About 50 churches from the Diocese of South Carolina are going to court this week in an attempt to keep their name, seal, and $500 million in property following their split with The Episcopal Church (TEC).
“At no point in our history has the national church contributed financially to the building or maintenance of any of our church buildings, facilities, or ministries,” said the Rev. Ken Weldon, rector of St. John’s Church in Florence.
South Carolina’s withdrawal is the most recent in an exodus of members and congregations from TEC in recent years. The denomination has spent millions of dollars fighting individual congregations to keep buildings and property.
In a letter read aloud in South Carolina congregations on Sunday, Bishop Mark Lawrence emphasized that while the split was made to protect their members and legacy, “it is of fundamental importance to keep in mind that ours is more than a clinging to heritage for the sake of the past. It is also for the sake of our future mission.”
Prior to the split, the diocese included about 30,000 parishioners, with congregations dating back to before the Revolutionary War. The Diocese of South Carolina was one of the original groups that came together to form TEC.
The congregations’ theological concerns are not limited to TEC’s ordination of gay bishops and approval of gay marriages. The rift with the national denomination is driven by several decisions, including an attempt to remove Lawrence, South Carolina’s elected bishop, according to an article on the diocese website. That last move prompted the Diocese of South Carolina to disassociate with TEC in October 2012, after which 80 percent of the diocese’s members voted to remain with their diocese rather than the national denomination.
Only about 20 churches chose to stay with TEC. On Tuesday, those congregations announced they had granted priests permission to bless same-sex couples in committed relationships, although they are not required to do so.
State court decisions in property fight disputes have been varied as to whether the denomination or congregations own their buildings. A conservative congregation in northern Virginia lost its historic building in March after the U.S. Supreme Court left in place a lower court ruling for the national church, ending a seven-year fight.
But the Episcopalian Diocese of Olympia in Seattle reached a settlement on Monday with two Anglican churches that left in 2004, making it possible for all parties to continue their ministries. And in Texas, the state Supreme Court sided with about a dozen congregations in the Fort Worth area last month. TEC is appealing that ruling.