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Breakaway churches reject settlement from national Episcopal church

Real Estate - Commercial
Ashley Heffernan
  • Ashley Heffernan
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The national Episcopal Church and its S.C. parishes proposed a settlement with a breakaway group earlier this month that would have ended litigation over $500 million worth of property. That offer was rejected today.

In February, a judge in Dorchester County ruled in favor of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina and 35 parishes that broke away from the national organization. The breakaway group was looking to prevent the national Episcopal Church and its remaining parishes of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina from taking local church properties — some dating back to 1680 — as well as using the diocese’s seal and name.

The Right Rev. Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina testified in July that he was removed as a bishop by the national church in 2012. (Photo/Ashley Heffernan)

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St. Philip’s Church on Church Street and St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street in downtown Charleston were in question, among other properties.

On June 2, the national church proposed letting the 35 breakaway parishes keep their church properties in exchange for the national church keeping the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina name, property and assets, according to a news release from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

The diocesan assets are currently in the control of the breakaway group, which is led by the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina. He testified that he was removed as bishop by the national church in 2012. The Right Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg is bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which stayed with the national church.

“From the beginning of this dispute, we have hoped for reconciliation with people in the churches affected by this sad division,” vonRosenberg said in a statement. “We see this offer as the strongest possible way we can demonstrate that.”

The Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina, called the proposal a “deceitful impostor.”

“After careful consideration of this proposal, it was quite clear that it was not a legitimate offer of good faith negotiation and never was intended to be,” Lewis said in a statement. “Thus, the proposal has been unanimously rejected by all parties to the litigation for the Diocese of South Carolina.”

Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop for the national Episcopal Church, approved the offer, the news release said. But Lewis said Schori does not have the authority for the national church to make such a proposal. He said action by the national church’s executive council and possibly its general convention are required.

Accepting the proposal would have ended the national church’s S.C. Supreme Court appeal of the Dorchester County judge’s decision. Oral arguments for the appeal are scheduled to begin Sept. 23.

Lewis, who called the proposal a request for a capitulation, said it was a way for the national church to mitigate its losses in South Carolina and other states with similar breakaway groups.

“Having lost in Illinois and being on a similar track in Texas (with a further loss there this past week), they are desperate to avoid another precedential ruling,” Lewis said in news release. “It is worth remembering that this issue is not just about our individual parishes or even the Diocese of South Carolina. We are part of a larger conflict in which the outcome here may significantly benefit other parishes and dioceses wishing freedom” from the national church.

Reach Ashley Heffernan at 843-849-3144.

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