Like many divorces, this one began with small tiffs that escalated.
After years of arguing over theology and administrative control, disputes among Episcopalians boiled over in 2012 when the local bishop and a majority of parishes left the national church.
The aftermath flows Tuesday into the courtroom of a circuit judge in St. George who will decide the future of more than $500 million in church property - although her ruling is likely to be appealed.
As the much-anticipated trial begins, two men will be in court, each in Anglican bishop purple, each claiming to be the rightful leader of the Diocese of South Carolina.
Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein will decide which group is the real Diocese of South Carolina: the one that remains part of the national Episcopal Church, or the one that existed before the national church and now wants to be independent from it?
Much is at earthly stake.
The lawsuit affects more than $500 million in properties that include some of the nation's most historic and renowned church buildings. Among colonial congregations whose properties are at play: St. Michael's and St. Philip's in downtown Charleston, Christ Church in Mount Pleasant, Old St. Andrew's in West Ashley and St. Helena's in Beaufort.
And the $500 million estimate comprises only the insured value of the buildings - not the land that 70 congregations' properties sit on, some of which include centuries of grave markers and the loved ones resting beneath.
Also at stake is the beloved St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island where for 75 years campers have discovered Christ and forged lifelong friendships along 314 acres of beach, marsh and woods.
But this dispute isn't just about land and buildings.
Something priceless also is at stake in the lawsuit, filed by the Diocese of South Carolina against its once-ecclesiastical brethren. That is the sentimental value of space in which generations of families have worshipped, taken communion, baptized children, married those children and bid final farewell to their dead.
"The biggest issue isn't the insured value but the ministerial value of the property," said the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, who serves as canon to Bishop Mark Lawrence.
Lawrence and most parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the coastal half of the state, left The Episcopal Church in 2012. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. province of the global Anglican Communion.
The diocese and its parishes then filed the lawsuit in January 2013 against The Episcopal Church to retain control of diocesan property, names and seal. Goodstein issued a restraining order that has since allowed Lawrence's group to continue using the diocese's property and identity.
However, 27 local parishes and missions that remain with the national church, temporarily calling themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, argue that the diocese is a "subordinate unit of the Church," their legal response says. That group is now led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg.
South Carolina is one of five dioceses nationwide that have separated from The Episcopal Church at least partly over scriptural interpretations. Lawrence supports a traditional reading of Scripture.
In recent years The Episcopal Church has ordained gay bishops and voted to allow the blessing of same-sex unions, among a host of comments and actions that have generated tremendous theological debate.
The dioceses that left are seeking other ways to align with the global Anglican Communion and are tied up in similar ongoing lawsuits.
Essentially, the local legal arguments come down to which trumps the other: national church law or state corporate law.
Lawrence's group argues the diocese is a South Carolina corporation, so issues should be settled by state law. The Episcopal Church argues that under the First Amendment, church issues should be settled by church law.
Until the breakup, local Episcopalians relied on Lawrence and other diocesan leaders to protect property and uphold doctrine, spokeswoman Holly Behre said.
"They were supposed to be shepherds of the church for all of us. That they can just go and leave doesn't make sense to a lot of people," Behre said.
The Episcopal Church and vonRosenberg's local diocese argue that the church is a hierarchical institution that controls its property. People can leave the church, but a geographic unit like a diocese cannot.
"This diocese, its name and its assets are things that belong to all of us together, as Episcopalians. We believe they were meant to be held and used for the benefit of the church, not taken out of the church and used to set up a new denomination," Behre said.
However, Lawrence's group contends the Diocese of South Carolina predates the national church, which it voluntarily joined - and voluntarily can leave. In 1789, the Diocese of South Carolina was one of nine founding dioceses of The Episcopal Church.
They argue that the national church tried to remove their duly elected bishop, prompting their departure.
Meanwhile, vonRosenberg's diocese had sought to get Lawrence, Lewis and two other priests added individually to the lawsuit. The four took actions to "withdraw" the diocese from The Episcopal Church in violation of state law, court filing allege.
The state Court of Appeals dismissed that petition last week, and Goodstein ordered the trial to begin Tuesday.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
Notice about comments: