Bishop Lawrence: A Study in Bullying

One topic I often write about is church bullies. The recent decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which awarded almost all Episcopal assets to The Episcopal Church (TEC), versus the pro-Lawrence dissidents, underscores one of the worst organized cases of bullying in church in recent years, Specifically, dissidents claim that they filed suit against the national church to preempt an effort on the part of the former to seize their assets and depose bishop Lawrence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, former Episcopal Bishop Mark Lawrence and his followers represent nothing more than an attempt to bully the Episcopal church into accepting their religion of intolerance, or face being replaced by Lawrence’s “rump church.”

The genesis of this whole conflict is found in the infamous Sewickley memo, the full text of which can be found here. In it. Geoff Chapman, a former Episcopal priest, espouses a strategy to replace The Episcopal Church with a conservative denomination aligned with Nigerian bishops. Inter alia, the memo espouses churches leaving in “clusters,” and attempting to take their property with them. This, the theory goes, would overwhelm The Episcopal Church and our so-called “revisionist bishops.”

We saw that strategy play out here in Virginia. Here, a group of parishes, led by Truro and the Falls Church, attempted to simultaneously seize assets and run. The result was more than seven years of litigation, resulting in the recovery of Episcopal assets by The Episcopal Church.

When the dissidents realized that this strategy was not working in the courts, it tried upping the ante by running off with whole dioceses, including South Carolina.

In true bully fashion, the Lawrence crowd plotted for years, trying to move church assets to “friendly banks,” and otherwise taking preparatory steps. Subsequently, Lawrence could not get his consecration approved by the House of Bishops, so he lied, claiming he had no intention of trying to lead the diocese out of TEC. Based on the falsehood, Lawrence was approved, and the wheels began turning. Indeed, some in his clique complained he wasn’t moving fast enough.

Then, claiming that the move would preempt a move by the national church to seize assets and depose Lawrence, he and his deputies filed suit against the national church with Diane Goodstein. Goodstein was known to be friendly to Lawrence and his goals, and demonstrated a bizarrely erratic approach to jurisprudence that could only work to the benefit of the dissidents.

Thus, Lawrence pulled the whole, “Poor me, I’m being bullied routine.”

And while Lawrence claims that he has had overwhelming support from his rogue “diocese,” but the numbers suggest otherwise. Revenues and attendance have dropped liked rocks, and why not? The average person in the pew was lied to by someone they trusted.

Meanwhile, TEC asked offered to give the dissidents all disputed parish property in exchange for releasing any claim to diocesan assets. Lawrence, true to form, rejected the offer out of hand.

Today, with the state Supreme Court decision in hand, Lawrence continues to argue that he’s been injured, picked on, yada yada yada. But the reality is the decision is consistent with the vast majority of other decisions, and thus entirely expected. Yet, instead of seeking conciliation and a graceful exit from the controversy, Lawrence continues to bellow, threaten to appeal, and more. 

In other words, he proposes to waste even more money from his followers on a foregone conclusion.

At the same time, the discovery process has clearly demonstrated that, from day 1, Lawrence was up to no good. He was engaged in deception throughout this entire sordid chain of events. And there is ample evidence that Lawrence may have wasted Episcopal assets in a deliberate attempt to adopt a poison pill deterrent to TEC success in the courts.

That begs the issue: What had the Lawrence crowd so upset? Primarily it was the decision to ordain Gene Robinson. Or, in other words, they couldn’t live with the fact that others in the church were more progressive or inclusive than him. 

So what next? Will he withdraw from other organizations in which LGBT persons are welcome? Attempt to shut down public schools? And heaven help us–there are openly gay members of Congress. Lawrence is a dinosaur–a throwback to a 1950’s worldview in which only some of God’s people are treated as actually being made in God’s image.

The upshot is former Bishop Lawrence doesn’t get to tell others what to believe. He needs to get over it, and recognize that there is no future in hatred. Not for him. Not for his already faltering new church. 

Lawrence, it’s time to give it a rest.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
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