* Seeks to protect more than $500 Million in local property from Episcopal Church 'land grab'
Locals react to national church efforts to remove bishop and hijack control of Diocesan holdings and parishes
Georgetown, SC, January 4, 2013 - Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church is one of the parishes joining the Diocese of South Carolina and the Trustees of the Diocese in a lawsuit filed today in a South Carolina Circuit Court seeking a declaratory judgment against The Episcopal Church to protect the Diocese's real and personal property and that of its parishes.
The parishes participating in the suit, along with the other supporting parishes, represent 74 percent of the members in the Diocese.
The suit also asks the court to prevent The Episcopal Church from infringing on the protected marks of the Diocese, including its seal and its historical names, and to prevent The Episcopal Church from assuming the Diocese's identity, established long before The Episcopal Church's creation.
"We feel that we must take this action as TEC is already using our name, Diocesan seal and other marks of our identity to impersonate us publicly, and is organizing in South Carolina, all with the stated goal of taking over this Diocese and her parishes, including Prince George. Not to take action is simply bad stewardship of the Gospel and of churches like ours which were established and maintained over the centuries by our ancestors as centers of traditional, biblical Christian faith, and without any financial support from The Episcopal Church" said Paul Fuener, rector of Prince George.
"This and many other parishes joining the suit are among the oldest operating churches in the nation. They and the Diocese of South Carolina pre-date the establishment of The Episcopal Church. Yet, TEC has declared its intent to take our property."
The Diocese of South Carolina was established in 1785 as an independent, voluntary association that grew from the missionary work of the Church of England. It was one of nine dioceses that in October 1789 voluntarily formed The Episcopal Church, which eventually became an American province in the worldwide Anglican Communion, also a voluntary association.
"When the Diocese disassociated from The Episcopal Church we didn't become a new entity," explained the Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon to the Ordinary. "We have existed as an association since 1785. We incorporated in 1973; adopted our current legal name, 'The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,' in 1987; and we disassociated from the Episcopal Church in October of 2012. The Episcopal Church has every right to have a presence in the area served by our Diocese -- but it does not have a right to use our identity. The Episcopal Church must create a new entity."
Of the Diocese's 71 parishes and approximately 30,000 members, 22,244 members have chosen to remain with the Diocese, including some of the Lowcountry's largest and oldest congregations. About 1,900 members are undecided and 5,300 -- nearly half of them from a single church in Charleston -- say they want to remain with The Episcopal Church. While the Diocese has disassociated from The Episcopal Church, it remains a part of the Anglican Communion.
Though theologically more conservative than the leadership of the national Episcopal Church, Bishop Mark Lawrence has for six years struggled to keep the Diocese intact and a part of The Episcopal Church, even as some 200 parishes and four other dioceses nationwide disassociated. The parishes and dioceses disagreed with The Episcopal Church's recent interpretation of scripture, which is widely considered to be radical by most of the world's 80 million Anglicans.
When Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese challenged The Episcopal Church's direction, the group's disciplinary board attempted to remove him. In response, the Diocese disassociated from The Episcopal Church.
"We believe The Episcopal Church's decision to embrace an unorthodox theology separated it from the doctrine our Diocese has followed for centuries, the same doctrine that nearly 80 million Anglicans around the world continue to follow today," said Bishop Lawrence.
"This is an issue of religious freedom. Like our colonial forefathers, we are pursuing the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, not as it is dictated to us by a self-proclaimed religious authority who threatens to take our property unless we relinquish our beliefs. The actions taken by TEC make it clear that such freedom of worship is intolerable to them."
Since the mid-1960s, membership in The Episcopal Church has declined by more than 37 percent -- to about 1,923,046 members. During the same period, the number of members in the Diocese of South Carolina has increased by 48 percent, to 29,531.
The Episcopal Church has spent more than $22 million on legal action, filing at least 75 lawsuits against the four other dioceses and 200 congregations that have disassociated from the church. The suits have sought to seize the property of local parishes. Today's suit is the second pre-emptively filed by a diocese to protect diocesan and parish property in the wake of a disassociation. The first was the Diocese of Quincy filed in March 2009.
South Carolina state law tends to support the property rights of churches. A recent state Supreme Court decision found that All Saints Church of Pawleys Island was the true owner of its property and that The Episcopal Church held no interest.
The Episcopal Church has already begun an effort to adopt the Diocese of South Carolina's identity by calling for a convention to identify new leadership for the Diocese and creating a website and other material using the Diocesan seal.
"The Diocese has established its registered trademarks, seals, buildings and other property through more than 200 years of ministry in South Carolina -- beginning before The Episcopal Church even existed," said the Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon to the Ordinary. "Many of our parishes even pre-date the United States. We take this legal action to protect the legacy of generations of faithful members who embraced the theology and practices that underpin Anglican belief around the world -- but now must do so outside The Episcopal Church."
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Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, located on the corner of Highmarket and Broad Streets in Georgetown, was founded in 1721, and began holding Anglican services in its present location in about 1747. It was incorporated and given title to its property by Act of the South Carolina legislature in 1788, before the Episcopal Church was formed.
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