Episcopalians who are seeking to end the bitter legal battle over church property in eastern South Carolina have presented a settlement agreement to a breakaway group, offering to let 35 parishes keep their church properties, whether or not they choose to remain part of The Episcopal Church.
In exchange, the proposal would require 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.
“From the beginning of this dispute, we have hoped for reconciliation with people in the churches affected by this sad division,” said the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, Bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. “We see this offer as the strongest possible way we can demonstrate that.”
(See below for a list of the 35 parishes included in the settlement proposal.)
The offer was made with the consent of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, and was presented to attorneys June 2. No response has been received.
Leaders of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina have made reconciliation a key goal since the beginning of this dispute. Discussions about releasing the parish properties have been going on since early 2013, a few months after the split occurred.
“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,” Bishop vonRosenberg said.
If accepted, the offer would end 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. It also would resolve a federal lawsuit currently before the U.S. District Court in Charleston.
TECSC 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 Mark Lawrence, who was bishop in 2012 when he announced the diocese was leaving The Episcopal Church.
The breakaway organization is now operating separate from any larger religious body. TECSC 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.
In preparing the settlement offer, 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.
“Buildings are important, but what is most important is the people who are in them,” Bishop 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 TECSC)
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
Note to the media on names and titles
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is the local diocese that is part of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The name TECSC is a working title adopted because of a legal maneuver by the breakaway group that allowed it to keep using the official name of the diocese. TECSC has 30 parishes and missions who continue as part of The Episcopal Church.
“The Diocese of South Carolina” (also, “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” and “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina”) are names currently being used by the breakaway group. These names historically have referred to the local diocese of The Episcopal Church (TEC’s original historic name was “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America”). The breakaway group has laid claim to the name even though it is no longer “Episcopal” in terms of connection with the larger church, or a “diocese” in terms of being a region of a larger church body. An estimated 50 congregations are affiliated with it.
Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg is the provisional bishop elected by local Episcopalians in 2013 to lead their diocese (The Episcopal Church in South Carolina). He had retired to Charleston in 2011 after 12 years as Bishop of East Tennessee. Provisional bishops have the same authority and responsibility as diocesan bishops, but they generally serve for a shorter period of time.
Bishop Mark Lawrence is the person elected as Bishop of South Carolina in 2008 after assuring Episcopalians in all the 108 dioceses of the Church that he had no intention of taking South Carolina out of The Episcopal Church. In spite of those assurances, he presided over changes in the diocesan constitution and canons to erase the historic connections between the diocese and the Church. When a disciplinary board sought to have him answer for those actions, he and other leaders announced the diocese had “disaffiliated.” Having renounced his ordination vows, Mark Lawrence was released and removed as a bishop of The Episcopal Church in December 2012. He is still considered a bishop by the unaffiliated breakaway group.