Countersuit filed in Episcopal dispute

The leader of the local Episcopal Church authority filed suit in federal court Tuesday against the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of the independent Diocese of South Carolina, in a counter-offensive meant to resolve an identity dispute.

The Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, provisional bishop of the “continuing diocese,” which has temporarily adopted the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” is claiming that Lawrence, who left The Episcopal Church in October, is not authorized to use the diocese’s name and seal.

A similar argument was made by Lawrence and his independent diocese in January when a separate lawsuit was filed in South Carolina Circuit Court claiming ownership of the name, seal and property of the diocese and accusing The Episcopal Church of trying to “hijack” the buildings and diocesan identity. Judge Diane Goodstein of the 1st Judicial Circuit imposed a temporary injunction in January preventing the continuing diocese from using the name and marks of the independent diocese.

Officials of the independent diocese have argued that their organization predates The Episcopal Church and is the only real “Diocese of South Carolina.” Diocese officials said they could not comment before seeing the suit. But they have strongly defended their right to retain use of the name and marks. The identity of the Diocese of South Carolina has not changed, they have said, only the circumstances of its relationship to The Episcopal Church.

“The Episcopal Church is more than free to establish a new diocese in South Carolina,” the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary, said in January. “What the court (injunction) says, though, is that they can’t do that and claim to be us.”

Episcopal Church officials, instead, have argued that a diocese is an extension of the church. Dioceses can be created, changed or dissolved only by General Convention, the church’s comprehensive governing body. Whole dioceses cannot “leave” the church, officials insist. Only people can leave.

While the suit does not address the issue of property directly, the matter of who controls certain church assets could be resolved if a district judge decides in favor of the continuing diocese, according to its press release. The ownership of individual parish properties possibly would be resolved separately.

“The intention of this suit is straightforward,” vonRosenberg said in a statement. “We are asking the court to determine who is authorized to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

The continuing diocese is arguing that The Episcopal Church is hierarchical, “governed by a common authority, the General Convention, with regional bodies — dioceses — that are subordinate, and individual parishes and missions that are subordinate to their dioceses.”

The independent diocese defines its church body differently: a diocese is merely a group of parishes and missions functioning under the authority of a bishop.

Four other dioceses have attempted to break away from The Episcopal Church in recent years, as well as several individual parishes. Over the decades, courts have typically ruled against breakaway groups, affirming the argument that the church is hierarchical and that property is held in trust according to canon law.

There have been exceptions, including one case involving a South Carolina parish, All Saints Church on Pawleys Island. The S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the congregation of All Saints could retain its property, citing an unusual deed transfer that occurred more than a century earlier.

The independent diocese now is hoping that precedent will aid it in its fight.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article, published March 6, has been clarified to distinguish between court cases involving four breakaway diocese (three of which are not yet concluded, and one of which settled out of court) and breakaway cases in general.

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