Friday, January 1, 2016


The time when one year ends and another begins always provides an appropriate moment to reflect on where we have been in the last twelve months and where we might be going in the next. The schism in the Episcopal Church diocese of South Carolina occurred three years and three months ago. What is the status of the schism now? How are the two dioceses doing these days? How does the future look for them? The following are my thoughts at this time, the end of 2015.


The year 2015 has been the most important year so far in the history of the litigation between the two competing dioceses. In short, the momentum in court shifted from the Diocese of South Carolina [DSC; schismatic diocese] to the Episcopal Church in South Carolina [ECSC; Episcopal Church diocese]. Matters are proceeding on two levels, federal court and state court.

In federal court, ECSC bishop Charles vonRosenberg is suing DSC bishop Mark Lawrence for violation of the Lanham Act (trademark infringement). vonR wants the court to recognize vonR and not Lawrence as the legitimate bishop of the Episcopal diocese. U.S. District judge C. Weston Houck, in Charleston, had deferred to the state court that he claimed was conducting parallel litigation. ECSC appealed this to the U.S. Court of Appeals, 4th Circuit in Richmond. On Jan. 23, 2015, the appeals court held a hearing with three judges. As a result, on Mar. 31, the court ordered the case back to Houck with direction to follow the Colorado River principle that requires federal courts to adjudicate federal laws and not defer to state courts, except for rare and extreme circumstances. DSC lawyers then asked the appeals court for a rehearing. All of the judges of the appeals court joined in denying this request. The case was remanded to Houck. On Sept. 21, Houck issued an order for a stay in the federal case pending the outcome of the state supreme court decision. This raised the question of whether Houck had violated the virtual command of the appeals court to adjudicate the case. On Oct. 19, ECSC lawyers appealed Houck's new deference to the state court to the Court of Appeals in Richmond. We are awaiting the appeals court response.

In state court, circuit court judge Diane Goodstein, who had conducted a "trial" in July of 2014, issued her decision on Feb. 3. It appeared to have been written by DSC lawyers who were led by Alan Runyan. Goodstein's order decided every point in favor of DSC. While claiming to follow "neutral principles" the order repeatedly made judgments about the internal working of the Episcopal Church even declaring it to be a congregational institution [!]. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids the civic state from interfering in a religious institution. On Mar. 24, ECSC appealed Goodstein's decision to the state appeals court and also asked the state supreme court to take the case. On April 15, the SC Supreme Court agreed to hear the Church case thereby bypassing the appeals court. This would be the first time any state supreme court would rule on the relationship between the Episcopal Church and a local diocese (PA, TX and IL supreme courts had all remanded cases back to lower courts). The SC Supreme Court held an hour-long hearing on Sept. 23 that was live streamed and still available on the court website. The Chief Justice, Jean Toal was in control of the proceedings. Aided by Justice Kaye Hearn, Toal strongly criticized the blatantly biased way Goodstein had conducted the trial and the unconvincing final order. Toal, who had written the court's All Saints decision in 2009, dismissed any suggestion that case should apply to the present one thereby demolishing a main argument of the DSC lawyers. In short, DSC argued for corporate independence of DSC while ECSC argued for the First Amendment. Most observers felt the ECSC side had stronger standing with the court which all but discarded the lower court order. We are awaiting the decision of the state supreme court.

In legal matters of the year 2015, DSC started off the year with a stunning victory in the state circuit court, but it was down hill after that. The federal appeals court ruled in favor of ECSC and the state supreme court showed only contempt for Goodstein's decision. For the first time, ECSC gained the momentum and now has the stronger position.

The Diocese of South Carolina

The once grand old Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, the premier historic religious institution of the Low Country, now lies shattered. The self-inflicted disintegration occurred over a thirty year period, 1982-2012. In 1982, Bishop Gray Temple retired leaving two decades that can be called "The Golden Age" of the Diocese of South Carolina. Instead of institutional development, however, his successors demanded ideological purity, what they called "orthodoxy." Actually, the "orthodoxy" of the Episcopalian religion, and its mother, Anglicanism, is that there is no orthodoxy. It is a broadly tolerant religion that embraces widely differing views of Christianity. It is distinctly un-Anglican to impose the "orthodoxy" of one view which implies the invalidity of other views. But this is what the diocesan leaders did after 1982. Focusing on the issue of homosexuality, the diocese moved farther and farther out of the mainstream of the Episcopal Church. By late 2003, it was on the ultra-conservative rim of the Church with about 5% of the Church.

All Saints parish bolted the diocese in Dec. 2003/Jan. 2004 for the Anglican province of Rwanda and its affiliate Anglican Mission in America, the brain child of Chuck Murphy. The diocese sued for the property under the Dennis Canon but wound up losing in the state supreme court in 2009. Murphy had a very public falling out with the primate of Rwanda. All Saints' majority voted to leave AMiA for the Anglican Church of North America whereupon a minority split off to follow Murphy and remain in AMiA. Pawleys Island became a microcosm of what happened in the larger diocese: four "Anglican" parishes, ACNA, DSC, AMiA, and TEC. 

The second parish to break away was St. Andrew's of Mt. Pleasant. Bishop Lawrence actually gave them his blessings as he signaled in advance he had no intention of enforcing the Dennis Canon (which Bp Salmon had done with All Saints).

The majority of DSC broke away from the Episcopal Church in Oct./Nov. 2012. About 2/3 of the old diocese went along with the schism. The communicant number of DSC just before the schism of 27,000 fell to 18,000 after the schism. The part that remained with the Episcopal Church numbered around 7,000 members.

Thus, between 2003 and 2012, the old diocese fractured into four parts, 1-All Saints of Pawleys Island (now in ACNA), 2-St. Andrew's of Mt. Pleasant (now in ACNA), 3-the "Diocese of South Carolina," and 4-the Episcopal Church diocese legally called "The Episcopal Church in South Carolina." The three schisms (2003, 2009, 2012) of the old diocese were right-wing breaks engineered by ideologically-driven leaders all of whom claimed to be acting to preserve the "orthodoxy" of its members. Hatred of the Episcopal Church because of its recognition of equality for homosexuals was the common element in all of these.

DSC since the schism of 2012 has not fared well. Membership numbers are falling as the budget struggles to keep up. Smaller parishes on the periphery have been especially hard hit: case in point, St. David's of Cheraw which has lost significantly. At the start of the year, DSC claimed it had already spent $2m on legal costs. It set up the "1785 Society" to campaign the members for even more money for lawyers.

The biggest issue for the DSC has been its affiliation. It is in fact an independent church. It is not part of any real or pretend province of Anglicanism. It claims oversight from some primates of the Global South but this is a sham meant to convince members into thinking they are "in" the Anglican Communion when in fact they are not. This "oversight" has never even been described. It is nonsense. Meanwhile, the Anglican Church of North America, the proxy of GAFCON in America, claims to be the replacement church for the "heretical" (i.e. pro-homosexual) Episcopal Church. While DSC makes a big deal of touting GAFCON, it stubbornly refuses to join GAFCON's ACNA. ACNA's Foley Beach made yet another trip to the Low Country to try to entice DSC in, but to no avail. For whatever reasons, unknown to me, DSC refuses to submit to any higher authority. This makes it the only one of the five dioceses in which the majority voted to leave the Episcopal Church to refuse to join ACNA. Thus, in reality DSC is its own little church ruled by its own little hierarchy to which its members have entrusted nearly absolute power.

In spite of refusing to join ACNA, DSC has set up something called the Anglican Leadership Institute, which of course is not part of the Anglican Communion. To attend the "semesters" of the Institute, one must sign a pledge in advance to reject both marriage equality and the authority of the Episcopal Church. (Is there anyone out there who still thinks this schism was not about gays?)

Contrary to its socially counter-revolutionary stance, it must be reported that DSC actually took one noteworthy move otherwise. Bishop Lawrence ordained a woman to the priesthood (Martha Horn). This was his first ordination of a woman to the priesthood (he came from San Joaquin which had never ordained a woman to the priesthood). We will see if this were an aberration never to be repeated or a true change of heart. Meanwhile DSC remains a white male bastion.

Several points I think should be made about DSC now:

1-homosexuality is still the driving issue. Besides the remarks above, one should note three of the five resolutions passed in the 2015 diocesan convention were about homosexuality.

2-Tom Tisdale offered in June of 2015 to give the local properties to the 35 parishes in the lawsuit. DSC summarily and disdainfully rejected the offer. This proves the schism was not about property. If the schism were not about property, what was it about? The answer to this is still in process of being revealed. I think it stems from much larger issues such as the understanding of what constitutes "orthodoxy." More about this later.

3-DSC is still a ship adrift at sea, still in the middle of nowhere going nowhere. I for one am a bit surprised that leaders who seemed so clear-minded and resolute about leaving the Episcopal Church apparently had no plan at all about what to do afterwards. Still, after three-plus years, the DSC leadership remains unable or unwilling to offer their followers a vision of a way ahead.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina

The ECSC is slowly but surely gaining strength. It now has the momentum in the legal wars. It welcomed a new parish, St. Mark's of Port Royal, that was started years ago by people made unwelcomed in the intolerant "orthodox" parishes. There is a new worshipping community too, displaced communicants of St. David's of Cheraw. In addition, Grace Church of Charleston was designated as the cathedral, and rightly so. Their membership has grown by leaps and bounds, to no one's surprise. Same-sex marriage began in the diocese in 2015, following the approval of the General Convention and the legalization by the US Supreme Court, also this year. The goal for ECSC is still as it has always been, the reconciliation of the old diocese.

The Year Ahead

What can we expect for the schism in 2016? Odds are strong the SC supreme court will issue a decision within the next six months. The court takes a break in July and August. A reasonable guess is a decision between March and June, but it could come at any time. There are cases where the written decisions appeared a year after the oral arguments. As for the content of the decision, that is impossible to predict. There are many difficult factors involved, all of which have to be reconciled. The Sept. 23 hearing certainly gave heart to the Church side, but one should not jump to conclusions.

There is still the wild card of the federal court. In spite of  a virtual command from the appeals court, Houck passed the ball again to the state court. One will just have to wait and see how the appeals court responds to Tisdale's pending request for yet another intervention.

The DSC annual convention will be in March, in Bluffton. (I tentatively plan to attend if they allow visitors.) The issues on the table will be the same ones as usual: affiliation, financial support, opposition to homosexuality, ties to Third World Anglican bishops. Of course, I found at the last convention, events do not always unfold as one expects. My dream for the convention this year is the same as last year, a real debate and discussion of important issues and a real people's demand for accountability from the leaders to whom they have entrusted so much. This diocese belongs to its members, not to its hired hands.

On a personal note, I want to give my best wishes to all of my readers. Around 50,000 people "viewed" this blog in 2015. May God be with all of us in the new year and guide us in the ways of grace, reconciliation, healing, and peace. We cannot undo the harm that has been done to the grand old diocese of South Carolina. However, we do not have to accept that as the end of the story. The damage was man made. If man chose to be destructive, he can also choose to be constructive. We can make a better world but we have to start with the recognition that none of us is always right. None of us has a monopoly on truth. None of us should dare to speak for God or insist that our way is God's will and everyone else's is not. The men and women of faith will build a better world for themselves and their descendants. I still believe that somewhere down the road the people of South Carolina will reassemble the remnants of the great diocese that Bishop Temple passed on in 1982.