ST. GEORGE - Bishop Mark Lawrence testified on Friday that he continued to act as bishop of South Carolina, including signing legal documents and celebrating church sacraments, after being removed from his ministerial duties by the national church.
However, he added that he has never been served properly with a certificate of abandonment or restriction of his ministry, as required by church rules.
"I have no recollection of that being procured," Lawrence said.
Outside of court, he added that he also has never requested a renunciation of his orders as required for ordained clergy to be removed from their ministries.
"It is a process that they need to use to be faithful to due process," Lawrence said.
In court, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein asked whether Lawrence was in good standing with the national church when he was involved in actions withdrawing the local diocese from it.
"Bishop Lawrence may or may not have had authority to act as a managing agent of the corporation," Goodstein said.
In October 2012, the national church restricted Lawrence's authority. He and about two-thirds of parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the coastal half of the state, then withdrew from it after years of arguments over scriptural interpretations and church powers.
They then filed a lawsuit against The Episcopal Church to retain the diocese's property, name and other assets. The lawsuit affects more than $500 million in physical property. Goodstein issued a temporary restraining order that has since allowed Lawrence's group to continue using the diocese's property and identity.
The diocese and parishes that remain with the national church temporarily are calling themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and are led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg. He testified Wednesday.
A non-jury trial over that lawsuit has stretched over three weeks now. Lawrence was the last witness to testify.
One issue in the trial is whether the diocese had the right to withdraw from The Episcopal Church under South Carolina civil laws and, if so, if it followed those laws.
On Friday, Goodstein questioned the timing of events before and after the national church removed his authority as bishop.
A critical date, she said, is Nov. 17, 2012. That is when Lawrence's group held a special convention to remove references to The Episcopal Church and accession to it from the diocese's constitution and canons, a final act to sever their ties.
However, a second reading of that change came in March 2013, after Lawrence was removed by The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Shortly after the Nov. 17 convention, the presiding bishop accepted Lawrence's renunciation of orders as a result of statements in that meeting that he and the diocese were no longer part of The Episcopal Church. Lawrence "is therefore removed from the Ordained Ministry of this Church and released from the obligations of all Ministerial offices, and is deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority," a church statement read.
Lawrence has continued to act as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. He and his supporters contend that he is the rightfully elected bishop.
A bishop, Lawrence explained, "is an overseer of a body of gathered congregations and people that is the basic unit of the church, and for a number of centuries has been the basic unit of the church. So the bishop is the overseer."
Lawrence's group contends that the diocese existed before the national church and can voluntarily leave as it chooses. The national church, however, contends that it is a hierarchical institution whose governing body never gave the diocese permission to withdraw.
Lawrence also testified that he was never asked - or intended - to withdraw the diocese from The Episcopal Church when interviewed for the bishop post. However, vonRosenberg's group has attempted to argue that Lawrence and others conspired to leave the national church and take millions in church property with them.
The trial now rests in Goodstein's hands. She will rule later.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
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