CHARLESTON — After disputes over doctrine led the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina to leave the national church, now comes a lawsuit over an estimated half-billion dollars of church property and a debate over what comprises the Episcopal church in the eastern half of the state.
One expert likens what is happening to the final days of the Civil War: a lingering skirmish after years of controversy over the ordination of gays and other issues that will have little effect on the national church.
“At Appomattox, Grant and Lee signed the final surrender but there were places where the fighting went on for months. The news didn’t reach Arkansas and Texas the war was over. I think in South Carolina you are seeking something like that,” said Frank Kirkpatrick a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of “The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible and Authority are Dividing the Faithful.”
He estimates perhaps 5 percent of Episcopalians nationally may have left the church in recent years because of the theological disputes. He said that figure is likely less than 8 percent if one includes those who simply stopped attending services, but didn’t formally leave.
“It’s definitely not a major schism in the Episcopal Church. It’s gotten a lot of press and rightfully so because it raises questions of authority across the whole Anglican Communion,” he said.
“Most people have gotten on with their lives. I really don’t think there will be any long-term damage to the Episcopal Church as a result – except for the time, the money and the exhaustion fighting the lawsuits.”
The 2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide. In October, after years of controversy, the conservative Diocese of South Carolina finally split from the national church in a dispute over ordination of gays and other issues. The diocese in the eastern and lower part of the state had 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners.
The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina sued the national church last week in state court in Dorchester County, asking a judge to declare that the national church has no right to either the identity of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina nor its property.
“The Episcopal Church has the right to have a presence in the area served by our Diocese – but it does not have a right to use our identity. The Episcopal Church must create a new entity,” the Rev. Jim Lewis said in a statement.
Lewis, the canon to the ordinary, or assistant to the bishop of diocese, said the diocese wants to protect its property.
“We seek to protect more than $500 million in real property, including churches, rectories and other buildings that South Carolinians built, paid for, maintained and expanded – and in some cases died to protect – without any support from The Episcopal Church,” he said.
Fourteen South Carolina churches have decided not to leave the national church. There are also five worship groups with congregants forming new churches after their home congregations decided to leave.
The church’s national bishop has said the diocese can’t leave the mother church of its own accord and Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori plans to visit later this month for a convention to elect a temporary bishop for parishes remaining with the national church.
But breakaway Bishop Mark Lawrence contends that the diocese is no longer a part of the church and Jefferts Schori has no authority to call a convention. He said the name of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is a registered South Carolina corporation.
He added that, under state law, only the diocesan bishop and the Standing Committee that governs the diocese can call a convention and “we have not called a convention for January 2013.”
In other states where dioceses have left the national church there have been lawsuits over who owns church property. In most cases, the courts have found for the national church, Kirkpatrick said.
A year ago, a judge ruled that the national church is the owner of several historic Virginia churches where the national denomination earlier was essentially evicted by local congregations.
However, when All Saints Church in Pawleys Island left the national church more than eight years ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court eventually ruled the parish owned its property.
Kirkpatrick says any lawsuits over church property in the diocese could take years to sort out.