The bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina testified Friday that he never originally intended to split with the national Episcopal Church as a three week-trial stemming from the acrimonious division came to a close.
The bishop for the state’s parishes that are remaining with the national church, meanwhile, said he was praying for reconciliation.
Nearly two years ago, about 50 conservative Episcopal churches in the diocese split with the national church amid differences over a range of theological issues, among them differences with the national church over the authority of Scripture and its allowing the ordination of gays.
The seceding diocese, in the eastern part of the state, then went to court to protect the use of the diocesan name – the Diocese of South Carolina – symbols of the diocese, and title to a half-billion dollars in property it controls.
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Lawrence, consecrated the 14th bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina in 2008, was the last witness in the trial.
Asked if he ever intended to lead the diocese out of the more liberal national church, he replied, “Absolutely not.”
He also testified he continued to participate in activities of the national church even after the local diocese amended its constitution in 2010. The amendment noted that the local diocese would not follow the canons of the national church if its General Convention passed resolutions not in keeping with the local constitution.
About 100 people, including clergy, crowded into the courtroom at the Dorchester County Courthouse for the last day of the trial. Lawrence sat on the opposite side of the aisle from Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, who heads the diocese that remained with the national church.
It will likely be months before Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein rules. She asked attorneys for both dioceses and the numerous parishes who are parties in the case to present positions on several legal questions within 30 days. Each side will then have another 30 days to respond to the other.
Before the split, the diocese had 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners. It dates to the 1700s and is one of the original dioceses that joined to form the Episcopal Church. The national church contends that the departure of a diocese requires the consent of the church’s General Convention, which was not consulted.
Lawrence later told reporters “I’m hopeful and will continue to pray for Judge Goodstein and guidance as she rules on this.”
He added that the case has been “a heavy distraction but I have fastidiously and unswervingly refused to take my focus off the real task that is before us as the church of Jesus Christ.”
VonRosenberg, who also testified during the trial, told reporters after testimony wrapped up that he felt “a sense of great sadness.”
“These are two church groups who are lined up against each other on opposite sides in a court case. That is a sad situation. However I continue to believe and hold fast to and to pray for reconciliation.”