In 2012, after a contentious episcopate, our 14th bishop, Mark Lawrence, abandoned the Episcopal Church. The main issue at play in Bishop Lawrence’s decision to abandon the Episcopal Church was his refusal to accept the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life of the church. For months, if not years, prior to his departure from the Episcopal Church, Bishop Lawrence tried to implement a plan whereby members that wished to follow him out of the church could do so while retaining possession of their parish buildings and other property. Shortly after Bishop Lawrence’s leaving the Episcopal Church, 35 congregations loyal to him claimed that they were the true Diocese of South Carolina and filed a lawsuit against both the continuing Episcopal diocese and the national Episcopal Church. The aim of this lawsuit was to forestall any claim that the parish property was held in trust for the legitimate Episcopal diocese and the Episcopal Church.
In spite of Bishop Lawrence’s action, 31 congregations (including several of the largest churches in the Diocese) remained loyal to the Episcopal Church (Of those 31 congregations, 22 kept their properties. Nine congregations were displaced.) The energetic and capable leadership that emerged from 31 congregations has helped guide the Diocese ever since and is largely responsible for our continued success.
In January of 2013, these loyal Episcopalians gathered to reorganize the Diocese, and met in convention at Grace Church in Charleston. At this convention, the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg was elected as the provisional bishop of the Diocese. Bishop vonRosenberg threw himself into the work of reorganization, and much of his time was spent in meeting with the loyal Episcopalians who had essentially been told to leave their church homes. Some of these small groups began meeting in living rooms, in BBQ restaurants, and in funeral homes so that the Episcopal presence in the diocese would not disappear. In spite of the hardships involved, their hope was that some day they would be able to “go home” to the church buildings that many of them had worshiped in for decades. Even congregations that did not lose their buildings were affected by the schism, however, so Bishop vonRosenberg’s task was to guide the parishes and missions of the Diocese through a period of great uncertainty. Much of that uncertainty revolved around the legal and financial struggles that followed in the wake of the schism.
After Mark Lawrence’s legal team won a victory in the Dorchester County court, the case wound up in front of the South Carolina Supreme Court. For nearly two years, we waited for the SC Supreme Court to issue a ruling.
During that time, Bishop vonRosenberg stepped down, and we elected another Provisional Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gladstone “Skip” Adams. Bishop Adams took the reins of the Diocese in 2016, and he brought to the Diocese a renewed hope for reconciliation with those who had left the Episcopal Church. Upon Bishop Adams’ retirement in December 2019, the Rt. Rev. Henry N. Parsley, Jr. agreed to serve as visiting bishop, with the Standing Committee as Ecclesiastical Authority, during the time of transition while the diocese seeks our next bishop.
When the SC Supreme Court’s ruling came down on August 2, 2017, it reversed nearly all of the Dorchester County Court’s ruling. In their final decision, the SC Supreme Court declared that the following parishes are held in trust for the Episcopal diocese and the Episcopal Church:
All Saints, Florence
Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
Christ-St. Paul’s, Yonges Island
Church of the Cross, Bluffton
Church of Our Saviour, John’s Island
Good Shepherd, Charleston (West Ashley)
Holy Comforter, Sumter
Holy Cross, Stateburg
Holy Trinity, Charleston
Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston
St. Bartholomew’s, Hartsville
St. David’s, Cheraw
St. Helena’s, Beaufort
St. James, Charleston (James Island)
St. John’s, John’s Island
St. Jude’s, Walterboro
St. Luke’s, Hilton Head
St. Luke and St. Paul, Charleston
St. Matthew’s, Fort Motte
St. Michael’s, Charleston
St. Paul’s, Bennettsville
St. Paul’s, Summerville
St. Philip’s, Charleston
Trinity, Edisto Island
Trinity, Myrtle Beach
In addition, the S.C. Supreme Court found that Camp St. Christopher, the Bishop’s residence, and the Diocesan Offices are also held in trust for the Episcopal Church and its diocese in South Carolina.
Seven parishes were found not to be held in trust for the Episcopal Church:
Christ the King, Pawleys Island
St. Matthew's, Darlington
St. Andrew's, Mt. Pleasant
St. Paul's, Conway
Prince George Winyah, Georgetown
St. John's, Florence
St. Matthias, Summerton
After numerous challenges to this ruling, in November of 2017 the SC Supreme Court declared the case closed and sent their final decision on remittitur back to the Dorchester County Court for enforcement. In late June of 2020, the Circuit Court Judge charged with implementing that decision issued a ruling expressly contradicting the SC Supreme Court’s earlier and final decision in favor of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese. A national legal search indicates that it is unprecedented for a lower court to overrule a higher court. The decision is being appealed, and we believe that the SC Supreme Court should effectuate its considered and just ruling. Still, it is likely that the case is far from finished. Our new bishop must be committed to playing a key role in the ongoing legal disputes in this manner.
*It is worth noting that the specifics of the legal proceedings to date are far too complex to be treated fully in this short history, but there are resources available that can give a more detailed account. The work of Dr. Ron Caldwell is particularly helpful for anyone seeking to understand the wider history of the schism and the subsequent legal engagements (http://episcopalschismsc.blogspot.com).
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