election or the rigged process by which he was nominated.
Oddly Lawrence did not mention that the bishop who did recruit him to South Carolina was Alden Hathaway, the former bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and predecessor of Robert Duncan. Hathaway, who'd retired to the Beaufort area, was very close to Lawrence from their days in Pittsburgh, and very close to the the ultraconservative cabal that was fomenting a Church-wide rebellion against its leadership.
He was also close to the chairman of the Bishop's Search Committee, Greg Kronz, a priest on Hilton Head with long-standing ties to the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Lawrence often insists - like he did tonight - he didn't know anyone in South Carolina when he was nominated for bishop.
BTW ... Kronz and his search committee did Lawrence a huge favor by rejecting well-qualified candidates for bishop who were not "aligned with the direction of the Diocese." The process produced three nominees - Lawrence and two others who were entirely too young and inexperienced to get elected. All of the three were committed to leaving the Church, except that - just before the vote - Lawrence said there might be a tiny window to work something out.
Revisionist history abounds
Lawrence led the audience on a wild narrative of the history of his lawsuit that conveniently omitted any references to the pro-Church decision of the state Supreme Court or his unsuccessful appeal of that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
According to Lawrence, trial judge Diane Goodstein of Summerville heard the case, found in favor of Lawrence & Company, and now has handed off her ruling to fellow judge, Edgar Dickson of Orangeburg for implementation.
Later on, Lawrence went so far as to suggest to a questioner that the justices of U.S. Supreme Court may have looked at the decision of state's high court and found it so confusing that they just didn't want to get into it.
Lawrence continued to gripe about the ingratitude of the congregations that wanted to stay in the Episcopal Church when he and his supporters voted to leave in 2012. He claims he was very gracious and released them from their membership in his breakaway 'diocese" and allowed them to "return to the Church" without even taking a vote.
2015 settlement offer
Lawrence was at his most defensive and least credible last night when he tried to explain why he rejected a 2015 settlement offer from the Church that would have allowed the 36 plaintiff parishes in his lawsuit to leave the Church with their properties in exchange for dropping their claims to ownership of the corporate Diocese of South Carolina.
Lawrence bumbled his way through an implausible explanation of the offer not being in writing and therefore unacceptable to him. Sources close to SC Episcopalians report there were at least two communications between Church attorneys and Lawrence's legal team and lawyers for the plaintiff parishes.
Over the years since, Lawrence has claimed that Church attorneys are to blame for his not accepting the settlement offer. In addition to the not-in-writing excuse, he says they purposely made the offer when his legal team busy getting reading for an appearance before the state Supreme Court. He later claimed he got the offer, but did not believe it had come from anyone in a position of authority to make it.
The offer from the Chancellor to the Episcopal Bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and was authenticated by the Office of the Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Lawrence also seemed concerned that people perceived his departure from the Church as being related to his dislike of gays and lesbians. He went into a lengthy digression refuting that claim, and explained that it was people with "gender identity" issues, who feel called to Christian ministry, that made him crazy. He even worked Bruce Jenner into the conversation.
Somewhat creepily, Lawrence tried to explain how there are people who are born with genitalia of one gender, but psychologically identify themselves as the opposite gender. He also tried to explain how some people are born with both man and lady parts and then get surgery, which he tried unsuccessfully to describe.
Apparently, he has felt very strongly about this issue and has raised it in other forums.
Our observation is that, throughout his tenure as bishop, it has been important for Lawrence to have real and imaginary villains to mock and blame for his actions, particularly with more conservative, evangelical audiences. To our knowledge there have been no transgender people believing themselves to be called to lay or ordained ministry in the Diocese of South Carolina, or any explanation of why God would not use them for his own purposes.
At the end of the session there arose about the building a fearsome storm that produced lightening and thunder so violent as to put the entire room in momentary darkness.
Tour ends without vision or call to action
All totaled the five nights of the Lawrence tour reached close to 800 people. Most were stalwart supporters of his politics and are willing to continue to follow him, even though the past five years had cost them millions of dollars and ownership of their parish buildings.
In the entire hour-and-half, Lawrence never offered them a vision of their future, any mention of the Anglican Communion, or the so-called 'Anglican Church of North America' to which he has been shoveling over $200,000 a year.
Somewhat implausibly Lawrence assured them they will not have to leave their parish properties 'for years', even though the judge in charge of administering the state Supreme Court decision is working on doing exactly that.
In general, Lawrence's goal of using the speaking tour to solidify his base and get them to keep subsidizing his legal adventures may have worked for the most part.
The question is whether that makes any sense.