[Episcopal News Service] Mark Lawrence, who led some members of the Diocese of South Carolina out of the Episcopal Church, on Jan. 4 joined with a group of those people to file suit in South Carolina Circuit Court against the Episcopal Church.
The action, the group said, was taken “to protect the diocese’s real and personal property and that of its parishes.”
The suit also asks the court to prevent the Episcopal Church from “infringing on the protected marks of the diocese, including its seal and its historical names, and to prevent the church from assuming the diocese’s identity, which was established long before the Episcopal Church’s creation,” according to the press release.
Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for the Episcopal Church, said via e-mail that church officials had “not received the legal papers in any such lawsuit in South Carolina and therefore cannot comment at this time.”
The Rev. Jim Lewis, who serves as Lawrence’s canon to the ordinary, said in the group’s press release that its is seeking “to protect more than $500 million in real property, including churches, rectories and other buildings that South Carolinians built, paid for, maintained and expanded – and in some cases died to protect – without any support from the Episcopal Church.”
Many of the parishes are among the oldest operating churches in the nation and predate the establishment of the Episcopal Church, he said. “We want to protect these properties from a blatant land grab.”
According to Canon 1.7.4, enacted by General Convention in 1979 and known as the “Dennis Canon,” a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church.
A fact sheet on the Episcopal Church’s website notes: “Dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church. While some clergy and individuals may choose to leave, congregations and property remain in the diocese to be used for the mission of the Episcopal Church.”
Lawrence wrote on Jan. 4 that “we are saddened that we feel it necessary to ask a court to protect our property rights, but recent actions compelled us to take this action.”
Lawrence said those actions include calling a convention to elect new leadership for the diocese, designing a website using the diocesan seal and “producing material that invokes the name and identity of the Diocese of South Carolina.”
That convention, set for Jan. 26, is meant for the remaining Episcopalians in the diocese to elect a bishop provisional and choose people to fill other diocesan offices made vacant by Lawrence’s actions.
The continuing Diocese of South Carolina needs a new episcopal leader because Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said Dec. 5 that Mark Lawrence had renounced his orders. She and her Council of Advice agreed that, in a Nov. 17 speech to a special diocesan convention, Lawrence said the diocese had left the Episcopal Church a month earlier on Oct. 17 when she restricted his ministry after the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified to her that he had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church.”
The day the board’s decision was announced, the diocesan Standing Committee said that the action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.”
Lawrence asked for and received affirmation from those at the Nov. 17 gathering of that departure.
It appears that, nine days before that gathering, Lawrence and other leaders submitted four applications to trademark various versions of the name of the diocese, according to a listing here.
In his Jan. 4 letter, Lawrence claimed that 22,244 of the 30,000 Episcopalians in the diocese’s 71 congregations chose to follow his leadership while 5,300 wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church and another 1,900 were “undecided.” However, the group called South Carolina Episcopalians said on its website that “in fact, no such survey has taken place.”
“Records show that only half of the parishes and missions in the diocese have formally indicated they want to join Lawrence, and only one-third of the canonically resident clergy have publicly declared their intent to do so,” the group said.
A full-page advertisement that ran Nov. 25 in The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, contained one list of clergy that backed Lawrence.
Lawrence and those he leads say that he is still the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. He said in his Jan. 4 letter that “while the diocese has disassociated from the Episcopal Church, it remains a part of the Anglican Communion.”
This is similar to a claim he made during his address to the Nov. 17 convention when he said that “for now and the foreseeable future, having withdrawn from our association with TEC, we remain an extra-provincial diocese within the larger Anglican Communion.”
Such a designation requires action by the Anglican Consultative Council, which concluded a 12-day meeting in Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 7. No action on South Carolina was taken during that meeting, and the council will not meet again until May 2016.
Meanwhile, Lawrence and his followers have touted a letter to Lawrence from a group of Anglican Communion leaders from the Global South saying, “We recognize your episcopal orders and your legitimate episcopal oversight of the Diocese of South Carolina within the Anglican Communion.”
A lengthy rationale for the suit, “Stewardship of the Gsopel — Stewardship of the Diocese,” is posted here.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.