Judge impedes Episcopalians' efforts to portray conspiracy to leave church and take assets

A circuit judge delivered a blow Monday to local Episcopalians who allege that leaders of a group that disassociated from the national Episcopal Church in 2012 did so as part of a conspiracy to leave and take church assets with them.

Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein denied a motion filed by The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which is the group in eastern South Carolina who remain part of the national church. They had sought to have leaders of the group that disassociated added as parties to a lawsuit between the two camps.

The majority of local parishes and clergy, including Bishop Mark Lawrence, disassociated from The Episcopal Church in 2012 after ongoing theological and administrative disputes. That group then filed a lawsuit against the national church to retain control of diocesan property and identifying marks.

Several weeks ago, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina asked Goodstein to add to the lawsuit four leaders from the breakaway group: Lawrence, the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, the Rev. Jeffrey Miller and the Very Rev. Paul Fuener. The four men should be parties because they executed a conspiracy to take the diocese's assets and "deprive Episcopalians loyal to The Episcopal Church of their property rights," the filing alleges.

Goodstein denied that motion during a hearing Monday.

"We are grateful that Judge Goodstein dismissed this most recent effort to harass our people with time-consuming, expensive litigation," said Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of South Carolina.

Meanwhile, those loyal to the national church filed an affidavit Dec. 26 from the Rev. Thomas M. Rickenbaker, a priest who retired last fall after serving at St. Paul's Church in Edenton, N.C.

In it, Rickenbaker says he was contacted around 2005 by the Diocese of South Carolina's search committee to replace retiring Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr., who was bishop before Lawrence's election. About two months later, committee members Fuener and the Rev. Gregory J. Kronz visited Rickenbaker in North Carolina, according to the affidavit.

Rickenbaker said the first question posed to him was, "What can you do to help us leave The Episcopal Church and take our property with us?" the affidavit says.

He said he responded that he "was not interested in that course of action in any way, shape, or form, and that I was greatly disappointed that the question was even being asked," the affidavit says.

Rickenbaker said Fuener responded, "We are looking for a bishop who will or is willing to lead us out of the Episcopal Church and take our property with us,'" according to the affidavit.

Several weeks later, Kronz informed Rickenbaker that he "had been eliminated from the selection process," the affidavit says.

However, Fuener denied the account. "I am confident that his recollection of our interview is seriously in error, if not worse," he said in a statement.

Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., chancellor of the continuing Episcopalians, said the group will continue with discovery.

"We expect we will continue to see more evidence that what has happened is the result of long-held plan to gain control of the diocese and take it out of the church," Tisdale said.

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

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