We are now two weeks out from the August 2 decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court that ordered the return of 29 of the 36 parish properties in question. Where do we stand now? What is likely to happen in the foreseeable future?
One truth is sure. There continues to be a tremendous amount of interest in this matter. This blog has had 12,000 "hits" since the decision. I cannot speak for either side, of course, but I can relay what I see as happening.
The next step will occur on September 1, 2017, when the independent diocese (DSC) is scheduled to deliver its Petition for Rehearing at the SC Supreme Court. This will ask the justices to reconsider their August 2 decision. From what I understand now, the five justices who wrote the decision will sit in judgment on the Petition for Rehearing (rather than the 5 present justices). If this is true, it is extremely unlikely the Court will grant a rehearing. The last thing in the world they would want to do is reopen this case. If DSC is turned down, they can then make an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. Again, it is most unlikely SCOTUS would take the case. Thus, all signs indicate this case is over. The reality is that the Episcopal Church in South Carolina is going to regain the properties of the 29 parishes. There is virtually no chance this is not going to happen.
Meanwhile, there is a separate avenue of litigation, in federal court. The case of vonRosenberg v. Lawrence (filed in March 2013) is now in the United States District Court, in Charleston, before Judge Richard Gergel. This judge is well known to be one who moves matters along expeditiously. We know that the lawyers are now busy preparing for this trial. This court should be moving along in the next few months toward resolution. In view of everything, including the SC Supreme Court decision, the federal court will most likely come down on the side of the Episcopal Church. The suit is to ask the court to declare vonR (now Adams) and not Mark Lawrence as the legal Episcopal bishop and entitled to all that that means.
In the past two weeks, the the two sides have not changed their initial response to the August 2 decision. The Church diocese really can do nothing until September 1. Presumably, the Church lawyer, Tom Tisdale, will be allowed to file a counter claim to the DSC Petition for Rehearing.
DSC continues to be in collapse. Disarray and confusion abound as the leadership remains in shock and disbelief, even denial of what has happened. Apparently, the pall of death hung over the DSC clergy conference on August 9. Accord to Kendall Harmon, Alan Runyan, the lead lawyer, showed up looking as if he had been run over by two big trucks, and Mark Lawrence declared this was the day he never though would come. One can only imagine the despair of the hundred or so attendant priests, most of whom stand to be removed from their churches.
It seems to me the fundamental problem with DSC is that the leaders had long ago established the imperative that events were God's will. For two and a half years, they won every contest between the two dioceses in the courts and declared every one to be God's will. At one time Lawrence even declared his foes in court to the "the spiritual forces of evil." God was on their side and surely would lead them to final victory. Apparently they had convinced themselves that God would guide the state supreme court to rule for DSC. To be consistent then, DSC must declare the August 2 decision to be God's will. This has thrown DSC into total confusion. Either God guides the court decisions or he does not. What can they say now, that he guides some decisions and not others? Then, who is to say which decisions are God's will and which are not? The Aug. 2 decision greatly weakens DSC's assertion that God is on their side in court against TEC.
Amidst all this collapse, DSC is desperate to keep institutional cohesion. There are 104 clergy in DSC who have been released from the vows in TEC and 13,000 communicants caught in the 29 parishes at stake. What are these people to do? How can DSC keep these clergy and communicants in DSC when it is losing the vast bulk of its local church properties (DSC keeps 6 local churches, none in Charleston or vicinity) not to mention Camp St. Christopher, diocesan headquarters, and all legal rights and assets of the old diocese? As Bishop Iker said, this is a "horrendous loss."
Perhaps the best indication of the state of affairs in DSC now comes from the August 13 sermon of Kendall Harmon, available on his website, TitusNineOne, post "Kendall Harmon's Sermon..." of August 15. Everyone should listen to it to understand the position of DSC today. KH is now as he has been for 30 years, in the inner core of the diocesan leadership. What he says is what the DSC core leadership is thinking. In his sermon, three items stood out:
1. KH continued what DSC started from the first, doubt about the clarity of the decision. He declared it "far from over" since there were five separate opinions and the majority three came at it from two different perspectives. What he meant was that the decision was far from clear. Besides, don't believe anything in the media, he said, it is all "nutty" [fake news?]. One interesting point was what KH did not say. He did not mention anything about "conflict of interest" or Justice Kaye Hearn. His silence on this may well indicate DSC is backing away from pressing this point with the SCSC (if so, a wise decision). As I said before, allowing 29 congregations to believe they still have a good chance of keeping their properties away from TEC is cruel.
2. KH reiterated that the basic issue at stake was "sexual ethics and morality" (i.e. homosexuality). He said TEC committed an "unforgivable sin" by promoting acceptance of homosexuality while people like him were "hounded out of TEC." Interesting that when KH entered the diocese thirty years ago, his first big crusade was about sexuality. It was to go to war against a booklet called "Sexuality: A Divine Gift." He won. Here, thirty years later, the topic is still sexuality.
Recall that right after the schism of 2012, DSC insisted that the break had had nothing to do with sexuality. It was supposedly all about "God not Gays," that is, about theology, not sexuality. Of course, they asserted incredibly, DSC was not against homosexuals. KH is now returning to the truth. The schism was very much about homosexuality.
Why return to the homosexuality issue now? Simple. For many years, the DSC leaders dragged out the homosexuality/transgender theme when they needed an emotional issue to unify the diocese. Homophobia was the wedge issue to separate the faithful from TEC and it worked well every time. Perhaps it can work again at this time. If they ever needed to unify the diocese, it is now.
3. God is on our side theme. The DSC leaders have asserted this from day one. It is nothing new, but the urgency is new. "We have to stay together," "We have to support one another," KH pleaded. The good us (DSC) against the evil them (TEC) theme worked very well in the past. Perhaps it can work again, but now it has a whole new meaning as 29 properties return to TEC.
Thus, the DSC leadership is now thrashing about for ways to keep the disintegrating diocese together. It will be a hard task.
One overlooked but important part of the August 2 decision was validation of the conspiracy charge. In their decisions, Justices Pleicones and Hearn declared the schism to be the result of a conspiracy, although they did not use that term. The meaning was the same. They said the diocesan leadership had consciously and deliberately moved the dioceses in steps away from TEC. One will recall that Church lawyer Tom Tisdale had raised this charge in the circuit court only to be immediately dismissed by Judge Goodstein. We know from DSC's own documents that there was a secret plan beforehand to "disaffiliate" the diocese from TEC. We just do not know how far back in time it went.
If there were a conspiracy as numerous legal minds are now charging, it has failed. That is the stark but unmistakable reality of the August 2 ruling. If the conspiracy were a mutual deal of making Lawrence bishop in return for his taking DSC out of TEC with the properties in hand, it has all but ended in failure. Lawrence did not secure the properties for DSC. The vast majority of parish properties will return to TEC.
The failure of the conspiracy should make everyone involved in this schism reevaluate his or her place in all of this. Over a hundred clergy and 15,000 communicants attached themselves to what they believed to be a rising star. It turnout out to be only a shooting star, a meteor, that is now crashing and burning. These thousands of trusting people now have to decide what they are to do about this.
I think everyone should go back to the original claim and reconsider the issue of God's will. It just may be that the Holy Spirit did indeed speak through the five justices of the state supreme court. It just may be that their decision IS God's will. That is something thousands of people must now contemplate and decide for themselves. Let us all pray that the people of faith now caught in the tragedy of the schism may find peace in whatever resolution they discern in this "horrendous" state of affairs.