The Episcopal Church in South Carolina responds to breakaway group’s lawsuit
March 29, 2013
Mark Lawrence and the faction that 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 engaged in a plan to damage the diocese, according to a response and counterclaims filed in S.C. Circuit Court.
The local diocese that is continuing with The Episcopal Church is entitled to restitution of property and funds acquired by Lawrence and his supporters through alleged misappropriation, conversion, breach of trust and breach of fiduciary duty, the counterclaim says.
The documents filed Thursday are part of the legal response to a suit filed against The Episcopal Church and local Episcopalians by supporters of former bishop Mark Lawrence along with 34 parishes who say they have disassociated themselves from The Episcopal Church. A 35th parish, St. Andrews in Mount Pleasant, is also one of the plaintiffs, although it claims to have separated from The Episcopal Church some time ago. The Episcopal Church also filed a separate answer and counterclaims on Thursday.
“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," said the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, Bishop of 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.
In January, at a hearing held without notice to local Episcopal Church leaders, a judge issued a temporary restraining order that currently prevents the local Episcopal Church diocese from operating under the name “Diocese of South Carolina.” To comply with the order, the local diocese has been using the working name of “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”
In October, Bishop Lawrence announced that he and others in the diocese were leaving The Episcopal Church. In December, the Presiding Bishop of the Church, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, accepted his renunciation of the ministry of The Episcopal Church, and declared that Lawrence was “therefore removed from the Ordained Ministry of this Church.” Local Episcopalians met in January in a special convention called by the Presiding Bishop, and elected Bishop vonRosenberg as their Provisional Bishop.
Initially, the breakaway group sued only The Episcopal Church, the church body that is a province of the Anglican Communion and includes 109 dioceses and three regional areas in the United States and 15 other countries. The local diocese, headed by Bishop vonRosenberg, was added as a defendant in March.
In the “Answer, Affirmative Defenses and Counterclaims” filed Thursday, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is referred to in the legal documents as “the Continuing Diocese,” while the breakaway group is described as “the Lawrence Faction.” According to the documents:
• The Lawrence Faction is a religious organization that is now under the control of “persons who have abandoned the communion of the church.” Under Mark Lawrence’s direction, the faction has wrongfully conducted business “in open and direct contravention of the Constitution, Canons, Prayer Book, and polity of the Church.”
• The faction has misrepresented facts, committed misconduct, and misappropriated real and personal property. The faction has a fiduciary responsibility to the Church which they have breached by their actions.
• The Lawrence Faction’s assertions about the early history of the diocese are incorrect, and the diocese did not exist prior to the organization of TEC.
• The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church, and there is no legal basis under which the diocese could have separated itself from TEC. The votes by diocesan leaders in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to withdraw or “disaffiliate” from the Church violated the constitutional and canonical obligations and prior commitments of the diocese, meaning they were invalid and had no effect on the diocese’s relationship with TEC.
• Under the constitution and canons of TEC, including the Dennis Canon, all real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any parish, mission or congregation is “held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof”. The Diocese of South Carolina sent representatives to the General Convention of TEC in 1979 where the Dennis Canon was adopted. The diocesan delegation voted unanimously in favor of it, as did the Bishop at that time, the Right Reverend Gray Temple.
• The Continuing Diocese, as the recognized subordinate unit of The Episcopal Church, is entitled to be awarded damages, a full accounting, and declaratory and injunctive relief from the Lawrence Faction.
• Quit claim deeds issued in the name of the diocese by the Lawrence Faction to the parishes, which purport to give each parish outright ownership of its own property, are null and void, because the faction had no authority to make the transfers. Any such transfer would have been in breach of their fiduciary duties, the documents say.
• Bishop Lawrence and his faction concealed the purported property transfers from The Episcopal Church and other leaders who are now in the Continuing Diocese, in an attempt to evade the requirements of the Church’s constitution and canons.
The Continuing Diocese is asking the court to order the Lawrence Faction to make a full accounting of all real and personal property, bank accounts, investments, securities, etc. for the period beginning in January 2008, when Mark Lawrence was installed as Bishop, up to the present.
Other court documents related to the discovery process would require the Lawrence Faction to produce documents, emails and other correspondence regarding changes to the diocesan constitution and canons, the quit claim deeds, and the plans and discussions among those in the Lawrence faction about the possible departure or separation of the diocese from TEC. Included is all correspondence between Bishop Lawrence and other bishops, including two former bishops of South Carolina, that in any way discuss the possible departure or separation.
The Continuing Diocese also has filed a “request for admissions,” asking the plaintiffs to admit the truth of 25 facts. For example, “As of the date on which the Rt. Reverend Mark J. Lawrence was installed as Bishop... the Constitution of that diocese provided” that the diocese accedes and willingly conforms to TEC’s constitution and canons.