A number of S.C. Episcopal parishes, including Trinity Myrtle Beach and St. Paul’s Episcopal in Conway, joined the Diocese of South Carolina and the Trustees of the Diocese in a lawsuit filed Friday seeking to stop The Episcopal Church from trying to take the Diocese’s real and personal property as well as that of the parishes.
The suit also asks the court to stop The Episcopal Church from infringing on the protected marks of the Diocese, including its seal and historical names, and to prevent The Episcopal Church from assuming the Diocese’s identity.
“At its heart,” said Jim Lewis, the Diocese’s canon to the ordinary, “this is about freedom of religion.”
Many of the Diocese’s parishes became upset with The Episcopal Church when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003. The Diocese voted in 2006 to reject the authority of the national church’s presiding bishop, but didn’t make a full break from it.
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The severance came late last year when The Episcopal Church attempted to remove Bishop Mark Lawrence of the S.C. Diocese. Dioceses in Pittsburgh, Quincy, Ill., Fort Worth and San Joaquin, Calif., had previously separated from The Episcopal Church.
“When they tried to remove our bishop, that kind of cemented it for most people,” said Iain Boyd, rector of Trinity.
Boyd and Lewis said they hope for a quick resolution of the lawsuit, which is seeking a declaratory judgment, but Lewis tempered his hope with the experience of All Saints Church in Pawleys Island. The lawsuit over who would own that church’s property culminated in a ruling by the S.C. Supreme Court that All Saints could associate or not with The Episcopal Church, but in either case would keep its property, Lewis said.
Boyd said not all Grand Strand Episcopal churches support the Diocese split from The Episcopal Church. He said that St. Stephens in North Myrtle Beach and Holy Cross Faith Memorial in Pawleys Island have voted to stay with the national church. Those who have elected to split with The Episcopal Church remain part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, as does The Episcopal Church.
Boyd said that 75 percent of Trinity’s membership voted for the split. Those members who did not can continue to worship at Trinity, Boyd said.
“We’re doing everything we can to make them feel welcome,” he said.
The S.C. Diocese has 71 parishes and approximately 30,000 members, Lewis said. Of those, 22,244 support the Diocese split with The Episcopal Church, including the largest and oldest congregations in the Lowcountry.
About 1,900 members remain undecided, according to information from the Diocese, and 5,300 say they want to remain with The Episcopal Church.
The Diocese of South Carolina was established in 1785 as an independent, voluntary association that grew from the Church of England, according to the Diocese’s information. The diocese was one of nine that formed The Episcopal Church in 1789, and it eventually became an American province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
“Like our colonial forefathers,” Lawrence said in a written statement, “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.”
The Diocese maintains that The Episcopal Church has called for a convention to identify new leadership for the Diocese and created a website and other material using the seal of the Diocese.
“We’re responding to a lot of aggression against us,” Boyd said.
“What they’re doing is a civil crime in the state of South Carolina,” Lewis said.
He explained why the attempt to remove Lawrence from the bishop’s post was impetus enough to bring about the disassociation.
“If you control who the bishop is,” he said, “you control the diocese.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.