Episcopal Church, SC Episcopalians reply to breakaway group’s lawsuit

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Apr 1, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Legal documents filed in South Carolina Circuit Court on March 28 say that Bishop Mark Lawrence and those people who followed him out of the Episcopal Church have no authority over the assets or property of the Diocese of South Carolina or any of its parishes and have conspired to damage the diocese.

The filing by the Episcopal Church in South Carolina told the court that for more than three years the Lawrence-led group had “knowingly, deliberately, and repeatedly engaged in transactions that purported to transfer interests in real property contrary to explicit provisions of the Constitution and Canons of the Church, and contrary to solemn declarations, oaths, and subscriptions made by individuals who held offices in the Church and were and are among the leadership” of the diocese.

The continuing Episcopalians said that Lawrence and his followers “have publicly declared, and continue to declare, that their actions were not contrary to the Constitution or Canons of the Church, and that [the Constitution and Canons] impose no restriction or limitation on their abilities to continue to engage in such transactions.”

Members of the continuing diocese said in their filing that they are entitled to restitution of property and funds acquired by Lawrence and his supporters through what they say has been fraud, misappropriation, conversion, breach of trust and breach of fiduciary duty.

The Episcopal Church also on March 28 filed a separate document, known as an “answer and counterclaims.”

The documents are part of the legal response to a suit filed against the Episcopal Church and the continuing South Carolina diocese by supporters of Lawrence. Those supporters included 34 parishes who say they have disassociated themselves from the Episcopal Church. A 35th parish, St. Andrew’s in Mount Pleasant, is also one of the plaintiffs, although it claims to have separated from the Episcopal Church some time ago, according to a press release from the continuing diocese.

The breakaway group’s suit, originally filed in January and amended twice since then, asks the court to declare them the sole owners of diocesan and parish property.

The continuing diocese asked the court in its March 28 filing to prevent Lawrence and his followers from “transferring or purporting to transfer, or receiving any purported transfer of, any interest in parish property or diocesan property” in any way other than to return it to the Episcopal Church.

In November 2011, Lawrence either signed or directed others to sign, quitclaim deeds to every parish of the diocese disclaiming any interest in the real estate held by or for the benefit of each parish. A quitclaim deed generally transfers ownership of the property from the party issuing the deed to the recipient. The “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4) states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. The March 28 filing requests that the court void all of the quitclaim deeds

The court filing also asks that the Lawrence-led group be required to submit with 90 days of the court’s order an accounting of “all real and personal property, investments, bank accounts, funds, securities, and other property, and all proceeds thereof” that the group claims to possess or control. In a related request, the continuing diocese wants an accounting “all transfers, dispositions, acquisitions, and exchanges of or for any such property or assets, and all receipts and expenditures of or from any of such funds or other assets” during the time period beginning Jan. 28, 2008, when Lawrence was ordained as bishop of South Carolina.

And, the filing says the continuing diocese is entitled to “recovery of all damages suffered or incurred by it” because of the wrongful conduct of the Lawrence-led group. No amount is specified in the filing.

“We would not have chosen for this filing to take place during Holy Week, a time when all Christians are focused on prayer and reflection, but the legal deadlines have left us no choice but to respond in a timely way to the action that was brought against us,” the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, bishop provisional of the continuing diocese, in the press release.

In its filing, the Episcopal Church answers claims by the Lawrence-led group and outlines the hierarchical governance of the church, including the ways in which dioceses are formed and dissolved; the nature in which all property is held in trust for the mission of the church and the vow that its ordained members take to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church. The document claims the Lawrence-led group’s action violate both the Constitution and Canons and the Declaration of Conformity.

The Episcopal Church’s filing also asks that the Lawrence-led group be prevented from using the diocesan and Episcopal Church names and trademarks because by doing so it is confusing and deceiving people, and tarnishing those names and trademarks.

And it says that those people claiming to run the diocese and the parishes who have joined the Lawrence-led group are not qualified to do so because they are no longer members to the Episcopal Church.

The church’s answer and counterclaim asks the court to declare that the continuing Episcopalians constitute the leadership of the diocese, not the Lawrence-led group, and remedy the counterclaims it makes. The filing reiterates most of the requests made of it by the continuing diocese.

The Maundy Thursday filings are the latest in a multi-front approach taken by the continuing Episcopalians in South Carolina and by the wider Episcopal Church. In early March the vonRosenberg filed suit in federal court asking that he be declared as the bishop recognized by the Episcopal Church and thus having the authority to act in the name of Diocese of South Carolina.

And another motion in U.S. District Court asked for a preliminary injunction to stop Lawrence from using the name and marks of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and from representing that his activities are associated with the diocese.

Just before Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori convened delegates of the remaining Episcopal Church parishes and missions at a special convention Jan. 26, the breakaway group was granted a temporary injunction banning the remaining Episcopalians from using the name of the diocese. That injunction remains in effect.

The order by Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein forced local Episcopalians to temporarily adopt a working name for their diocese so they could conduct business without violating the injunction. At their special convention they chose the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina” to use until the issue can be resolved.

The lawsuit by Lawrence and counterclaims by the Episcopal Church and the continuing Episcopalians followed a series of actions in later 2012 that resulted in the Lawrence-led group leaving the Episcopal Church.

In October 2012, the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified to the Presiding Bishop that Lawrence had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church.” Jefferts Schori then restricted him from exercising his ministry until the House of Bishops could investigate the Disciplinary Board’s findings and act.

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 reiterated that declaration in a Nov. 17 speech to a special diocesan convention. He asked for and received affirmation from those at the Nov. 17 gathering of that departure.

In December, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said she and her Council of Advice agreed Lawrence had renounced his orders by way of his actions and statements by him in the fall of 2012.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (70)

  1. Rev. Paul Hartt says:

    We will look back on all of this as we are beginning to do on Iraq: an utter waste of human, financial, and moral capital — nothing accomplished. The reason is that one cannot go at things in the Church through the back door, by “process,” by strategy, agenda, intimidation, law suits, deposition or cult. When it comes to faith and conscience, Christians won’t — can’t — be played like that. Look back in Christian history, manipulation, violation of conscience and bullying are the ever-present precursors to schism.

    As for schism, I cannot see any meaningful difference between the decade-long thumb in the eye by TEC to the Anglican Communion and what TEC is experiencing in SC. In any case, the writing has long been on the wall that there is no victory to be had by any form of coercion by the strong to the weak.

  2. Marc Kivel says:

    Playing the victim card while proactively violating one’s oath, engaging in pre-planned schismatic behavior, and bringing suit and alienating property does not look like anything more or less than folks using religion as a weapon against others, which, as any number of folks will tell you, has much to do with the fundamental disrespect for religion in general and Christianity in particular, in this place and time…perhaps you can help us understand how the deposed leadership and the schismatics square their behavior with the Sermon on the Mount or the command to “love one another as I have loved you”? Thoughts?

  3. DL McLerran says:

    I used to be in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth – before the “Big Split” — spent several years in the Cathedral, and several years in a church that aligned with the national church. Saw both sides up close and personal. I had friends both in the group that went with Bp Iker and with the group that sided with the national church. Pretty much none of them speak to me now because I didn’t choose to go with either of them. My observation was that one group was ultra-conservative, the other ultra-liberal. But underneath it all, they were exactly the same. Neither would give in to the other, and both were hateful to the other. Both groups are selfish, bullying, finger-pointing, and I’m very happy to have NO part in any of it. I left the Episcopal Church altogether in 2007, completely left Anglicanism. I don’t pay a lot of attention to the big fight anymore, but every so often I run across it again, like now with this, and nothing has changed. Both sides are still selfish, bullying and finger-pointing. And you know what, I’m going to just move on and let you guys continue to fight it out among yourselves.

    1. walter combs says:

      Although I have not officially left TEC, I already worship in an ELCA parish. I consider myself to be theologically liberal but the actions of the leadership of TEC over that last few years is appalling. This ‘scorched earth’ approach to those who no longer feel they can abide with us is very distasteful and certainly not Christian. You think we will ever really know how much money has been spent suing other Christians? I live in the Central Valley of California. TEC has recouped one of the parishes in the South Valley that had gone with ACNA and the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. TEC then lost another one in a different court just up the road a ways. How much money is being spent going after these aging buildings and properties? TEC doesn’t even have a department of evangelism anymore because of money issues. But TEC has unlimited money to sue conservatives! I’m with you DL, I’m outa here!

      1. DL McLerran says:

        Walter, totally understand what you mean… I went in another direction. Many years ago, I nearly became Catholic, but having been raised Protestant, i wasn’t ready to completely leave Protestantism (in part because my family wouldn’t like it at all) A couple of years after I left TEC, I became a Catholic. I wasn’t part of the Anglican ordinariate. I came in on my own as an individual, went through a regular RCIA, etc. I think a large part of the TEC thing was the issue of authority, and to make a long story short, I witnessed what happened when no one knew or respected anyone else’s beliefs or conscience. Perhaps seeing TEC fall apart, and ACNA not offer anything better, helped me finally get up the courage to cross the Tiber. But enough of that… the sad part is watching brothers turning against brothers, and both sides distancing themselves from me. I lost personal friends because (a) I wouldn’t side with TEC over certain issues, but (b) I refused to join ranks with those who left TEC because somehow it felt superficial and I wasn’t keen on having Bp Iker (who I actually liked as a person) being my final ecclesial authority. It was just all screwed up. And basically, it still is. I didn’t become Catholic to get away from the Episcopal Church. I would have left the Episcopal Church and become nothing if nothing was all that was left. But ;leaving freed me to finally go to where my heart had been all alone. Maybe the Episcopal split did me a favor in the long run.

  4. Janet Schieber says:

    I have read with deep sadness the personal attacks and flippant remarks levelled against the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence. I knew Bishop Lawrence when he was Rector of my parish in Bakersfield. I know him to be a man of steadfast faith in the truth of the Bible, an honest man of God who stands firm in his convictions based on the veracity of Holy Scripture. I know him to be a man of study and prayer, a man who walks the walk. I know him to be compassionate and forgiving, and at the same time a strong leader who will not conform to popular secular opinion when it goes against the gospel of salvation through the death and ressurrection of Christ Jesus which he was called to proclaim.
    BishopLawrence is not a “schismatic”; rather he is a devout Christian who has sacrificed his own personal comfort to take the harder path, the road less travelled, in order to stand as a beacon in the dark of the secular world.

  5. Bishop Andrew Gerales Gentry says:

    As a non-Episcopalian I am confused on some finer points of your code of canon law. When did the office of Presiding Bishop become “supra hierarchical”? Can your current PB act unilaterally and without the consent of the Convention? How do you explain that under the General Principles of Neutrality in law ,with regards to property and monies, your national body cannot claim ownership of said property and monies. Unless there is a mutually agreed to and executed deed of trust, and such a trust does not exist anywhere in the ECUSA, the National body cannot claim said relationship. Is the National Church a separate entity above that of the local diocese and or congregation? If so when did this change occur? After all ECUSA is not an or the “Established Church” operating under national statues!
    But all legalities aside the message that you are sending to the “non affiliated” people in particular those under 40 is that in TEC what is of importance is money and property not the Gospel.
    There are many folkes who consider themselves progressive who consider Mr Spong a good deist Unitarian and something of a self made religious celeb but nothing more and many that consider Bishop Schori a fine CEO that is faithful to her business model of leadership.
    The question not only for TEC and most of the “mainline churches” is as old and as new as the question put to Peter by Jesus, “who do YOU say that I am” and unless you can answer that in a clear, simple, and authoritative way you are adrift on the pilgrimage we all are called to follow.

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