South Carolina is the site of the latest confrontation in the slow-motion collapse of the Episcopal Church in America. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, the November decision of Bishop Mark Lawrence and most of the Diocese of South Carolina to leave has resulted in another all-too-common property dispute. Mark Movesian explains over at First Things:
One faction, representing the leadership and about two-thirds of the membership, broke away from the national Episcopal Church in November over the national body’s liberal approach to sexuality and other issues. The minority faction has remained loyal to the national body. Both factions assert ownership of the diocese’s property, including St. Michael’s Church in Charleston (left). In total, the diocese’s church buildings, grounds, and cemeteries are worth around $500 million.
Church property disputes have become increasingly common in America, as local congregations distance themselves from more liberal national church bodies. In the Episcopal Church alone, there have been a dozen such disputes in the past few decades. Human nature being what it is, each side in such a dispute thinks of itself as the true depository of the faith, with a moral, and legal, right to church property.
It’s not the first time the decision to leave has been made at the diocesan level—Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, San Joaquin in California, and Quincy in Illinois have also taken a similar path—but it does make this case different than the high-level dispute over nine Virginia Anglican church buildings. Movesian writes that the TEC “should be confident of ultimate victory” given the history of litigation, but the record is a little more ambiguous than he suggests. In Pittsburgh, for example, the breakaway diocese lost in court, but in Fort Worth they won a major victory when the Texas Supreme Court found they lacked jurisdiction. The nine Virginia churches were expelled from their buildings last spring following a state supreme court ruling, but were recently granted an appeal. In other words, it’s a mixed record, but one could speculate South Carolina’s courts might defer to state authority rather than national, given their history.
The Episcopal Church’s carpetbagger replacement for Bishop Lawrence in the rump diocese, elected in a January convention that included TEC’s presiding
sociologist bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, has now issued an ultimatum to the clergy asking that they “make known your allegiance to TEC.” It was apparently sent to retired clergy members as well. That could be a minor clerical error—no pun intended—but I doubt it. Should they fail to declare that allegiance or renounce it, that’s grounds for deposition, which can mean exclusion from the clergy’s pension plan. The orthodox Anglican blog VirtueOnline noted that similar communiques are often received from bishops of other rump dioceses.
Nor is it the only recent ultimatum from the Episcopal Church. Nine bishops in TEC had expressed support for the breakaway Anglicans in some way, but signed an accord in March expressing “regret for any harm” and pledging no further support.
One of the weirder wrinkles in South Carolina’s schism, and the basis for TEC’s argument that the case belongs in federal court, has to do with the diocese’s name; a trademark issue. The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina would like to remain the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina after realigning with a different part of the Anglican communion, and TEC would prefer not to let them, just as they prefer to not let the departing congregations keep their church buildings, no matter how large the majority that decides to leave. The State explains:
“We have carefully examined the claims made against The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and inherent in all these claims are federal statutory and constitutional issues that must be decided in a federal court rather than in South Carolina state court,” Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., chancellor of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said.
Lewis, as a representative of Lawrence, said he reads the issue differently. He said his organization is preparing a legal response. “We believe it is a question of legal identity and those are the issues that will be decided in state court,” Lewis said. “They are trying to present it in federal court as questions of trademark infringement.”
Thomas Kidd reports for World:
VonRosenberg [the newly-installed TEC bishop], however, is trying to prevent Lawrence from using that name, contending that by using it Lawrence “falsely suggests” that he “acts in accordance with the values of The Episcopal Church.” The national denomination is also requesting an “accounting of Bishop Lawrence’s profits obtained in connection with his false and misleading usage of the diocese’s marks.
This seems especially specious, and the court seems to agree. The diocese itself voted in a special convention to disaffiliate, which wouldn’t have even been held had TEC’s disciplinary board not charged Bishop Lawrence with abandoning the church and Jefferts Schori defrocked him. There’s clear institutional continuity which should be more than enough to keep the trademark (not to mention the Protestant Episcopal Church of South Carolina preceded the creation of the national body by several years). Though it was the rump diocese that asked for the injunction in the first place (to “protect [the] Episcopal diocese,” reported TEC’s propaganda organ), in January the court ruled that the national church could not use the diocese’s name and seal. That might be the most unusually supportive court ruling so far in the Anglican realignment, and it bodes well for the diocese in the far more consequential property dispute.