The distance between The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina widened last week when the diocese relinquished its legal oversight of all church property, sending what’s called a quitclaim deed to each parish.

The move merely formalizes an arrangement already in place, according to Bishop Mark Lawrence. “A quitclaim deed isn’t giving someone something they don’t have if they already own the deed,” he said.

Some observers say the move could heighten the risk of litigation or other challenges by national church authorities and provide additional evidence to a disciplinary committee now evaluating allegations that Lawrence has abandoned his responsibilities.

“This kind of action, along with participating in the conventions that severed legal ties to the national church, I think those are real problems,” said Melinda Lucka, an attorney critical of recent diocese actions. “On a diocesan level, this further opens the door to parishes that are considering leaving the Episcopal Church.”

But it is the duty of parish and diocese leaders to uphold the canons of the national church, she said. When those laws are cast aside or ignored, it can trigger a response from the church. “Though the church might not want to, it sort of has to,” Lucka said.

The quitclaim deed effectively ends any obligation of the diocese to hold property in trust for The Episcopal Church, as required by a controversial church law.

The Dennis Canon was introduced in 1979 to codify the authority of the national church body over property and has mostly been upheld as valid by civil courts in California, Texas, Connecticut and other states in recent years. In 1987, the diocese amended its governing documents to include the Dennis Canon, then removed the law in 2010.

Four U.S. dioceses and a number of individual parishes have left the church citing theological disputes, including the church’s revised rules regarding the ordination of gays and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions.

In the Diocese of South Carolina, which has jurisdiction over the coastal half of the state, at least five parishes have removed reference to The Episcopal Church from their governing documents, and three have left the church altogether in recent years, realigning with conservative Anglican groups.

When St. Andrew’s Church-Mount Pleasant chose to break away in March 2010 and become part of the nascent Anglican Church in North America, it left without protest from Bishop Mark Lawrence, who has disputed the validity of the Dennis Canon.

In severing any perceived legal claim to parish property, Lawrence is relying on a 2009 S.C. Supreme Court decision that favored another breakaway parish, All Saints on Pawley’s Island, he said.

In that case, the court rejected the national church’s claim that the property was held in trust, ruling that the parish had adhered to the South Carolina Non-Profit Act in making amendments to its corporate status.

But the All Saints case was unique because it involved a 1902 deed transfer that was meant to avoid the consequences of an 1880 law stating that the ownership of dormant properties is assumed by the diocese, according to Lucka.

Since that transaction predates the Dennis Canon, the quitclaim deed took precedence in the eyes of the Supreme Court, which ruled narrowly, Lucka said.

In early 2011 diocese leaders passed resolutions asserting their sovereignty and minimizing the authority of the national church, claiming Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had overstepped her bounds.

“In 2009, the presiding bishop’s chancellor retained an attorney here in the Diocese of South Carolina who presented himself as the counsel for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which is a constitutional and canonical impossibility if we have not hired him,” Lawrence said, calling the action an intrusion. “We are the Episcopal Church in this portion of South Carolina. … No presiding bishop can come into a diocese and do any action either ceremonially, publicly, sacramentally or jurisdictionally without permission by the bishop or standing committee. So that act in some ways was an act of aggression.”

It created a “cold war” and has forced the diocese to defend itself, he said.

“So when you’re in that environment, any action the diocese does to protect itself can be seen, I suppose, as a threat to others.”

This summer, the national church nullified the resolutions that obligated the diocese to follow church laws only when they are consistent with local rules (though, by virtue of those same resolutions, the diocese does not recognize the church’s nullification).

Since the diocese is a sovereign body, “the executive council has no canonical or constitution authority to speak on behalf of the church about that,” Lawrence said.

Though a majority of the diocese’s 75 parishes and missions appear to support the bishop, at least five parishes and hundreds of individuals have declared their intention to remain part of The Episcopal Church.

The quitclaim deeds could heighten scrutiny of Lawrence by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, whose president is the Rt. Rev. Dorsey Henderson, retired bishop of Upper South Carolina. The board currently is considering allegations of abandonment filed by local parishioners.

Barbara Mann, chairwoman of the Episcopal Forum of South Carolina, a group loyal to the national church, said this latest move could influence the board’s evaluation.

“I think this is going to be perhaps the deciding point,” Mann said. “If (Lawrence) says The Episcopal Church doesn’t belong in South Carolina at all, then he is abandoning The Episcopal Church.”

Henderson did not respond to messages left Saturday.

He has said his team is assessing whether the complaints amount to substantial evidence. It will deliver its recommendation to the presiding bishop, who could “restrict” Lawrence, effectively neutralizing his Episcopal authority, before the matter is taken up by the House of Bishops.

If the House of Bishops finds evidence of abandonment, it can censure Lawrence or depose him.