South Carolina Supreme Court says most local property belongs to the Episcopal Church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Aug 2, 2017

[Episcopal News Service] In a complex ruling Aug. 2 the South Carolina Supreme Court said that most but not all the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina congregations whose leaders left the Episcopal Church could not continue to hold on to the church property.

The justices said 29 of the congregations specifically agreed to abide by the “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4), which states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. That agreement means they cannot retain church property. However, they said that eight congregations had not agreed to the canon and thus could keep those properties.

The diocesan St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island must also be returned to the Episcopal Church.

Episcopalians in South Carolina have been reorganizing their common life since late in 2012 after then-Bishop Mark Lawrence and a majority of clergy and lay leadership said that the diocese had left the Episcopal Church. They disagreed with the wider Episcopal Church about biblical authority and theology, primarily centered on the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.

“We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the church,” South Carolina Bishop Provisional Gladstone B. “Skip” Adams III said in a letter to clergy and lay leaders after the ruling was issued.

“This is a lengthy and detailed ruling, and our legal team and leadership will be studying it closely in the days ahead. It is important to note that the legal system allows for periods of judicial review and possible appeal, so it will be some time before we can say with certainty what the journey ahead will look like.”

Adams later issued a pastoral letter to all local Episcopalians, saying “I am aware that coming to this day has been painful for many, and some you of lost much along the way.”

“In that same vein, please be aware that this decision is painful in a different way for others. I ask that you be measured in your response without undue celebration in the midst of your own gratefulness,” he added, asking for prayer for people who chose to align themselves with the breakaway group.

“Healing is our desire, and we renew our commitment to the hard work of reconciliation in whatever form it can come,” he said.

The Lawrence-led group said after the ruling came down that its legal counsel is “reviewing the ruling, its implications and deliberating the appropriate response.”

The group later issued a lengthier statement in which it said its legal counsel believes the lead opinion and the concurring ones are “inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes.”

The group is continuing to review what the statement called a “lengthy and complicated ruling” that includes separate opinions from each of the five justices, the statement concluded.

The parties have 15 days to decide whether to ask for a rehearing.

The breakaway group filed suit in January 2013 against the Episcopal Church. The diocese came into the lawsuit later. After a three-week trial in July 2014, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein ruled in February 2015 that the breakaway group had the right to hold onto the diocesan name and property, including individual church buildings.

The state Supreme Court agreed in April 2015 to consider the case. The court took more than two years to issue its ruling.

The remaining Episcopalians offered in June 2015 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. The breakaway group rejected the offer the day it was made public.

The 77-page state Supreme Court ruling, which includes opinions from each of the justices, is here.

The two groups are also involved in a separate federal case filed under the Lanham Act, claiming that Lawrence is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese. The Lanham Act governs trademarks, service marks and unfair competition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in February 2017 sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for another hearing.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 3 to recast the headline and add additional comments.


Comments (22)

  1. Bill Louis says:

    Once again the Episcopal cartel prevails. If you don’t go along the upper church’s thinking and politics and decide to leave, the Church will seize your property, bank accounts and other assets leaving you out in the cold. They will justify it with convoluted interpretations of Scripture. We are held hostage to an organization that does not represent all of us. ! If you are like me, you love your local Church and the people in it but dispise the Diocese especially the EDUSA and their liberal agenda. If you decide to revolt and not pay the cartel their protection money then your congregation will be thrown out and your Rector will be defrocked and lose his or her pension and benefits. For those of you that don’t realize it this is your Episcopal Church leadership.

    1. Michael McDowell says:

      The ECUSA “cartel” prevails, eh? No the SC breakaway EXclusive reactionary “diocese” (not) is the cartel and the law has spoken and this will not be reversed. The SC schismatics overwhelmingly did not take votes of parishioners when they split and they were and are disingenuous about their reasons for seizing the churches and they call themselves “Anglicans” but, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, they are not part of the Anglican Communion. Fact. Time to heal now and move on. By all means let the breakaways set up their own parishes on their own dime. The hard lines in this group set out to badly damage the Episcopal Church. They lost — decisively.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    This is a tragedy in many ways yet to be counted. It began with the majority influence in the Episcopal Church (theological revisionists) who repeatedly criticized matters of established faith and practice and created a crisis that hasn’t seen a bottom yet. One example is the so-called “Marriage Study” which stated to the Church that “marriage is evolving”. Based on that the authors pushed every angle possible to describe that societal norms were changing and found Scripture-a-plenty to talk about love and respect and how the Church should evolve too. Done and done, and it became the new normal. Entirely missing — read this and weep — entirely missing from the “Marriage Study” were the words of Christ himself in Matthew 19 where the Lord directly quoted Genesis 2: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” By the time of Christ being heard that day humanity had tried every combination of relationships, but Jesus returned the listener to the direct original design for marriage from Genesis 2. Marriage hasn’t “evolved”, but has “devolved”, and the words of Jesus were spoken then as now as the pattern and cure. But, theological revisionists have pushed for decades to ignore those words – and just as mightily they were omitted in the Marriage “Study”. Imagine, the first human institution of God seen in Genesis 2 (marriage), and the Incarnation of our God was not even allowed to speak to the matter in an Episcopal Church Study! Talk about “doctor shopping”! How would such thinking, teaching, and preaching over many years NOT create a crisis in the Church? Whole dioceses have left and people are staying away from churches. As of 2015 there were only 579,780 attending Episcopal Services on a given Sunday…out of a membership of 1,779,335 (in 2015). It’s even worse now.
    In 2013 the Diocese of South Carolina showed 28,195 members. In 2015, the departures had reduced that diocese down to 6,706 members on the books. Today, that recovering diocese with an average Sunday attendance of just 2,910 (2015), will inherit a lot of dead, empty property to maintain. (Correction: YOU will inherit that property to maintain). Because the General Convention budget will have to sustain the broken diocese AND now take over being landlord over untenable properties, there will no choice but to drain the coffers to maintain denominational pride.
    Then, there is the other feature of this court judgment. If the Episcopal Church settles for the verdict and doesn’t appeal it then they set a precedent by the 8 parishes that did not specifically agree to the Dennis Canon that churches can, in fact, determine their own property issues. The legal precedent would have been agreed to by accepting this verdict. The floodgates can then open for churches to agree or not with the Dennis Canon and no amount of 815 lawyers can deny that they agreed to such a canonical theory by the previous precedent. No matter what, the Episcopal Church will choke and strangle on this decision. Millions spent and wasted to demand conformity has blown up in the faces of those who thought they had it figured out. Millions more will be spent to mothball churches that few if any will want. The whole Church will look ridiculous to the general public. Well played. Hope that it was worth it.

  3. Pjcabbiness says:

    The leftist political action litigation machine at work in the secular courts as usual. The Episcopal leadership abandoned scripture, tradition and reason and the State and Federal courts abandoned the constitution. Truly sad.

  4. I am definitely a progressive Christian. I believe in same sex marriage and the ordination of women and in general believe the conventional Christian view of sexuality is nonsense. However, I also strongly support affirming the dignity of local congregations to choose their own destiny, whether those congregations be liberal, conservative, or something else. Simply put, if the congregation paid for the building, it’s theirs, no matter what their theology is. What if the shoe was on on the other foot? What if a liberal congregation in a conservative church wanted to leave and take their building with them? This is all about money and power accruing to those at the top of the heap. It is NOT about building up the Kingdom of God. Thank goodness I am a priest in a denomination where the local congregation owns and controls its own worship space.

  5. Tod A Roulette says:

    The same ‘type’ of Southern Christian that supported slavery is the same type today that has created secessionist and discriminatory action within the body of Christ. And yes, the same ‘type’ of Southern Christian has gold and lucre in its scope as well as a narrow view and anti-Christ view of who is in the body of Christ and who can worship with these mostly White Southern Christians. It is startling to see that doctrine can be so polluted and self-serving to uphold Superiority.

  6. John Simpson says:

    “…that we all may be one”

  7. Francis O'Brien says:

    I bet the devil is happy with the legal issue and the disruption and ill will in Christ’s church. I suspect all the players think they were doing God’s will. Can we somehow go back and replay the last five years?

  8. Robin Bugbee says:

    It is worth noting that throughout the two years of litigation over this issue the Provisional Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina has consistently sought reconcilliation with the breakaway group. First with a generous offer of settlement (which was immediately rejected), and today in a Pastoral Letter from the Bishop.

  9. Jerry Hannon says:

    You cannot justify theft, or misrepresentation. If any of the clergy or congregants of the affected parishes had wanted to leave the Episcopal Church they were certainly free to do so, but they could not violate the canons of the Church, nor could they claim to be what they were not. Parishes whose governing documents did not ever conform to Episcopal Church canons were entitled to hold onto their local property, and that has been true long before the South Carolina situation. Trying to justify what Lawrence and his cohorts did, on the basis of some disaffection or other inability to accept what the whole Church in the US has elected to do, after dutiful consideration, prayer, debate, and decision, does not give them the right to violate the canons which they pledged to accept and defend. Call the main part of TEC what names as you like, as silly as that is in a church with such breadth of traditions open to all believers, you can’t justify theft or misrepresentation, or as I would characterize Lawrence’s actions after ordination, deceit and deception. Honorable people would simply have left for another body of faith, being true to their beliefs (however much I disagree with them) and behaving as honestly as we expect of each other.

  10. Chip Mills says:

    Bishop Lawrence appears to be oblivious to notions of reconciliation and I have long seen him as a false prophet from afar who became Bishop through false representations to the people of the Lower Diocese. I well remember the unnecessary division he created at the 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis, walking out with most of the Lower Diocese delegation to work out at the hotel hymn rather than remain on the floor of Convention. I am grateful that the way is now open for our disaffected brothers and sisters can return to their heritage and join in the work so needed. My prayer is for the well-being of those who have been in the diaspora, both lay and clergy. Welcome Home! I pray that you will glad to return!

  11. Terry Tim Solon says:

    An 18th Century Calvinist companion of the Wesley brothers brought his theology to the Colonies. With his very effective revivalist preaching he incited congregations to leave the Anglican Church. He also advocated for the legalization of slavery in Georgia as an economic aid. As a result of his ministry, when the Protestant Episcopal Church was organized two General Canons were passed to help deter such congregational actions by which the majority took the property away from a still loyal minority. Episcopalians being quite influential at the time of the Civil War helped to support the concept that a State could not break apart the Union. The first to try this was South Carolina who made it clear in their proclamation to do so that they intended to keep slaves.
    From its beginning the Christian Church began to move away from Scriptural laws. Paul, knowing the illness and often death resulting from adult circumcision, applied the same interpretation as Jesus did in the Parable of the Compassionate Samaritan: Human well-being trumps any other obligation. Kosher laws began to be ignored due to changes in food preparation such as porcelain plates replacing wooden ones, etc. However, accepting changes in scientific knowledge could meet stiff opposition as Galileo learned and the authors of “Lux Mundi”, the late 19th Century Anglican publication supporting the basic concept of evolution.
    The resistance in South Carolina to the scientific knowledge of DNA that genitals alone do not determine a person’s sexual orientation results in classifying certain people to be slaves to Biblical passages that deny the nature of they are; ; and, in so doing again supporting the concept of the majority having the right to take from the minority the benefits of unity with that to which they are committed, as were the founders of their congregations,

  12. Terry Tim Solon says:

    in my last paragraph, third line, it should read”the nature of who they are:

  13. Nancy C. Wylie says:

    The first three writers seem adamant in their dislike for the Episcopal Church USA. I would like to share further information and perspective as one who has watched the drama play out over many years and have shared the pain of friends and family who have had to both leave their home churches and leave the Episcopal Church for other denominations.
    While asserting that he had no plan to leave the Episcopal Church, Mark Lawrence and senior clergy filed to register and “copyright” the name Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and the Seal. He then announces his decision to leave, claiming that he is the true Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina, calls a special convention and certain churches choose to follow his lead. Many who wanted to continue to serve God through the ECUSA were no longer welcome in their congregations and others felt they had no choice but to leave after enduring sermons week after week about how bad the people and leadership of the EDUSA were. People who wished to remain in the Episcopal Church were the ones vilified in the press and in congregations. They didn’t cause a split; Mark Lawrence and his cooperating leadership caused the split. And while the Lawrence group claim to be the true and legal Episcopal Church in the lower part of South Carolina, as I travel through that geographic area, I see that many church signs now say “Anglican” rather than Episcopal. This seems contradictory to me.
    The “remnants” then picked themselves up and continued to worship together in housing provided by other denominations and in the remaining churches. They continue to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being. They continue to love and serve God.
    The break away group was offered a compromise allowing churches to keep their property while asking that the remaining Episcopalians regain their name as the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and the Diocesan property. The offer was refused. Similar compromises have been successful in other Dioceses
    John Simpson commented, “…that we all may be one.” As I have been involved in Biblical and Theological studies, I have come to notice that when the Church has been inclusive, She has thrived, beginning with the dream of St. Peter in the Acts of the Apostles. I cannot see how being involved with reconciliation of anyone to God our Creator and to the Church is against Scripture, Tradition, And Reason. May we all find a way to come together again.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Nancy, speaking for myself, I am firmly committed to my church. I am not firmly committed to erroneous teaching, nor to draconian faith and practice changes. The General Convention has the power to believe anything that is in their collective mind. To pass that off as “the faith once delivered” is something else. It is because I love my church that I am impatient and disturbed when self-mutilation is adopted as policy.
      At the end of the day, the Episcopal Church is a small speck among worldwide Christianity, and only a slightly bigger entity in Anglicanism. To adopt theological innovations which distance faith and practice from the rest of Nicene Christianity and the wider councils of the catholic Church is against everything that the Episcopal Church promotes as legitimate.

  14. mike geibel says:

    The TEC is certainly within its legal rights to claim ownership of property and the trademark symbols of the Episcopal Church. The court ruling in South Carolina is consistent with rulings in other states, such as California, where four breakaway churches were re-claimed by the LA Diocese, and then marketed for cash to anyone but the congregants who conceived and built their church, consecrated with the ashes of their loved ones. Members who have invested their time, money and love into the building of a religious community need to bear witness to this result when they fill out their pledge cards or are asked to give to the next capital campaign.

    But a victory in court is not necessarily justice in the eyes of God. Are the disputes between fundamentalist readings of the Bible versus modern age theories of evolution and gender identity really so important that we must denounce and demean those who disagree with us? Who will proclaim that ousting dissident members from a church they built and love complies with the Baptismal Covenant so often used to justify the social justice agenda of the Church? Is it truly God’s work for both sides to try to destroy each other in the courts rather than seek accommodation and co-existence?

    1 Corinthians 6:1,7-8 says: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints? In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.”

    We are bearing witness to the self-immolation of the once great Episcopal church. There is no victor here, except for maybe the lawyers who have been paid millions to advocate both sides of the argument. No Phoenix will rise from these ashes. New members are not re-populating the pews due to the supposed scientific correctness of liberalized Christianity. The Episcopal Church will continue to whither and self-consume its assets in order to fund its social justice agenda. The vanquished members will forever bear the scars of a vengeful Episcopal leadership, and it is foolish to believe these members will ever come back to the Church.

    1. Tom Downs says:

      Why blame the victims for their victimization? As to the passage from Corintians one might say that this is what General Conventions do. SC’s point of view was found wanting. As to the use of secular courts you seen to forget that breakaway groups often bring suit first and TEC counters in self defense. In my opinion TEC has done everything it could to avoid conflict, only resorting to fight back when force into it.

      1. mike geibel says:

        Tom: You sound closer to the battle lines than I, so i must defer to your sequence of events. But my understanding is that the legal action was a protective lawsuit, with the Diocese hoping to win the race to the courthouse so as to be the “plaintiff” knowing the TEC would file a counter-suit.

        TEC is hardly a victim. Nationwide, the TEC filed more than 80 lawsuits and expended millions in pledge monies seeking to establish sole ownership of the property of individual parishes and dioceses that left the denomination, and it would then evict the congregants from their churches. In most of these cases, the TEC adopted a punitive policy: No one who leaves TEC may buy the church property. If the remaining loyal congregants could not sustain the operational costs and overhead, the building was shuttered and marketed to anyone other than the local congregation whose love, capital and sweat had kept the church alive. News reports indicate that at least in SC, the breakaway Diocese was given an opportunity to keep the church property on terms that on their face appear very reasonable.

        The TEC is only the victim of its own arrogance in declaring changes to fundamental theology that its leaders surely must have anticipated would not be well received in conservative communities. The breakaway Diocese was the victim of its own arrogance in thinking that the right to disassociate from the national church included the right to ownership of the church property by the people who built and paid for the the property. Either way, the result is an ugly spectacle.

  15. David Horwath says:

    I am fascinated by ironies and history repeating itself. In the 1520s, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and “Nationalized” the Catholic Church properties in spite of the outrage from Rome. Now, the Episcopal Church is demanding that the congregations that was to leave the Episcopal Church must abandon the properties that they built over the years. The roles of the Episcopal Church Elders and Rome have now been reversed. I’m sure that the ghosts of Pope Clements and Pope Paul have stopped smiling and are now laughing out loud and that Henry VIII’s ghost is embarrassed.

    1. Tom Downsi says:

      I hardly think the ghosts on either side are much troubled by all this. Besides in Henry’s time the state took control of the church and its properties. That’s nothing like what happened here. No, this was simple refusal on the part of a minority to abide the rules that govern the whole Episcopal Church. Then through clever legal manovering they tried get what they wanted and lost. In the process they damaged themselves and the rest of the church. There is nothing honorable in what they have done no matter how hard they try to justify it.

  16. Donald Heacock says:

    I have one Episcopal Church. I recommend that if you wish to found a church you do without the aid.of a central authority. Found a free church. There are several such church. The Church of St.Mary the Virgin in N. Y. City & St Paul’s in Key West are such.churches. There are others in Detroit suburb who came into the Episcopal Church as an intact congregation hold there own charter. They can any one want but they use Episcopal Prayer Book & call Episcopal clergy.

    1. Tom Downs says:

      I believe that the congregations you are thinking of are accidents of history and therefore unrepeatable. When a congregation is admitted into union with TEC it must agree to the canons of both its diocese and TEC. The canons make explicit that the property is held in trust for the whole Church. Depending on state laws, they may be independently incorporated, but that does not over-rule the trust. Of course a truly independent congregation can shape its worship to look like an Episcopal church, but without being admitted into union it can’t be an Episcopal Church.

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