CHARLESTON — Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, said the church schism in South Carolina is both a challenge and an opportunity but sees the mother church emerging stronger from a controversy similar to those Christians have weathered for 2,000 years.
“At times people have decided they need to follow their spiritual journey in another direction. And people have come and gone from the Episcopal Church many times over the years,” she said during an interview with The Associated Press this week.
“Our task, when people decide to leave, is to bless their journey and pray they find a fruitful place to pursue their relationship with God,” she said. “In the meantime, we’re going to do what we feel called to do in the Episcopal Church.”
The Diocese of South Carolina with churches in the eastern and lower part of the state withdrew from the church last year in disputes over theology and ordination of gays.
Jefferts Schori noted there have always been debates in Christianity, dating to the years after Christ when the first Christians debated whether gentiles could belong to the new faith.
She comes to Charleston this weekend to attend a convention where a provisional bishop will be installed for parishes that are remaining with The Episcopal Church that has 2.4 million members in 16 countries.
When the local diocese left, it had 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners. But 19 parishes and six worship groups are remaining in the national church.
The Rt. Rev. Charles Glenn vonRosenberg, a retired bishop of the Diocese of East Tennessee who has long ties to South Carolina, is to be installed as provisional bishop for the remaining churches Saturday.
The Diocese of South Carolina that left the national church has sued in state court to protect its rights to its name and a half-billion dollars in property.
A state judge this week issued a temporary restraining order saying the diocese is the only group that can use the name Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. A hearing on whether to make the order permanent is set for next month in Columbia.
Holly Behre, a spokeswoman for the parishes remaining with The Episcopal Church, said the group will adopt a name that will comply with the spirit of the court order until the matter is resolved in court.
Jefferts Schori said that, in other states, courts have generally ruled property belongs to the larger church, not individual parishes or dioceses.
“Everywhere but in South Carolina where suits like this have taken place, in the ones that have gone to completion, the decisions of the court have said the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church,” she said. “We believe all the assets of the church are a legacy of generations before us for the mission and the ministry of the Episcopal Church. It’s not our right to give it away for purposes unimagined by the givers.”
Courts in Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Connecticut have ruled in cases in favor of the church.
However, when All Saints Church in Pawleys Island left the national church more than eight years ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled the parish owned its property.