St. Paul’s joins suit against Episcopal Church
St. Paul’s Summerville announced last week it had joined with the Diocese of South Carolina and more than a dozen parishes in suing the Episcopal Church to maintain ownership of its property.
St. Paul’s occupies 10 acres in the heart of Summerville, land that the Rev. Mike Lumpkin, rector of the church, estimates at a $20 million value and that has been in the parish’s hands since the 1820s.
The parish’s roots go much further back, however. Lumpkin said the parish was established, and still owns property, on the Stono River in 1707, and migrated inland as the population moved.
It was the first church in Summerville by a few months, he said.
That first church building had to be torn down as it was termite-riddled, he said, and the current sanctuary, built to replace it, dates to 1857.
In October, after more than two centuries as a founding member of the national Episcopal Church, the Diocese of South Carolina disaffiliated itself from the national church after the national church charged Bishop Mark Lawrence with abandonment.
St. Paul’s decided to remain with the Diocese of South Carolina.
“We have been anticipating the possibility of this for at least the past year and a half,” Lumpkin said.
He said there were full congregational meetings in December 2011 and then in the spring of 2012 to keep parishioners apprised as the drama ramped up.
“We are less and less comfortable with what the Episcopal Church holds up as authoritative,” he said.
The line was finally crossed last summer, when the national convention approved a rite for same-sex marriages.
The lawsuit is seeking a declaratory judgment to protect diocesan and parish property, to prevent the national church from using the diocesan seal and other protected marks, and to prevent the national church from “assuming the Diocese’s identity.”
The national church, on the other hand, states that parishes and dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church, so all parishes in South Carolina remain part of the national church.
The national church will hold a special convention Jan. 26 in Charleston to elect a bishop to take Lawrence’s place.
Lumpkin said despite the swirl of controversy, “we have tried really hard not to be distracted by that.”
Instead, the parish has tried to retain its Gospel focus on making a difference in the world, he said.
Within the congregation, there are a few who favor the national church, more who are very opposed to the national church, and a solid middle group whose relationship is to St. Paul’s, not a larger church group, he said.
St. Paul’s decision was made by its vestry and clergy, but nearby Church of the Epiphany, a small mission church, put its decision up to the entire membership.
Warden Steve Jackson said out of about 25 families, only two chose to leave.
“We’re in a mixed congregation as it is,” he said. “We’re there for one purpose. We’re there to worship … anyone is welcome in our church, regardless.”
Epiphany isn’t quite as old as St. Paul’s, having been built only in 1887. The land and money for construction were given by Catherine Smith Springs, a woman of mixed racial heritage who operated a dress and hat shop in Charleston before moving to Summerville.
Being a mission church – meaning a small church that doesn’t fund its own priests – Epiphany tries to stay out of politics, Jackson said.
But its history does tend to give it a different outlook.
Jackson said the parishioners believe they need to stay within the confines of the church and work out differences rather than simply walking away.
“Everybody’s thrilled we’re staying with The Episcopal Church,” he said.
St. George’s Episcopal Church on Dorchester Road is apparently also staying with the national church, although no one at the parish could be reached.
The national church lists St. George’s as one of the South Carolina parishes that is “in union” with the national convention.
The Diocese of South Carolina sees the issue as one of religious freedom.
“Like our colonial forefathers, we are pursuing the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, not as it is dictated to us by a self-proclaimed religious authority who threatens to take our property unless we relinquish our beliefs,” Lawrence said.