Episcopal Church, SC Episcopalians reply to breakaway group’s lawsuit

April 1, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] Legal documents filed in South Carolina Circuit Court on March 28 say that Bishop Mark Lawrence and those people who followed him out of the Episcopal Church have no authority over the assets or property of the Diocese of South Carolina or any of its parishes and have conspired to damage the diocese.

The filing by the Episcopal Church in South Carolina told the court that for more than three years the Lawrence-led group had “knowingly, deliberately, and repeatedly engaged in transactions that purported to transfer interests in real property contrary to explicit provisions of the Constitution and Canons of the Church, and contrary to solemn declarations, oaths, and subscriptions made by individuals who held offices in the Church and were and are among the leadership” of the diocese.

The continuing Episcopalians said that Lawrence and his followers “have publicly declared, and continue to declare, that their actions were not contrary to the Constitution or Canons of the Church, and that [the Constitution and Canons] impose no restriction or limitation on their abilities to continue to engage in such transactions.”

Members of the continuing diocese said in their filing that they are entitled to restitution of property and funds acquired by Lawrence and his supporters through what they say has been fraud, misappropriation, conversion, breach of trust and breach of fiduciary duty.

The Episcopal Church also on March 28 filed a separate document, known as an “answer and counterclaims.”

The documents are part of the legal response to a suit filed against the Episcopal Church and the continuing South Carolina diocese by supporters of Lawrence. Those supporters included 34 parishes who say they have disassociated themselves from the Episcopal Church. A 35th parish, St. Andrew’s in Mount Pleasant, is also one of the plaintiffs, although it claims to have separated from the Episcopal Church some time ago, according to a press release from the continuing diocese.

The breakaway group’s suit, originally filed in January and amended twice since then, asks the court to declare them the sole owners of diocesan and parish property.

The continuing diocese asked the court in its March 28 filing to prevent Lawrence and his followers from “transferring or purporting to transfer, or receiving any purported transfer of, any interest in parish property or diocesan property” in any way other than to return it to the Episcopal Church.

In November 2011, Lawrence either signed or directed others to sign, quitclaim deeds to every parish of the diocese disclaiming any interest in the real estate held by or for the benefit of each parish. A quitclaim deed generally transfers ownership of the property from the party issuing the deed to the recipient. The “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4) states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. The March 28 filing requests that the court void all of the quitclaim deeds

The court filing also asks that the Lawrence-led group be required to submit with 90 days of the court’s order an accounting of “all real and personal property, investments, bank accounts, funds, securities, and other property, and all proceeds thereof” that the group claims to possess or control. In a related request, the continuing diocese wants an accounting “all transfers, dispositions, acquisitions, and exchanges of or for any such property or assets, and all receipts and expenditures of or from any of such funds or other assets” during the time period beginning Jan. 28, 2008, when Lawrence was ordained as bishop of South Carolina.

And, the filing says the continuing diocese is entitled to “recovery of all damages suffered or incurred by it” because of the wrongful conduct of the Lawrence-led group. No amount is specified in the filing.

“We would not have chosen for this filing to take place during Holy Week, a time when all Christians are focused on prayer and reflection, but the legal deadlines have left us no choice but to respond in a timely way to the action that was brought against us,” the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, bishop provisional of the continuing diocese, in the press release.

In its filing, the Episcopal Church answers claims by the Lawrence-led group and outlines the hierarchical governance of the church, including the ways in which dioceses are formed and dissolved; the nature in which all property is held in trust for the mission of the church and the vow that its ordained members take to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church. The document claims the Lawrence-led group’s action violate both the Constitution and Canons and the Declaration of Conformity.

The Episcopal Church’s filing also asks that the Lawrence-led group be prevented from using the diocesan and Episcopal Church names and trademarks because by doing so it is confusing and deceiving people, and tarnishing those names and trademarks.

And it says that those people claiming to run the diocese and the parishes who have joined the Lawrence-led group are not qualified to do so because they are no longer members to the Episcopal Church.

The church’s answer and counterclaim asks the court to declare that the continuing Episcopalians constitute the leadership of the diocese, not the Lawrence-led group, and remedy the counterclaims it makes. The filing reiterates most of the requests made of it by the continuing diocese.

The Maundy Thursday filings are the latest in a multi-front approach taken by the continuing Episcopalians in South Carolina and by the wider Episcopal Church. In early March the vonRosenberg filed suit in federal court asking that he be declared as the bishop recognized by the Episcopal Church and thus having the authority to act in the name of Diocese of South Carolina.

And another motion in U.S. District Court asked for a preliminary injunction to stop Lawrence from using the name and marks of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and from representing that his activities are associated with the diocese.

Just before Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori convened delegates of the remaining Episcopal Church parishes and missions at a special convention Jan. 26, the breakaway group was granted a temporary injunction banning the remaining Episcopalians from using the name of the diocese. That injunction remains in effect.

The order by Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein forced local Episcopalians to temporarily adopt a working name for their diocese so they could conduct business without violating the injunction. At their special convention they chose the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina” to use until the issue can be resolved.

The lawsuit by Lawrence and counterclaims by the Episcopal Church and the continuing Episcopalians followed a series of actions in later 2012 that resulted in the Lawrence-led group leaving the Episcopal Church.

In October 2012, the church’s Disciplinary Board for Bishops had certified to the Presiding Bishop that Lawrence had abandoned the Episcopal Church “by an open renunciation of the discipline of the church.” Jefferts Schori then restricted him from exercising his ministry until the House of Bishops could investigate the Disciplinary Board’s findings and act.

The day the board’s decision was announced, the diocesan Standing Committee said that the action “triggered two pre-existing corporate resolutions of the diocese, which simultaneously disaffiliated the diocese from the Episcopal Church and called a special convention.” Lawrence reiterated that declaration in a Nov. 17 speech to a special diocesan convention. He asked for and received affirmation from those at the Nov. 17 gathering of that departure.

In December, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said she and her Council of Advice agreed Lawrence had renounced his orders by way of his actions and statements by him in the fall of 2012.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.