Messy Episcopal divorce far from over Appeal indicates costly property fight lies ahead

Local Episcopal parishes, led by the Right Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, plan to appeal a judge’s ruling Tuesday that allowed breakaway parishes to retain ownership of churches and other property.

The divorce might be finalized, but who gets what isn’t settled yet, not with The Episcopal Church’s local parishes pledging Wednesday to appeal a circuit court judge’s ruling.

Judge Diane Goodstein ruled late Tuesday in favor of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which left the national church in 2012. She ruled the diocese and two-thirds of area parishes that left with it had the right to depart and take more than $500 million in property with them.

But that ruling marks just one step in a longer journey, said the Right Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which comprises area parishes still aligned with the national church.

“We will persevere as we seek justice, even though the personal and financial costs will be significant. The present cause requires us to respond in this way,” vonRosenberg wrote in a pastoral letter distributed Wednesday.

With an appeal ahead, those costs for both sides will keep mounting.

So far, the Diocese of South Carolina and 38 parishes that separated from the national church have spent $2 million on legal fees, Bishop Mark Lawrence said. They will continue to raise money to fight the appeal and noted that The Episcopal Church has spent far more nationwide to fight similar lawsuits.

“It’s shameful to continue using church money in this way,” Lawrence said.

He added that the diocese just wants to move on, independent of The Episcopal Church, which is the North American province of the global Anglican Communion. “While they speak peace, they engage in litigation,” said Lawrence, whose diocese filed the lawsuit.

Holly Behre, a spokeswoman for vonRosenberg’s diocese, couldn’t say how much they had spent. “Some of that information is confidential, and some we just don’t have the data available for at this point,” she said.

After voting to leave, the Diocese of South Carolina sued the national church and the diocese vonRosenberg now heads, arguing that those leaving had legal right to parishes’ properties along with the diocesan name, seal and other identifiers.

That lawsuit has dragged on for more than two years. It has included a three-week nonjury trial last summer that tapped 59 witnesses, spanned 2,523 pages of transcripts and 1,200 exhibits.

Both sides say it has threatened to distract them from the church’s larger mission.

“I have tried zealously and steadfastly to focus on the mission at hand — to make disciples and spread the good news of Christ,” Lawrence said.

At issue is the church’s earliest history in Charleston, dating back to 1680. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include some of the South’s oldest colonial congregations, sanctuaries and graveyards.

The original diocese used the name Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina — and its various iterations — for 229 years, even before it joined The Episcopal Church. And so it can continue using it, Goodstein ruled.

In 1789, the Diocese of South Carolina voluntarily joined The Episcopal Church as a founding member. In 1841, the diocese added a clause to its constitution saying that it “accedes to, recognizes and adopts the general Constitution and Canons of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and acknowledges their authority accordingly.”

So it went for 169 years.

But by 2010, deep divisions had formed between the diocese and national church over scriptural interpretations, including over homosexuality and salvation, and most local officials voted to remove that so-called “accession clause.” Instead, they added that the diocese’s own bylaws would prevail in any dispute.

They also removed language that said parish property should be held in trust for the national church. Lawrence then issued quitclaim deeds to every parish so that church properties were held in the name of their parishes — and not The Episcopal Church.

The national church’s disciplinary board charged the bishop with abandonment, and the diocese opted to leave.

Goodstein ruled those actions were legal and appropriate.

“The Constitutions and Canons of (The Episcopal Church) have no provisions which state that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership,” her ruling says. Instead, national church officials have referred to its dioceses as “autonomous.”

“TEC is not organized in a fashion that its governance controls the Dioceses or the parish churches. Authority flows from the bottom, the parish churches, up,” Goodstein wrote. Church authority comes from diocesan bishops — Lawrence, in this case — and he exercised his right to leave.

Under South Carolina law, members of The Episcopal Church “may unilaterally withdraw from the association at any time,” the ruling says.

“Freedom of association is a fundamental constitutional right,” Goodstein adds in her order.

Of course, vonRosenberg disagrees. He remains patient The Episcopal Church and its local diocese will prevail as the case is appealed.

“Our biblical heritage tells of journeys experienced by faithful people,” vonRosenberg said in a statement. “Those journeys often were difficult and filled with setbacks, but people of faith were called to persevere on the way.”

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