Church lawsuit begins in St. George

  • Thursday, July 10, 2014

Jim Tatum/Journal Scene Wade Logan(middle), Chancellor of the Diocese of S.C.


Shock and disbelief were the two immediate reactions Rev. Jim Lewis told the court he felt upon receiving an email in November 2012, under the name and seal of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, calling for a convocation of Episcopal Clergy in Charleston.

That’s because as Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of South Carolina, he knew the Diocese did not send it, he said.

After receiving another email under the same name and seal changing the venue, Lewis said he decided to attend the meeting.

“I decided to attend the meeting as an observer,” Lewis said. “Given the prior use of our seal, I felt there was reason to believe there would be further attempts by this group to assert itself as the Diocese of South Carolina.”

What he found out, Lewis said, was that the convocation had been called by the group that had chosen to stay affiliated with the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, the national body from which his organization, the Diocese of South Carolina, had voted to leave in October 2012.

Lewis was one of two witnesses to take the stand Tuesday in the lawsuit between the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church. The lawsuit, brought by the Diocese of South Carolina against the Episcopal Church of South Carolina and the national church, brings a number of issues to the forefront, including who actually is the rightful owner of the Diocese name, seals and symbols — and some $500 million in property and assets.

But both sides seem to agree on one point: there are important, non-material issues at stake as well.

According to a statement released by Lewis, the Diocese has for some time “disagreed with the national church, saying it holds firm to positions of theology, morality, and polity increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing and unprecedented positions of the Episcopal Church.”

The Diocese, he stated, did not leave the Episcopal Church solely because of the church’s position on same sex marriage and the ordination of gay clergy, but rather the Diocese’s perception, based on numerous radical policy changes as well as statements by church leaders, that the church essentially recognizes no one single theology and thus denies that belief in Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, a belief that many Anglicans cannot accept.

Lewis noted that, while national church positions on same sex marriage and ordination of gay priests caused some friction, the Diocese remained with the church after a number of others left, only finally making the decision to leave the national church — nine years after the church appointed its first openly gay bishop — when it attempted to remove the Bishop of the Diocese of S.C., Mark Lawrence. This was a move the Diocese considered to be not only illegal, but a serious overstepping of its bounds by the Episcopal Church.

Even as testimony was under way Tuesday, Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg, recognized by the Episcopal Church as the leader of the church in South Carolina, issued a letter to Episcopal Clergy in the state granting permission to bless same-sex unions.

VonRosenberg was in court observing the first day of testimony.

The letter released in his name doesn’t require clergy to bless same-sex unions, but says they don’t need to seek special permission to act.

The blessings aren’t the same as weddings; South Carolina doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

During the proceedings Tuesday, Lewis testified about what the Diocese believes to be misuse of its name and symbols by the Episcopal Church. He also discussed historic and legal documents intended to show the Diocese existed prior to the Episcopal Church in America -- and in fact was a founder of the church.

Finally, Lewis discussed the October 2012 decision by the Diocese to leave the church, testifying that both lay and clergy members voted by more than a 90 percent majority to leave the national church.

Essentially, the Diocese of South Carolina maintains that as a religious organization, specifically an Anglican organization, it predates the Episcopal Church in America. It was formed in 1785, three years before it chose to affiliate with and help found the Episcopal Church in America. Locally, St. Paul’s Church in Summerville, which joined the Diocese in leaving the Episcopal Church, traces its roots to 1707, when a Church of England parish was established on the Stono River. The church moved inland along with the population, and in 1829 the rector began to hold summer services in Summerville. Because the Diocese and its members, like St. Paul’s, chose voluntarily to affiliate, they maintain they can leave voluntarily as well.

Furthermore, the Diocese maintains that historically and legally it is a sovereign entity – it incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 1973 -- whose governing constitution and canons do not grant any governing authority to the national church, nor allows or delegates any operational or fiduciary responsibility or oversight to the national church. Thus, the property, assets, religious symbols, everything built and cared for by those communicants of the Diocese who chose to leave the church still belongs to those communicants and not to the Episcopal Church.

Wade Logan, Chancellor of the Diocese of South Carolina, testified about the Diocese’s organization and operations to bolster the Diocese’s position that it’s always governed itself in operational and fiduciary matters without any involvement from the national church.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, however, maintains that the Diocese is part of the church and as such is subject to church law under the First Amendment, not state corporate law. The church says that the Diocese’s contention that it controls the diocese as a nonprofit corporation under South Carolina law is incorrect, and that the Church’s right of religious freedom under the First Amendment to determine its leadership and governance according to church law should be upheld. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, under its bishop, vonRosenberg, is the diocese that is recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, the church maintains.

The trial is expected to last a couple of weeks.

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