[Episcopal News Service] An offer by South Carolina Episcopalians to settle a church-property lawsuit in eastern South Carolina was rejected by a breakaway group on June 15, the same day the offer was made public.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina offered to let 35 parishes keep their church properties, whether or not they choose to remain part of The Episcopal Church.
In exchange, the proposal required the breakaway group to return the diocesan property, assets and identity of “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” to the diocese that is still affiliated with The Episcopal Church.
Hours after the offer was made public, the breakaway group led by Mark Lawrence, who was bishop in 2012 when he announced the diocese was leaving The Episcopal Church, announced that the parishes of the group unanimously rejected the offer.
“This is not a legitimate offer of good faith negotiation and never was intended to be,” the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, Lawrence’s assistant, said in the press release, a longer version of which was e-mailed to Episcopal News Service. He called the offer an effort to disrupt the on-going legal process rather an effort to settle it.
Episcopal Church in South Carolina Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg did not comment on the rejection.
A spokesperson for his office said the offer remains on the table despite the breakaway group’s claim in its release that it came with a June 15 deadline. The breakaway group faced a brief-filing deadline in the lawsuit on June 15 in the state Supreme Court and the spokesperson said the Episcopal Church in South Carolina had simply said that it reserved the right to withdraw the offer after that day.
In announcing the offer earlier in the day, vonRosenberg had said it stemmed from the hope for reconciliation that Episcopalians in South Carolina have held from the beginning of the dispute. “We see this offer as the strongest possible way we can demonstrate that,” he said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori consented to the offer and it was presented to attorneys June 2, according to the Episcopal Church in South Carolina’s announcement.
Discussions about releasing the parish properties have been going on since early 2013, a few months after the split occurred, the release said.
“In a situation like this, where there has been so much grief and misunderstanding caused by the actions of a few, we pray that a gracious response to those who are now separated from us will hasten the day when we can be together as one unified diocese again,” vonRosenberg said.
If the offer had been accepted, it would have ended the legal dispute that began in January 2013 when the breakaway group sued The Episcopal Church, and later its local diocese, seeking to control both diocesan and parish property and the identity of the diocese, according to the Episcopal Church of South Carolina release. It also would resolve a federal lawsuit currently before the U.S. District Court in Charleston.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina reorganized the diocese in early 2013 and operates with a part-time staff and a sharply reduced budget funded primarily by contributions from the 30 remaining Episcopal congregations. Meanwhile, the diocesan assets have been in the control of the breakaway group led by Lawrence.
The congregations led by Lawrence operate separately without any formal affiliation with a larger religious body. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina remains part of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
In February, a state court judge awarded the properties and identity of the diocese to the breakaway group. Episcopalians have appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court; oral arguments are set for September 23.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said that diocesan leaders worked closely with Episcopalians who had been members of breakaway parishes and were left without church buildings in which to worship when the split occurred. “Most have moved ahead and created new Episcopal congregations, and gave their blessing for the settlement offer to be made,” the June 15 release said.
“Buildings are important, but what is most important is the people who are in them,” vonRosenberg said. “It is the people that we long to welcome back into The Episcopal Church once again.”
Churches included in the settlement proposal
(All these parishes are plaintiffs in the lawsuit against The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina)
All Saints, Florence
Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
Christ the King, Waccamaw
Christ-St. Paul’s, Yonges Island
Church of the Cross, Bluffton
Good Shepherd, Charleston
Holy Comforter, Sumter
Holy Cross, Stateburg
Holy Trinity, Charleston
Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston
Church of Our Saviour, John’s Island
Prince George Winyah, Georgetown
St. Bartholomew’s, Hartsville
St. David’s, Cheraw
St. Helena’s, Beaufort
St. James, James Island
St. John’s, Florence
St. John’s, John’s Island
St. Jude’s, Walterboro
St. Luke’s, Hilton Head
St. Luke and St. Paul, Charleston
St. Matthew’s, Darlington
St. Matthew’s, Fort Motte
St. Matthias, Summerton
St. Michael’s, Charleston
St. Paul’s, Bennettsville
St. Paul’s, Conway
St. Paul’s, Summerville
St. Philip’s, Charleston
Trinity, Edisto Island
Trinity, Myrtle Beach