The trial in South Carolina concerning the ownership of properties of the churches in the jurisdiction of the Diocese of South Carolina, as defined by the Episcopal Church, (being the residue of the Diocese for the whole of the State of South Carolina prior to its division into two dioceses) begins today. It is a complex mess, due in large part to the premeditated efforts of Lawrence and other diocesan leaders, contrary to the canons of The Episcopal Church, to remove all properties from any connection to the Episcopal Church prior to the decision taken by the leaders and Lawrence to leave the Episcopal Church, . How much of this will be seen and understood by the court remains to be seen.
Mark Lawrence has written his community about the trial. You can read the full letter HERE.
In it he says, "The path that has brought us as a diocese to this hour has been long and
winding. Yet through it all we have been guided by a desire to be
faithful to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as we have
received it ever striving to be mindful that we have been entrusted with
this Truth, this Good News and rich heritage, in order to share it with
those who have yet to come into the reach of Christ’s saving embrace." (underlining mine)
Now when Bishop Lawrence was made bishop he was (at least as the Ordinal directs) asked to make the following promise:
"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I, NN, chosen Bishop of the Church in N., solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation; and I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the [Protestant] Episcopal Church [in the United States of America]. He then signs this declaration.
I presume Bishop Lawrence did so.
But he states, "we have been guided by a desire to be faithful to the doctrine, discipline and worship of Christ as we have received it..." Those are fine words, and I would hope we are all guided by The Lord Jesus Christ, who is, after all the true Good Shepherd of our souls. However, the "doctrine, discipline and worship" to which he was pledged as bishop had to do with Church. The connector here is that "the Church" is also understood as "the body of Christ." So perhaps Lawrence was simply making a shortcut... from Church to Christ. But I don't think so.
Mark Lawrence apparently does not understand that his promises had distinctly to do with the church - in his case specifically with The Episcopal Church. He promised to engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship" of the Episcopal Church. He has broken that promise.
If he had to choose between "the Church" and Christ I would hope he would choose Christ. But he would do so as a Christian outside his vows as bishop, which are to the church as incarnating (in some way or another) the body of Christ.
His choice is that which every Christian at one time or another confronts, given the often messy and fallen state of Church life. It does, however, change his relationship to the Church. He is acting not as a bishop, bound by vows to the Church, but as a believer freed from those vows.
Mark Lawrence has made a radical Christian response to a church he feels has lost its way. It is unclear when he believed that he needed to make such a decision, but many of us now believe it was prior to his being ordained bishop, in which case he was ordained with his fingers crossed. He really did not mean "conforming" to ... of the Episcopal Church (or any particular Church for that matter). He meant conforming to Christ directly and without connection with the church at all. Still, it is his decision - but not as a bishop. Having made the decision for personal conscience he is acting personally, not as bishop.
He is leader of a group of congregations floating freely now in the rarefied world of vagrant church bodies. It is hard to see how this group is a diocese (since they are not part of a larger synod - a province) and how he is a bishop (deposed in the Episcopal Church and not incorporated into the governance of any other provincial or national church.) But there it is.
The trial will be what it will be. And when it is over it will not lead to any great satisfaction for either side. The continuing Diocese will be part of The Episcopal Church, a constituent member of the Anglican Communion, and the Lawrence led group will be looking for a larger church home where it may or may not be part of anything having to do with the Anglican Communion. The property will belong to someone and hopefully those someones will us it for the good of the Church on some level and the glory of Christ.
We will see.
As to Mark Lawrence... what part of the ordination vows did he not understand?