ST. GEORGE - During opening days of a trial over the local Episcopal schism, leaders from more than a dozen area parishes testified that The Episcopal Church lacks legal interest in their properties worth millions of dollars.
Parish leaders aligned with Bishop Mark Lawrence, who left the national church in 2012, also testified that they had removed references to The Episcopal Church from their bylaws.
Various witnesses contended that their parishes are registered South Carolina nonprofit corporations, including some chartered in the mid-1800s, whose fates should be decided by state law rather than church law.
The trial, which began Tuesday and is expected to last two weeks, is being argued before Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein.
She will decide the future of more than $500 million in property, including some of the nation's most historic church buildings, although her ruling likely will be appealed.
Lawrence and most parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the coastal half of the state, left the national church in 2012 after ongoing disputes over Scripture and administration.
The diocese and parishes then filed a lawsuit against the national church to retain control of diocesan names and seals. Goodstein issued a restraining order that has since allowed Lawrence's group to keep that control.
Therefore, area parishes that remain with the national church are temporarily calling themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina while the case is in court.
That group, led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, argues that individuals can leave, but the diocese itself is a subordinate unit of a hierarchical church.
For instance, 1995 bylaws of the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul in Charleston said the parish existed "for the purpose of operating an Episcopal Church" and that no "alienation of property" may be made contrary to church law, said Holly Behre, spokeswoman for vonRosenberg's group.
In 2012, cathedral leaders amended bylaws to remove those references, according to a warden's testimony.
However, this legal dispute isn't only about property. Goodstein also will decide identity: Is the real Diocese of South Carolina the one that Lawrence or vonRosenberg leads?
The Rev. Canon Jim Lewis pointed to historic documents that indicate the Diocese of South Carolina existed before the national church.
Therefore, it can exist as an independent body again today - as it originally did, said Joy Hunter, spokeswoman for Lawrence's group.
However, on cross examination, Lewis read ordination vows from the Book of Common Prayer that a previous bishop administered including: "I do solemnly engage to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of The Episcopal Church."
In recent years The Episcopal Church has ordained gay bishops and allowed blessings of same-sex unions, among other issues that generated huge theological dissension.
On Tuesday, hours after the trial began, vonRosenberg gave diocesan priests permission to bless committed same-sex relationships.
Lawrence and other leaders who disaffiliated support a traditional reading of Scripture, including that marriage is between a man and woman.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.
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