Legal battle between disaffected diocese and Episcopal Church begins
In an effort to retain control of church property that local officials say is worth more than $500 million, the breakaway Diocese of South Carolina, joined by 16 parishes, filed a lawsuit Friday against The Episcopal Church, asserting its historical sovereignty and newly established independence.
Following are the 16 S.C. parishes that have joined the suit:
Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Church of the Cross, Beaufort
Church of the Holy Comforter, Columbia
Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg
St. Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
St. John’s Episcopal Church of Florence
St. Matthias Episcopal Church, Manning
The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Charleston
The Church of Our Savior, Beaufort
The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
St. Philip’s Church, Charleston
St. Michael’s Church, Charleston
The Episcopal Church of the Parish of Prince George, Winyah
The Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
Trinity Church, Myrtle Beach
The intact diocese has 71 parishes and mission churches; 55 were represented at the Nov. 17 special convention, called by officials to formalize the break with The Episcopal Church. Four parishes and two missions abstained from voting because their members were still in discernment. About 16 parishes did not participate in the voting at all, apparently because they remain aligned with the church.
The lawsuit, filed in circuit court, also seeks to prevent the church from infringing on the trademarks and identity of the incorporated “Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” the name disaffected Anglicans aligned with Bishop Mark Lawrence claim for themselves.
The Episcopal Church certainly has a right to maintain a local diocese, said the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary under Lawrence, but it cannot assume the diocese’s legal identity. It will have to come up with a different name, he said.
At the heart of the dispute is the definition of the word “diocese” and the diocese’s legal claim to the physical property located in the region. People loyal to The Episcopal Church say a diocese is an administrative and geographical entity that’s part of a larger institution, and it cannot “leave” the church. Only people can leave the church.
But Lawrence, Lewis and other officials argue that a diocese is merely a collection of parishes under a bishop.
“We seek to protect more than $500 million in real property, including churches, rectories and other buildings that South Carolinians built, paid for, maintained and expanded — and in some cases died to protect — without any support from The Episcopal Church,” Lewis said in a statement. “Many of our parishes are among the oldest operating churches in the nation. They and this diocese predate the establishment of The Episcopal Church. We want to protect these properties from a blatant land grab.”
Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for The Episcopal Church, said Friday the church had not yet received notification of the lawsuit and therefore could not comment.
In 1789, the Diocese of South Carolina became one of nine founding dioceses of The Episcopal Church. In 1979, it voted in favor of the Dennis Canon at General Convention, a church law that requires local authorities to hold property in trust for the diocese and national church.
In recent years, diocese officials have distanced themselves from the church, citing theological and administrative concerns. They object to what they consider the liberal leanings of an institution too quick to compromise Scripture in favor of social trends, including same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy.
The diocese changed its constitution and canons in 2010, declaring itself sovereign, then modified its corporate charter in 2011, removing reference to the national church. The church’s response was to declare those changes “null and void.”
In late 2011, Lawrence issued quit-claim deeds to each parish, relinquishing his oversight of the property. This move, which violated the church’s Dennis Canon, and other recent actions undertaken by Lawrence prompted the church to declare in October that he had “abandoned” his vows as an Episcopal bishop.
That announcement triggered an automatic disaffiliation in the form of a resolution prepared in advance by the diocese.
Now the legal battle has begun.
Lewis said the lawsuit was filed in response to the use by The Episcopal Church of the diocese’s seal and name. It was also undertaken in anticipation of forthcoming legal action diocese officials think is inevitable based on the experiences of four other breakaway dioceses and “multiple reported statements made by members of the steering committee” (of the continuing Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina).
Late last year, that committee was formed to lay the groundwork for a new local Episcopal administration since Lawrence and his colleagues declared they had left the church.
Steering Committee Chairman Hillery Douglas said he could not comment on the lawsuit since only The Episcopal Church was named as the defendant and since he had not seen the documents. But he did defend the church in general terms, saying that canon law dictates how church officials will respond to Lawrence’s actions of disassociation.
“They have canons they have to follow,” Douglas said. “The Episcopal Church was doing what it was supposed to do. It gave Mark Lawrence every chance in the world to do the right thing.”
Lewis said all worshippers in the diocese are free to choose what to do, suggesting that the dispute largely will be settled at the parish level.
“We’re not forcing anyone to stay with the Diocese of South Carolina,” he said. “We’ve made it quite clear that parishes that wish to return to The Episcopal Church have the freedom to do so.”
Parishes with a divided congregation might have a more difficult time, he said, especially if a group of worshippers loyal to The Episcopal Church insists on using the same congregational name. That presents “a great challenge in trying to have friendly arrangement,” Lewis said.
Asked if he thought an out-of-court arrangement were possible, Lewis struck a pessimistic note.
The Episcopal Church has not demonstrated a willingness to negotiate in good faith, he said. Nor does it have the financial resources to maintain all the properties it seizes from breakaway groups.
He said local officials had broached the idea of some kind of settlement, but actions taken by the church put a stop to those conversations.
The legal battle could last awhile, and its outcome is uncertain.
The breakaway diocese is relying on a 2009 S.C. Supreme Court decision in favor of All Saints Church on Pawleys Island, which had broken from the diocese (and Episcopal Church) a few years earlier. That decision cited an unusual deed transfer that occurred more than a century earlier, long before the Dennis Canon was adopted.
But several court decisions elsewhere have backed the church’s claim that it’s a hierarchical institution that ultimately controls all the property.
Meanwhile, Lawrence continues to assert his authority as the bishop of an autonomous diocese even as some others work to ensure a church-designated diocese continues, albeit under new management.
A special convention is scheduled for Jan. 26, hosted by Grace Church downtown, at which a provisional bishop will be named. The Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, will attend.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.