BISHOP LAWRENCE SIGNALS RETIREMENT
Bishop Mark Lawrence informed his diocese yesterday that he is calling for a bishop coadjutor. This is a signal that he is seriously considering retirement in the near future. Find the press release of this here .
Lawrence is 70 years old. He is not required to retire at 72, but calling for a coadjutor means he is keen to leave office sooner rather than later. The coadjutor would become the diocesan bishop upon the resignation of Lawrence. In the Episcopal Church a diocese may expect to take 18 months to put a bishop coadjutor in place.
As Lawrence's retirement nears, it is not too soon to start looking at historical legacy. What difference did his episcopacy make? In a word, plenty. He presided over the biggest schism in the Episcopal Church in the Twenty-First Century. That is a big deal.
At this point, how one looks at Lawrence will determine whether he or she sees him as a positive or negative historical force. His followers adore him and hang on his every word. His detractors do not, to say the least. As we approach an assessment, let us begin with the empirical evidence we have on hand in the official statistics of the diocese(s).
Lawrence was installed as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina in 2008. At that time, the diocese had 31,559 baptized members. In its latest figures (2018), his diocese listed 20,763 members. That is a decline of 10,793, or -34%.
Communicant numbers are more revealing. A communicant is a person who attends church at least once a year. When Lawrence arrived in 2008, the DSC counted 27,670 communicants. In its latest figures (2018), his diocese listed 12,126 communicants. This is a decline of 15,544 people, or -56%. To put it simply, Lawrence presided over a diocese that lost more than half its communicants.
But, what about growth since the schism of 2012? Same downward trajectory. In 2013, the year after the break, Lawrence's diocese listed 17,798 communicants. Five years later, 2018, it counted 12,126 communicants. That is a decline of 36%. In other words, Lawrence's organization lost a third of its regular members after the schism. Even more telling is the trend of constant and relentless decline of numbers year after year.
Another way of looking at numbers is in Average Sunday Attendance, that is, how many people are sitting in the pews. In 2013, the year after the schism, Lawrence's diocese counted an ASA of 9,292. In 2018 it listed 8,875, a fall of 4%. The trajectory is the same, yearly decline.
Then, what about budget? When Lawrence arrived in 2008, the diocesan budget was app. $3m ($2,995,289). His last diocesan budget, 2019, listed $2,551,000, a decline of 9% in the 12 years. However, the 2019 budget was bloated by an unidentified gift of $543,000 for legal expenses. Removing that one-time item, would leave a budget a third less than that of 2008. At any rate, Lawrence's diocese has a considerably smaller budget than that of 12 years ago not even accounting for inflation.
Thus, the empirical evidence of membership and budget statistics show a dramatic and relentless decline in the Lawrence's diocese, most markedly after the schism of 2012.
There is a bigger picture here greater than just numbers. Lawrence presided over the largest schism in the Episcopal Church since the Civil War, 175 years ago. In all fairness to him, we must recognize that he did not make the schism by himself. In fact, the process of moving the diocese of South Carolina away from the Episcopal Church had been going on within the diocese since 1982, 26 years before he arrived. There is some evidence that suggests he was chosen by people who wanted a schism in order to carry out their pre-conceived plan of leaving TEC. If this is true, and I suspect it is, one could see him as a tool rather than as an instigator. If so, he must have satisfied the plotters well as he was richly rewarded for his leadership, and he remains highly popular in his new diocese.
Yet, looking at Lawrence's diocese today it is hard to see any success, or a bright future. Before the schism, Lawrence and the diocesan leadership of shrewd lawyers and anti-Episcopal Church zealots told their followers certain points that turned out to be untrue. They said the diocese was independent and could leave the Episcopal Church intact and at will. The federal court shot that down last September. The U.S. district judge in Charleston declared that the contingent that left the Episcopal Church also left the Episcopal diocese. They created a new entity, and must find a new name and identity. The historic diocese did not leave the Episcopal Church.
They also told the people they could leave the Episcopal Church with their local properties intact. The South Carolina Supreme Court shot that down in 2017. Even though the circuit judge overturned this recently, his Order is not likely to stand under appeal. Odds are that the state's higher courts will uphold the SCSC decision. At that, 29 parishes will return to the Episcopal Church leaving the Lawrence contingent with 6 parishes from the old diocese.
The old diocesan leaders also led the majority of the people to believe they would remain in the Anglican Communion if they left TEC. Not true, even after the new diocese joined the Anglican Church in North America. The ACNA is not now, and no doubt will never be, in the Anglican Communion. The Archbishop of Canterbury has declared it to be an independent Christian denomination outside of the Anglican Communion. The ACNA bishops will not be invited to the Lambeth Conference in 2022. The fact is that Lawrence's organization, that now calls itself the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina is Anglican in name only. It is not in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is not Anglican by the dictionary definition of the word Anglican.
Thus, the legacy of the schism is unfulfilled promises and decline. Although all of this certainly cannot be put on Lawrence himself, the fact remains he was the bishop of the diocese at the time of the schism.
What happens to the new diocese after Lawrence? The outlook is not good, mainly because it is out of step with history. It was founded to keep non-celibate homosexuals from inclusion in the life of the church. It joined a larger group devoted to that and to keeping women submissive to men. Society, even in conservative South Carolina, meanwhile is moving ever more to expanding human rights to all people. As it does, the ADSC will continue to shrink into irrelevance.