By Jennifer Berry Hawes, The Charleston Post and Courier
In a pastoral letter sent out Friday, Bishop Mark Lawrence described his joy at last week’s court ruling that left his parishes clear victors over The Episcopal Church. But he also urged the flock to pray, be grateful — and read the 46-page ruling for themselves.
Because after so much legal wrangling, many still wonder: What does it all mean?
For one, the Diocese of South Carolina clearly can operate on its own with Lawrence, who led its departure from the national church, at the helm. Second, his diocese can keep the name and symbols, along with the parishes that left with it and the more than $500 million in church properties they inhabit, including historic colonial buildings.
“It is a judicial finding that we are who we say we are — the Diocese of South Carolina — and our names and symbols are ours alone to use,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, its canon to the ordinary.
Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein’s long-awaited ruling last week also could play a key role in similar disputes nationwide and impact other hierarchical churches that face discord in South Carolina. It comes at a time of increasing legal complexity as judges across the country decide similar cases using two very different legal principles, experts said.
And that could push the South Carolina case to the U.S. Supreme Court’s doorstep. Or at least some hope it will.
“It’s just sort of chaos, which is why I think the Supreme Court should intervene,” said Ronald Caldwell, a retired history professor who studies The Episcopal Church, particularly in South Carolina. “It is costing so much money and so many hard feelings. It should stop and be somehow resolved.”
Hodgepodge of rulings
Goodstein ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina and its 38 parishes’ decision to leave The Episcopal Church was legal and handled properly. The national church’s continuing local parishes quickly announced they would appeal.
“This is a long process and a long way from over,” said Holly Behre, spokeswoman for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
When a parish or diocese tries to leave a hierarchical church, legal knots become tied up in such weighty constitutional matters as separation of church and state and the freedom to associate, along with the secular nuances of state corporate and property laws.
Somewhere in that tangle is God, or at least the human faithful with passion enough to spend millions on legal fees and drive stakes of discord between fellow worshipers.