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Episcopal fight over half-billion worth of property now in judge’s hands

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Ashley Heffernan
  • Ashley Heffernan
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The Right Rev. Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina listens as Judge Diane Schafer Goodstein decides whether Lawrence should be allowed to testify about procedures that were taken to remove him as a bishop of The Episcopal Church. (Photo/Ashley Barker)
A divide among Episcopal congregations in South Carolina is now in the hands of a circuit court judge in Dorchester County. At stake is more than half a billion dollars in real estate and ownership of Episcopal seals, logos and names.

More than 50 attorneys on both sides of a crowded courtroom in St. George rested their cases on Friday and are now preparing final documents for Judge Diane Schafer Goodstein to use as she makes a decision. She expects it will take at least 90 days.

The action was initially filed in January 2013 by the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, which is a group of nearly 40 parishes and 12 missions that broke away from the national Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina in October 2012.

Judge Diane Schafer Goodstein listened to three weeks of testimony from Episcopal churches on both sides of the issue. She is expected to make a decision in about 90 days. (Photo/Ashley Barker)

Some of the Episcopal churches decided to stay with the national church and are now under the leadership of the Right Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg. But the breakaway group follows the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence, who was at the center of the disagreement because of his removal in 2012.

Lawrence testified on the trial’s final day about the day he was removed from the national church. He told the judge that he received a call from the national church’s presiding bishop on Dec. 5, 2012, informing him that she had accepted his renunciation of ordained ministry and declaration of removal and release from the national church.

When the lead plaintiffs’ attorney, Alan Runyan, asked Lawrence if he had declared in writing to the presiding bishop his desire to be removed from his position as bishop, the defense team objected.

Runyan referenced “fraud and collusion” possibilities as the reasons for his questions. But after several arguments and a short recess for Goodstein to consider the objection, Runyan withdrew his question before she announced her decision.

“Various questions were asked of me about procedures that had been taken by the Episcopal Church in removing me as a bishop. There was questions as to whether that was done in an appropriate procedural matter or not, and I think the record speaks for itself that it was not,” Lawrence said after the trial.

Lawrence’s removal as a bishop of the national church, along with disagreements over changing church doctrine and what the breakaway churches call “cornerstones of Christianity” was the reason cited by the roughly 50 congregations that decided to leave the national church.

The group now wants ownership of parish properties mostly in the eastern portion of South Carolina valued at between $500 million and $800 million. Jan Pringle, a spokeswoman for the breakaway churches, said those figures are based on insurance policies for facilities and do not include the property values.

“It’s very sad to see people who used to belong to the same church, and really ought to be in the same church, sitting on opposite sides of the courtroom,” said Holly Behre, a spokeswoman for the local churches that chose to stay with the national church. “There’s a lot of sadness about that, and I’m hoping that no matter what happens in this trial, that we’re conducting ourselves in a way that eventually there can be some reconciliation.”

Sticking with S.C. law

There are essentially two ways a judge can handle a case among divided religious entities, according to Behre: Take the case as a matter of corporate law or consider the case based on rules and policies set by the churches.

Goodstein said South Carolina law requires her to keep the case at a corporate law level so she didn’t allow the ecclesiastical documents brought from the defense side to be accepted as evidence. But she did allow testimony and evidence to be proffered, which preserves it for the record in the event of an appeal.

“No matter which side wins, it’s almost certain there will be an appeal,” Behre said. “If it doesn’t happen at this level, we’ll have to see what happens down the road.”

During the trial, the local church on the defense team filed an amicus brief in support of Episcopalians in Fort Worth, Texas, who are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their case. The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth had a similar schism in 2008 to the one that occurred in South Carolina.

Behre said the churches want the Supreme Court to decide so that all states must follow the same rules.

Congregations at odds

For now, the breakaway groups are allowed to stay in the church buildings and continue using the Episcopal and diocese names, logos and seals. Even if the national church side wins, though, Behre expects the congregations to stay put, for now.

“It may take generations (for reconciliation),” she said. “These guys are in another denomination now. They have created a new protestant denomination. … If you don’t want to be associated with that group anymore, why would you keep calling yourself The Episcopal Church? I don’t understand. It’s puzzling to me.”

The breakaway group is in possession of the churches, diocese offices and bank accounts because of a temporary injunction issued last year by Goodstein.

“We’re really the diocese, and they’re not. The people that are acting as their officers shouldn’t still be doing that because they left the Episcopal Church. The only way you should be able to be the bishop of the Episcopal Church’s diocese is if you’re Episcopalian,” she said.

Lawrence, who believes he is the diocese’s bishop, said he wishes his former church well and doesn’t likely see a reconciliation in the future.

“I’m hoping that we in the Diocese of South Carolina can get on with the task that God has given us and making disciples of Jesus Christ, building up the body of Christ and being a part of what God is doing around the world within the Anglican Communion,” Lawrence said.

To the national church, he said, “Get on with your task, whatever it is. Leave us alone so that we can get on with our task. That’s the bottom line.”

Reach Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144.

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