The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence Bishop feels hand of God down journey through Episcopal Church schism

Lawrence on a hiking trip.

Four times, God could have called Mark Lawrence home. And didn’t.

From the moment Lawrence was born severely premature in a Catholic hospital, doctors warned he wouldn’t live.

The hospital’s nuns prayed otherwise. Lawrence went home, a shoebox his bassinet.

At six weeks old, he suffered a life-threatening blockage of his esophagus. Several years later, his appendix ruptured.

And as a grown man, his colon ruptured, bringing yet another dire prognosis. His wife sat beside his hospital bed.

“Are you going to go?” she whispered fearfully.

“No,” he said. God wasn’t calling him home yet.

So, she knew he’d live. Because that was how he had always lived, feeling the Holy Spirit guide him when to stay — and when to go.

With that faith, a California boy with a charismatic bent and an orthodox theology has led the Diocese of South Carolina through a long and contentious schism with the Episcopal Church, one whose ending might finally be in sight.

Lawrence, like many young adults, drifted from the Methodist church of his childhood, preferring folk music and California’s mountain trails. He left for college an agnostic, at best.

He drove tractors to save money for tuition and his beloved books, then attended a semester or two of college, dropped out, got a new job, then headed for the mountains with his thoughts again.

For a class, he read Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling,” about God’s command that Abraham sacrifice his son as a test of faith. It left him sifting through the philosopher’s notions of despair and life without greater meaning.

Lawrence wondered: Is my life without greater meaning?

That Thanksgiving, he took a walk after dinner alone, eventually kneeling in a damp and grassy lawn.

“Lord, I don’t know if you exist, but I am going to act as if you do,” he recalls praying.

God, it seemed, did not respond.

Four days later, back at State University in Sacramento “with the whole God thing rolling around in my mind,” he again left for a walk.

“God,” he prayed, “this whole thing seems like a cosmic myth. You’d better do something soon, or I’m going to chuck it out the window.”

Then he saw a sign, a literal one. It said: REVIVAL.

That evening, Lawrence drove to the address. There, within the timeworn walls of the Apostolic Church of the Holy Ghost of Jesus Christ Our Lord, Ebenezer, he felt God respond.

About 200 people crammed a space intended for half that. A woman up front said, “There are some young men here who shouldn’t leave until they are baptized with the Holy Ghost.”

As the music played, people stepped forward. The woman touched them on the forehead, and they danced.

An inner voice spoke: “Mark, get in line.”

So he did. When his turn came, she touched him, feather light. He collapsed.

“Mark, there is no rational reason to be on the floor,” he recalls thinking.

But something else whispered: “You will not be able to stand up until you are totally able to stand up with Jesus.”

When he could stand, Lawrence slipped back to his seat.

But as he left, a man asked: “Have you been baptized?”

“As a baby,” Lawrence said.

“Have you been baptized in water since you believed?”

And so the man who would become a bishop turned around and donned a white robe. Three times, he was immersed as the congregation sang an old spiritual and he felt more cleansed and purified than he thought possible.

Lawrence transferred to Southern California College, now Vanguard University, where he integrated his conversion with his intellectual interests, not to mention becoming that year’s undefeated wrestling team co-captain.

He also found his future wife. Allison was a yearbook photographer who covered sports.

“He wrestled with such intensity,” she recalls. “He wrestled with his mind.”

He intrigued Allison, an only child who had lost her mother at 13. Away at school, worried about her father’s illness, she awoke three mornings in a row after dreams of this intense young man proposing.

The day of her third dream, a month after they’d begun dating, he proposed. They married in 1973.

Lawrence worked at the Santa Fe Railroad and took night classes in literature. They bought a house and attended an Assemblies of God church. Yet, he found its worship needlessly chaotic.

So they visited St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a parish they happened to pass on the way home. Its style felt stiff at first, but the Elizabethan language fit the tenor of his mind, and the ancient liturgy touched his soul.

And as he stepped to the altar rail for his first communion there, he felt such a sense of the “sacramental otherness,” of the Holy Spirit’s hand upon him that he trembled with awe.

He and Allison leapt into church activities.

“But it was a dreadfully dry time in my spiritual life,” he recalls.

Then one morning he awoke beside a window, a warm summer breeze floating in, the birds beyond welcoming a new day.

He thought of his future, of Allison’s future. They had their first child, and he was still working the railroad and taking classes.

What was God calling him to do with his life?

Into his thoughts nudged the stanzas of George Herbert’s “The Collar,” a poem about rebellion and, ultimately, submission to divine will that ends:

“But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild

At every word,

Methought I heard one calling, Child!

And I replied, My Lord.”

The final line, with its clean closure of submission, lingered.

Is God calling me to become a priest? he wondered.

He wrestled with the notion until he met the Rev. Tod Ewald, then president of the Episcopal Charismatic Fellowship, at a conference. They introduced themselves and shook hands.

The priest summoned Lawrence to sit right beside him. A bit surprised, Lawrence did so.

“Mark, is God saying ‘priest’ to you?” Ewald asked pointedly, poking Lawrence in the chest.

Lawrence saw the word priest hang in the air between them.

“Yes!” he said.

The next summer, he headed to Trinity Episcopal School for the Ministry in Pennsylvania. He returned to California to serve in his first parish and then heard God tell him: “Mark, I’m taking you to Pittsburgh.”

He became rector of an aging church in western Pennsylvania, a rural steel mill town in what Time magazine called “the center of industrial devastation and white poverty.”

To Allison, it looked like a war zone. When their oldest child, Chad, went to school his first day, a teacher was stabbed. Unemployment soared above 50 percent. The Lawrences, with their three small children, lived under the poverty level.

They stayed for 13 years.

Then, in 1997, he became rector of St. Paul’s, his home parish back in California. He’d been away for 20 years.

It was a time to raise their five children and build deep bonds with larger church family, some new and others they’d known for decades.

In 2006, St. Paul’s hosted a healing ministry conference. A guest priest began to sing, his baritone filling the room.

Lawrence realized he was hearing the man sing in tongues. At first, it rang with an African cadence, and he could see himself soaring over the great savannahs. The sound transformed, sounding more Celtic, and Lawrence soared over Irish hillsides. Then a Negro spiritual led him to the deep South, until he again heard recognizable words of English.

Three times, an inner voice said:

The journey begins.

Pack your things.

And then:

Give your children your blessing. You’ve been in one place long enough.

When the group broke, Lawrence went to Allison, eyes wide and damp with emotion.

“I looked at his face and thought, ‘Oh, my gosh,’” she recalls.

A month later, an Ohio friend of 30 years called. While praying, he’d felt a profound sense of God saying he was moving Lawrence from St. Paul’s to “prepare the faithful for the battle ahead.”

Then, a third sign.

A few days later, retired Pittsburgh Bishop Alden Hathaway called: Would Lawrence put his name into the search for a new Diocese of South Carolina bishop? As the word “yes” slipped from Lawrence’s mouth, he wished to silence it in mid-air.

Lawrence was no stranger to controversy brewing within the Episcopal Church by then.

He and other more orthodox priests felt that a group within the church was pushing a social agenda at odds with Scripture, including the 2003 consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, the first priest in an openly gay relationship to become bishop.

Lawrence fell squarely among those wanting to protect a traditional view of marriage.

“When there is no norm, what guards one generation to the next?” he asks. “The Word is an anchor in the sea of cultural confusion.”

His California diocese felt the hot embers of conflict. He knew they burned in the Diocese of South Carolina as well.

In 2006, Lawrence was elected bishop of the diocese, which covers the eastern half of South Carolina. However, he failed to gain adequate approval from a majority of dioceses due to a voting technicality and fears that he would lead the diocese to secede.

In 2007, he was elected again — and approved after assuring clergy he wanted to avoid a split.

At a dinner after his consecration, Lawrence addressed those gathered. He talked about feeling God’s hands at work in his life many times.

Each time required him to act.

“If you aren’t seeing God at work in your life, you aren’t far enough out on the limb yet,” he told them.

It’s a theme Lawrence has stuck by and modeled since, the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis says.

“As our bishop, he has consistently modeled a kind of faith that is prepared, when called to do so, to step out of the boat and trust in God’s loving provision,” Lewis says. “Consequently we continue, I believe, to see God at work among us in amazing ways.”

Even back then, Lawrence says he tried to see Robinson’s consecration as something that went against church teachings — but didn’t change those teachings. If the official canon adhered to traditional views of sexuality and marriage, he could operate within that and try to convince national church leaders to as well.

Yet, growing contention led to disputes over just how much control the national church had over its dioceses, including South Carolina.

Lawrence and others felt church leaders changed the rules to give themselves too much power over internal diocesan affairs (although others argue the national church provides dioceses with much autonomy).

The local diocese took steps to assert its autonomy. For instance, its leaders changed its constitution and canons in 2010, declaring the diocese sovereign, then it modified its corporate charter in 2011, removing reference to the national church. The national church declared those changes “null and void,” contending it is impossible to be both a part of the church and apart from it.

Then in late 2011, Lawrence issued quitclaim deeds to individual parishes, transferring legal interest in their properties to them. This violated an Episcopal Church canon that requires bishops and dioceses to hold property in trust for the national church, its leaders said.

Then came the 2012 General Convention last summer when the Episcopal Church authorized a provisional rite for same-sex unions (per individual diocesan bishop’s approval) and opened the door to transgendered clergy.

Lawrence sat among his fellow bishops thinking, “This church has lost its way.”

The next day, he asked to speak to them.

“I believe we crossed a line,” he recalls saying. “I can no longer seek to conform to this doctrine.”

He asked for their prayers and returned to South Carolina.

With no good options, he summoned his clergy to warn: “I have a moral crisis.”

The struggle, in many ways, ended with a phone call on Oct. 15.

With both of their attorneys on the line, Lawrence spoke with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. She told him that the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops had declared him in abandonment of the church.

He no longer was authorized to “perform any Episcopal, ministerial or canonical acts.”

That triggered an automatic response from the diocese, resulted in it disassociating from the national church.

The move caused Lawrence grief — and gave him hope.

“I am really ready to live again and to talk about things that make my heart sing,” he says.

The independent diocese can “take our place in Anglicanism,” although what that will look like remains undecided.

Meanwhile, a state court judge still must decide who has claim to the names, seals and property of the diocese: the group still loyal to the national church, now led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, or those aligned with Lawrence?

For those and other reasons, the 63-year-old Lawrence is not looking at retirement.

“I’ll retire when the job is done,” he says. “And that job is to enable the Diocese of South Carolina to be defined by who we are in the Gospel, who we are in Anglican North America and within the larger community — and no longer by a resistance movement within the Episcopal Church.”

His clergy friends chide him over a penchant for analogies. But one sticks these days.

In it, he’s hiking his beloved High Sierra mountains.

He looks back at the enormous, stark ridge he’s just crossed. Then he turns to look ahead, greeted by the valleys and streams before him.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.