Saturday, August 11, 2018


From July 31 to August 9, 2018, Mark Lawrence made a tour of the diocese to address the people. He spoke in Sumter, Walterboro, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and James Island. Overall, approximately 1,000 people heard him speak: Sumter---200, Walterboro---80-100, Charleston---200, Myrtle Beach---225-250, James Island---250-275. Some 10% of the audience came from TEC churches while perhaps another 10% were DSC clergy. That leaves app. 800 DSC lay people who attended the road show. There are some 14,000 communicants in DSC; 800 amounts to 6%. In other words, well under 10% of the people of DSC came out to hear Lawrence on his tour. This is a significant, but hardly rousing, endorsement of a leader and an institution in such dire circumstances.

The format of the appearances remained the same. Lawrence spoke for a while, took a question or two, and spoke again. He was, as usual, verbose, circuitous, and often obtuse. Nevertheless, he was, as usual, the master of crowd communication. He has always been an expert in emotional manipulation of the audience; and he was again and again. At just the right moments, every crowd arose with loud applause and cheers to punctuate important points. It was remarkable to witness his masterful control of the scene. One witness likened it to a Trump rally.

That brings us to the purpose of the tour. It was to shore up the emotional bond between bishop and followers. On that level, it would have to be rated as somewhat, if not greatly, successful. It was not meant to be informational or directional; it did neither. Those goals had been addressed earlier this year in two diocesan moves, one a "teaching" campaign in St. Michael's and St. Philip's ("Basic Theology" and "Different Gospel, different God?"), and the other, preparations to move congregations out of their present quarters. The goal of this tour was simply to have people reaffirm their emotional confidence in their leader. Thus, it was not what he said so much as how he said it. And, he said it effectively for the majority of the people listening.

Lawrence said a great deal in his talks although he mostly repeated the same themes in the same ways from one stop to the next. Basically he continued the diocesan strategy of the last few months of pressing contradictory messages although he presented them in ways that did not seem contradictory. Apparently none of his attending devotees was bothered by, or perhaps even aware of, the glaring inconsistencies. He stressed two main points:  1-that the diocese has not lost the 29 parishes because the South Carolina supreme court decision is unenforceable; and 2-we will abandon the buildings to keep the true faith. If these are not contradictory, I do not know what is.

This leads us to the question of why DSC is promoting conflicting ideas. Why the glaring contraction that to a logical mind appears so disingenuous? My theory is that the answer is simple. Lawrence has to keep people believing the litigation will succeed in order to keep the faithful contributing money for lawyers. If people assume the legal war is over and DSC has lost (essentially the truth), they will stop paying for lawyers. He fumed at the Church diocese's support from the Church Insurance Company ($5m. for the litigation). Of course, we do not know the sources of DSC's millions to pay lawyers. In spite of Lawrence's claims of transparency, the whole record of DSC's legal income and expenditures is covered in darkness.

The reason for the second theme, to abandon the buildings, is equally obvious. Right now DSC legally holds six parishes. These count some 2,000 communicants. This is not enough to make a viable independent diocese, at least certainly not on the scale of the past. In order to survive, let alone thrive, as a well-functioning diocese, DSC must create new local churches to support its financial needs. To do this, DSC will have to move people out of the old buildings and find new meeting spaces. We know that DSC's downtown Charleston churches have been engaged in seeking new quarters. For its strategy, the DSC leadership has chosen the tactic of demonizing the Episcopal Church to keep the faithful from staying in the buildings and returning to TEC.

To me the most interesting, and important, aspect of Lawrence's repetitious presentation was the focus on transgender. This is a major turn of events and we should not minimize it. Before the schism, DSC leaders campaigned on three reasons to leave TEC: theology, polity, and morality (sexuality). However, it was really the third that mattered; and that was the issue of homosexuality. For many years before 2012, the DSC leaders effectively worked that theme as the wedge to pry local Episcopalians from their ancestral church. It worked for the majority. However, after the schism, DSC made a major effort to convince people the schism was not about sexuality at all, but about theology. They claimed TEC had abandoned the basics of the faith such as the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and the Bible. They insisted that was why DSC had to leave TEC.

Therefore, I was astonished, to say the least, when Lawrence said he left TEC in 2012 because of the issue of transgender. Although he has talked about transgender often before now, to my knowledge he has never admitted that this was the issue that caused his to leave TEC. Absent was the old claim that the schism was a theological or political event. At long last, Lawrence had publicly proclaimed what most people have known all along, that the schism was driven by issues of sexuality. As I said, this is a landmark turn in DSC's explanation of the schism.

Why the pivot to transgender? Good question on which one can only speculate. My guess is it is the necessary new wedge issue. Homosexuality was the wedge to create the schism. It worked. Then, why not return to homosexuality? I think the answer may be a couple of factors. In the first place, the issue of homosexuality has declined drastically in the public consciousness, even in conservative South Carolina. People do not talk about it the way they did even a few years ago. Equal rights for and inclusion of homosexual people into social institutions is now the norm. Therefore, homosexuality will not provoke the same emotional response in the diocese that it did before 2012. Moreover, DSC completed its institutionalization of anti-gay policies in 2015 with its Marriage Task Force documents forced on the whole diocese. Meanwhile, transgender is the new issue to arouse the DSC faithful. While it is not homosexuality per se, it is in the same area, sexuality. Lawrence cleverly stoked fears of transgendered persons, as in his remark about the church nursery attendant. Transgender is the new wedge issue, not to make people leave TEC but to keep people from going back to TEC.

Another important point to make about Lawrence's talk was its entire focus on the past. He said almost nothing about the future. The facts of his decade-long tenure are clear and public. In 2008, when be became bishop, DSC counted 27,670 communicants. In the last official figures (2016), it numbered 14,694 communicants, a loss of 47%, or nearly half. If we look at just the 50 DSC churches around the 2012 schism, we see a similar drop, from 21,993 communicants in 2011, to 14,694 in 2016, a loss of 34%. The budget showed the same shocking fall, from $3m in 2008 to about $2m last year. All of the great parishes of DSC except one (Church of the Cross in Bluffton) have shown enormous losses in communicant numbers. Some examples of 2008 to 2016 change, from DSC's own statistics:  St. Helena's of Beaufort, 1,541 to 880;  St. Philip's of Charleston, 2,419 to 1,069;  St. Michael's of Charleston, 1,542 to 915;  Christ Church of Mt. Pleasant, 1,117 to 328;  St. Luke's of Hilton Head, 1,016 to 581;  Holy Cross of Sullivans Island, 1,546 to 900;  Old St. Andrew's, 634 to 446;  Holy Comforter of Sumter, 679 to 283;  Trinity of Myrtle Beach, 584 to 284;  Rusurrection of Surfside, 569 to 287. Factor in the millions of dollars that the faithful have had to pay for lawyers, and any reasonable person would have to conclude that Lawrence's tenure has been disastrous for the old diocese.

As people come to see this and recognize the reality that the Episcopal Church will soon repossess the 29 parishes, we turn to the blame game. Who is at fault for this ruinous mess? If we are to believe Lawrence, it was everybody else. I counted six different entities he named as responsible for the division:

1-groups # 3 and #4 in his categorization of the four classes of local churches when he arrived in the diocese; 3 and 4 pushed him to leave TEC;  

2-TEC, of course; it had "a target on my back" from the start; it wanted to get rid of Lawrence in order to flip the diocese from "orthodox" to liberal;  

3-the Presiding Bishop certainly for treating him badly;  

4-TECSC came in for criticism for taking money from the Church Insurance Company, that he implied was supported by retired clergy, and by slapping him with a lawsuit, (on his birthday!), seeking to take "every dime" he had gotten as bishop;  

5-transgender rights movement in TEC that forced him to have to leave TEC;  

6-the DSC standing committee that decided on schism in order to defend the bishop from the tyrannical Church. There seemed to be plenty of blame to go around on everyone else.

(Note that Lawrence singled out two groups within DSC for causing the schism, some parishes that demanded it, and the standing committee that planned it and enacted it.)

I have experienced first hand the responsibility that comes with positions of high authority and power. My father was the chief of police of Pensacola FL for years in the 1960s and 1970s, when every southern town was going through serious civic turmoil. Believe me, our phone never, ever stopped ringing, even in the middle of the night. My father never refused to take a call, never shirked his duty, never blamed others when things went wrong, and they often did. Needless to say, the local media had a field day with him. He was often hurt by the criticism, and I hurt for him. Looking back, I am amazed that he stood it all, and did it so well. He died at age 96 (the last thing he said to me, just a few hours before he died, was, "I have to go to court next Tuesday and I want you to go with me"). I have a great deal of respect for people in positions of power who bear well the heavy responsibility that comes with the job. 

The schism in South Carolina has been a failure and disaster in so many ways, on so many levels. I think one of the truths that came from Lawrence's whirlwind tour was the voice of public fatigue. People are exhausted. People are fed up with it all. People want peace and resolution, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, Lawrence gave his followers no hope of an early end, indeed, no end in sight. Perhaps that was the greatest disappointment of all. 

I will return soon with more thoughts on Lawrence's tour.